To coincide with the publication of World Film Locations: Beijing from Intellect Books, co-editor John Berra reviews six Beijing-set films to illustrate how China’s ever-changing capital city has inspired commercial and independent filmmakers alike, from the 1990s to today.
In the early-1990s, rock music became emblematic of China’s burgeoning sub-culture, with Beijing serving as the epicentre of the scene. Bands and solo artists imitated the fashion and lifestyle staples of their Western role models (clothing, hairstyles, drug use, attitude that fused studied nonchalance with rebellious swagger) as a means of taking a stand against the repressive political regime, or to simply achieve some measure of cultural notoriety. Performing was a political act, as most concerts took place without the required permit, and song lyrics were considered to be controversial due to their ambiguity. Today, rock music is a part of the mainstream, with the image of the movement integrated into the marketing formula of major labels and de-radicalised as a result of commercial concession. Success remains hard to come by for bands that remain steadfastly independent, with Beijing-based alternative rockers Carsick Cars, arguably the figureheads of the current underground scene, largely surviving by selling T-shirts at their gigs. Zhang Yuan’s second feature Beijing Bastards captures a time when such a band could not even scrape by on profits from their merchandise stall, as venues would be closed at a moment’s notice due to police intervention, or demolished almost overnight as part of the city’s extensive urban regeneration scheme. Zhang co-wrote the screenplay for Beijing Bastards with the rock star Cui Jian, who also co-produced the film in addition to playing himself, and shot without official permission on a budget provided in part by the Hubert Bals Fund in Rotterdam.
The focus is on the mostly late-night existence of an individual who is representative of social marginalisation. Karzi (Dou Wei, cast due to his involvement with the rock scene as an events promoter) fronts a band but otherwise is not committed to anything, not even to his girlfriend, Maomao (Feihong Yu). When he finds out that Maomao is pregnant, the volatile Karzi insists that she should, ‘just get rid of it’, causing the distressed Maomao to leave him and disappear. Zhang then immerses the audience in Karzi’s mental state as he cruises the bars and clubs of the city, half-heartedly searching for Maomao by pestering her friends, but mostly drinking or picking-up casual sex partners. Cross-cutting between band performances and Karzi aimlessly wandering around the city during the day positions his stage identity as a fantasy of sorts due to the contrasting lighting schemes: the concert footage is warmly lit, while the street scenes are washed-out, with Beijing conveyed as a bleak urban sprawl in grim shades of grey. Placed within this episodic structure, the concert footage not only provides a soundtrack, but also expresses generational feelings that are rarely raised by the mundane conversations that Karzi has with fellow musicians and college students: ‘Like everyone else living on this Earth. I’m ready for it. The truth, the lies, the garbage, it’s all got to come out.’ By the time Karzi finds Maomao, she has given birth, and the cautiously optimistic ending at least suggests a change in his outlook.
Beijing Bastards is often referred to as China’s first independent film and arguably served as the production model for much of the urban cinema of the 1990s by shooting on the run in locations that encapsulated the mood of the time (cramped apartments, dilapidated buildings, seedy bars, squalid rehearsal spaces), while remaining difficult to place due to the limited field of vision offered by such structures. Casting rock stars and fringe players adds to the authenticity, blurring fact and fiction through reference to their real-life underground status. However, Zhang is less concerned with the specific plight of musicians in a restrictive society than he is with the directionless roaming of the post-Tiananmen cityscape by disenfranchised youths. It’s a nihilistic vision, embodied by the self-destructive nature of Karzi, who wants his ex-girlfriend back despite not previously treating her in a respectful manner, and having fantasised about her having an abortion. Performing towards the end of the film, Cui sings, ‘Dunno where this rage comes from, but it inspires me…I want to find the source of that rage, but I can only walk into the wind.’ This barely-suppressed anger is palpable throughout, breaking to the surface in the form of a bar fight when Karzi attacks a fellow audience member who has been making fun of the band on stage. Most of the areas and venues glimpsed in Beijing Bastards no longer exist, but Zhang’s film is a valuable record of how an alternative culture manifested itself in whatever space was available.