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Independent cinema, as it existed in its ’90s heyday, is undergoing a slow death in China, suffering the joint onslaught of hot money luring away talent to commercial projects and intensifying censorship.

But independent-style films that look and feel like indies — yet are nonetheless studio-financed and exist within China’s strict censorship regime — may see a renaissance, particularly as the country’s industry matures and viewers’ tastes diversify.

To be sure, independent cinema has had a unique trajectory in Communist China. Unlike in the U.S., where the category was defined in opposition to the big Hollywood studios, Chinese independent cinema has historically stood in opposition to the state. All Chinese films must pass strict content reviews to obtain a “dragon seal” prior to commercial release, but early indies consciously chose not to do so, occupying a space more akin to underground cinema.

Now, with the appearance of non-government-backed private studios, critics quibble over what exactly “indie” means in a modern Chinese context. Does independence lie in the lack of that official dragon seal, or purely in a film’s mode of financing, or in its content and style, its interest in artistry or in non-mainstream stories?

Whatever their stance, many feel that other than in the documentary realm, indie filmmaking in the strictest sense — referring to independently financed films without a dragon seal — is essentially disappearing.

“Talented young people aren’t gravitating toward truly indie films anymore,” says independent critic Yu Yaqin. “In the end, the remaining indie film festivals couldn’t even find any good new works to show. Very few people were even submitting.”

China’s key grassroots festivals, including Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Independent Film Festival, were stamped out by government pressure more than six years ago, with authorities literally pulling the power on the latter in 2012 and detaining attendees. They persisted quietly among a very limited, closed circle of insiders for a few years after, but have now disappeared.

Yet rather ironically, more than rising censorship, it may be the Chinese market’s robust growth that has actually siphoned people away from the indie sector, as filmmakers chase after what Zhang Xianmin, one of China’s foremost indie producers, calls “the illusion of fast fortune.”
With too much money chasing too few projects, young directors today are spoiled for choice, often snapped up for big projects soon after graduation or completing their first few shorts.

“Some people are saying that commercial cinema is sucking the blood out of indie moviemaking, stealing away all the talent and new blood,” Zhang laughs. But this is likely set to change in 2019, as new tax policies deflate much of the hot money bloat and bring down production budgets.

Overall, there is increasing Chinese demand for diverse, non-blockbuster content that even censorship cannot diminish — and though unwilling to finance non-dragon seal projects, investors are eager to meet it. The door has thus widened for less commercial, indie-like “artistic films,” or wenyi pian, with documentaries and films on such edgy social subjects as the sexual assault of minors (“Angels Wear White”) obtaining theatrical releases in recent years, as long as they avoid the overtly political.

Distribution and promotion of such works remain a problem, however. Films last only one month in theaters unless attendance is so high they are granted special government permission to extend their run. Typically, if not enough tickets are sold the first week, they’re unlikely to get screening slots in the next. “We need to have different showing windows for different types of movies,” says one cinema chain operator. “For indies, it takes time for people to spread good reviews and start coming back.” This person calls China’s current system of simultaneously releasing indies in every theater “insane.”

In 2016, the emergence of the National Arthouse Film Alliance appeared to give hope to the sector. Conceived by a band of cinema operators and distributors as an art film cinema circuit operating within the walls of nationwide multiplex chains, it became a public-private operation when management was handed to the China Film Archive. But the initiative has largely fallen flat, due to conservative selection policies for foreign films and a shortage of good, local fare. Other technical difficulties, such as shortages of promotional materials, have made it difficult for participating cinemas to gain momentum and cultivate loyal audiences.

Indies without a “longbiao” were once able to attract mainland distributors by entering foreign festivals, but China has become much more strict about its requirement that all films pass censorship before screening anywhere in the world if they ever wish to return home for theatrical runs.

“This adds a very difficult hurdle and wastes a lot of time, because the version sent to festivals is often an incomplete version that wouldn’t be sent for censorship approval,” says Wang Yishu, head of screening affairs for the First Film Festival in Qinghai province. She predicts the restriction would send more filmmakers abroad in search of foreign financing — as was common a decade ago among filmmakers working truly independently including Lou Ye (“Summer Palace”), Li Yang (“Blind Mountain”) or Jia Zhangke.

Meanwhile, Chinese online streaming platforms are growing in importance for art films, despite shelling out what indie documentary-maker Wu Hao describes as “embarrassingly low” fees. Films do not need a dragon seal to be streamed online, instead passing a different censorship approval process that some describe as less stringent.

These platforms are also increasingly important as film financiers, and have been known to make occasional bold choices. Last year, for instance, Youku unexpectedly backed the Thai fantasy-drama “Manta,” which enjoyed a glittering festival career but no Chinese theatrical release.

Indies are also being helped along by new events like Jia’s government-backed Pingyao Intl. Film Festival, now entering its third year, and First festival. The latter has emerged as one of the country’s top occasions to scout fresh talent, launching the careers of such directors as 2017 Cannes participant Ma Kai (“The Possessed”) and Wen Muye, whose commercial film “Dying to Survive” was one of 2018’s top grossers.

“There might be a renaissance for independent cinema in some ways, if filmmakers can really focus on telling a story that audiences can understand,” Wu says. Many worry, however, that the growing space and market for wenyi pian will mean that more radical, unique voices will get pushed towards a safer, censored center.

“As market and the realm of what’s permissible within it expands, directors begin to think, why doggedly hang on to my one little point of contention instead of just making a small compromise?” Yu says. “The problem is that perhaps true art comes from insisting on that one little point.”