Billed as ‘a celebration of literature and ideas’, the Bookworm Literary Festival is an annual event which recently hosted its ninth year of events for receptive attendees across the cities of Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou. Talks, workshops, panel discussions and signings for the festival are mostly held at branches of The Bookworm, an independent bookstore chain which provides literature lovers in each of the aforementioned cities with a space where they can take a break from the urban grind by browsing the well-stocked shelves or enjoying a coffee and a snack. Indeed, the chain serves as social hub for ex-pats seeking to make the right connections, while simultaneously providing authors and artists with a suitable forum to discuss their work. Although there has recently been an official clampdown on arts activities in China, the Bookworm Literary Festival has been running without any visible hitches, and this year’s program was confidently expanded to include a number of film-related talks, thereby adding even more variety to an already vibrant cultural fixture.
The evocative title of the interdisciplinary panel Rainbows in the Night: Chinese Contemporary Queer Writing and Filmmaking was provided by participant Fan Popo as a means of summarizing a sector of cultural production that is at once extremely prolific yet barely visible as a result of state intervention. Fan is the director of Mama Rainbow (2012), an acclaimed documentary about six mothers and their gay and lesbian children, which was removed from mainland websites by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which regulates China’s media. Although he addressed the difficulties of reaching an audience in a country that is often defined by its strict censorship system, Fan expressed an optimistic attitude with regards to opportunities for LGBT artists, especially if the community can successfully adopt Western models for indie production. On a lighter note, he amused the audience by recalling how he came to study at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy because of a lack of mathematical ability and, once there, had a positive influence on his homophobic classmates by showing them examples of queer cinema from overseas.
Shou Juan discussed her partially self-funded books Closet in the Attic: An Introduction to Lesbian Literature in Mainland China and The Dictionary of Lace: Ancient Chapter, which chronicle lesbian experiences in China. She intends for the latter Douban e-book publication to become the ‘Wikipedia of lesbianism’ as it has been extended to a public account to allow for updates from the LGBT community. A more traditional academic approach to studying lesbianism in China was represented on the panel by Queer Women in Urban China: An Ethnography (2015) author Elisabeth Lund Engebretsen, who embarked on a her research project in 2004. However, she had trouble making headway on arrival in Beijing because of the community’s lack of profile at the time, eventually making progress through an initially limited number of contacts whose social outlooks illustrated the conflicting attitudes to social activism that proved to be integral to her work.
Although the pursuits of these panelists encompassed a range of methodologies and media outlets, some clear issues emerged from their candid discussion: the lack of freedom of expression for the LGBT community in China despite its growing numbers; the struggle for multi-faceted individuals to define their personal identity in a stifling atmosphere; and how such conditions at once constrict and free artists or academic as they navigate a society that is in a constant state of flux.
Literature and Film was an enlightening session with the novelist and filmmaker Guo Xialou, who discussed the relationship between the two fields through reference to her prolific output. Guo turned to writing novels out of frustration with the tedious process of securing financing for feature films, and her novels from the award-winning A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers (2007) to her latest work I am China (2014) are as spiritually restless as they are socially provocative. Her eclectic film projects have ranged from humanist documentaries such as The Concrete Revolution (2004) to the meta-fiction of How is Your Fish Today? (2006) to the satire of UFO in Her Eyes (2011), an adaptation of her 2009 novel of the same name in which a remote village is transformed after a member of its community has an alien encounter.
Much of Guo’s talk focused on her process of transferring her novel to the screen and the inherent challenges of communicating very specific ideas across two distinct forms. By reading a passage from the novel and showing a scene from the film version, Guo contrasted the plain, report-style language of the source material – which takes the format of a series of interviews or interrogations – with the phantasmagoric visuals of the screen adaptation that owe much to Mikhail Kalatozov’s boldly expressionistic I am Cuba (1964). Guo’s description of screenwriting as, “a dry, reductionist format that tells you the scene but is devoid of a feeling”, perhaps indicates that she always envisioned UFO in Her Eyes as a film with the novel – the form of which was inspired by reading open access documents about Lee Harvey Oswald on the FBI website – serving as a blueprint.
Since her work often concerns the plight of individuals who find themselves trapped by the bureaucratic machinations of the state, it was appropriate that Guo used some of her talk to discuss the difficulties of complying with certain regulations regarding her ‘choice’ of crew and post-production facilities when working with European funding. As a respite from dealing with the red tape of such film funds, she recently self-funded her documentary Late at Night – Voices of Ordinary Madness (2013), which focuses on displaced lives in London’s East End. By explaining that her inspiration for the project was George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Guo suggested that literature has exerted a greater influence on her non-fiction work, an impression furthered by her preference for utilizing fragmented chapters to structure these incisive records of the impact of globalization on the individual.
The closing night of the festival offered Inside the Laowai Actors Studio, an uproarious panel discussion with four foreign actors who make a living in China’s entertainment industry. The veteran of the group was Jonathan Kos-Read who relocated from the US to China in the 1990s and, despite admitting to not actually getting paid until his fourth job, has persevered to parlay his enthusiasm for his craft into a fully-fledged career in the People’s Republic. Kos-Read cheerfully outlined some of the standard roles that foreigners are able to play in mainland productions: the rich white guy who represents the wrong romantic choice for the lading lady; the cipher who serves as an opportunity for Chinese screenwriters to comment on their own culture through the observations of an outsider; and the foolish foreigner who will eventually change his mind about China over the course of twenty television episodes.
A relative newcomer to the industry, Jim Bennett decamped from the UK a few years ago based on the prospect of regular work and recently appeared in the Jackie Chan blockbuster Dragon Blade (2015) but was quick to note the challenges of dealing with on-set hierarchies, especially when foreign actors have a limited grasp of Chinese. However, the language had not proved to be a problem for American actress and entrepreneur Kerry Berry Brogan, who has been studying Chinese since high school and appearing in mainland productions since the early 2000s. Realizing that China’s film and television represented a low ceiling for foreign talent, she diversified and now runs several companies specializing in media relations and events. Brogan and Kos-Read both have the dubious distinction of appearing in the legendary Empires of the Deep (2010), the still-unreleased fantasy adventure bankrolled by real estate mogul Jon Jiang, and Kos-Read regaling a captive audience with a summary of the film’s outlandish plot.
Although this was a largely humorous panel, some of tough realities facing foreigners in the industry were addressed: the sometimes offensive nature of the roles; obtaining copies of the films or television series that they have appeared in; vying for lucrative parts in international co-productions because they are not seen as ‘real actors’ by Hollywood casting agents; and the generally double-dealing nature of China’s entertainment sector that can leave talent severely underpaid for their efforts. Bennett pointed out that such problems often occur because China lacks an actor’s union as such organizations are illegal in the country, although foreigners try to minimize exploitation by sharing information through social networks and agreeing to a set of standards regarding the rates of pay that they will accept. However, Brogan was optimistic for the future, enthusiastically stating that China is a free market where talent can make its own path, especially if performers have a high level of language ability to go alongside their acting skills.
These film-related talks were a welcome addition to the Bookworm Literary Festival, and it is hoped that the event will continue with this interdisciplinary approach to its program when it returns in 2016.