Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 87, No 1

DOWN: Indie Rock in the PRC. Written, produced and directed by Andrew Field and Jud Willmont; shot and narrated by Andrew Field. Reviewed by Marc L. Moskowitz

MONGOLIAN BLING. Written and directed by Benj Binks; produced by Nubar Ghazarian. Reviewed by Simon Wickham-Smith

 

DOWN: Indie Rock in the PRC. Written, produced and directed by Andrew Field and Jud Willmont; shot and narrated by Andrew Field. Shanghai: Willmountain Films; Field Note Productions, 2012. 1 DVD (52 min.) In Chinese and English, with English subtitles. http://chinarockdoc.com/. (Parties interested in acquiring this film may contact Andrew Field directly at shanghaidrew@gmail.com.)

DOWN: Indie Rock in the PRC is directed and produced by China scholar Andrew Field and filmmaker Jud Willmont. DOWN offers a range of footage of Chinese rock musicians performing in clubs and at concerts. Beijing is the centre of China’s rock scene and as such the film primarily focuses on that locale, but it also includes footage from Wuhan and a concert held in the outskirts of Shanghai. There is an even mix of narration, interviews and music, giving the film a well-balanced feel.

The interviews and music are primarily in Chinese with English subtitles but there are also several English-language interviews. Andrew Field narrates to provide important links and insights to connecting scenes. Interview settings range from taking a trip on a train, to street restaurants, to back rooms and offices. The film primarily focuses on the contemporary moment but it also offers some archival footage of the Cultural Revolution that is nicely contrasted with contemporary shots. Similarly, the club footage is wonderfully juxtaposed with everyday street scenes. The people interviewed are charming, insightful and at times demonstrate a welcome sense of humour.

The film’s interviews include Western expatriate club owners and independent company representatives. It also provides interviews with a Chinese record shop owner, a music festival organizer, and a range of musicians who talk about what it is like to try to make a living in the industry. They provide several important insights into the development of music and outline some of the most important musical trends over time.

It should be noted that the film’s editor plays a little fast and loose with what one is actually seeing. The film frequently overlays soundtracks onto live video footage. This is edited fluidly enough that it often creates an illusion of listening to live performances. Viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese language might miss the fact that the lips often are not in sync with the music being played. The disadvantage to this approach is that one does not gain an accurate feel for the seeming chaos of club scenes. In the club footage one does not hear people talking, the sound distortion of bad equipment or poor room acoustics, or even the many moments when a performer might sing off key. Some might say this approach challenges the integrity of the footage.

The advantage to this approach is that the music is much cleaner and far more pleasant to listen to, and it is used to connect scenes more fluidly without interruption. In other words, the viewer gets to listen to the music at its best. Indeed, at times, the film feels like a publicity video for the bands. Given Chinese rock’s marginal status both in and outside of China’s borders, the choice to show the music in its best light is perfectly understandable.

Another issue that one might take with the film is that it does not problematize the musicians’ claims about Chinese rock in spite of questionable assertions about the music’s “authenticity” or “uncontrived” nature. For the most part the film depicts a world in which musicians, club owners and concert organizers are all unified in their attempt to promote rock for the benefit of the people. The ways that one’s different positions in the music industry might put them at odds with each other, even to the point of economic exploitation, are not addressed.

One of the strengths of the film is that it provides a compelling taster for different musical styles that the film provides. It also gives a feel for what the music venues for this musical genre look like. What the film does best is to provide a wealth of insights about how musicians see their worlds. Often, those interviewed are remarkably articulate in explaining Western influences (from Bob Dylan to Nirvana) and the ways that the music originated in the West but quickly localized to become something exciting and different. They eloquently link China’s contemporary rock scene with the hippie movement of the US—marking it, correctly I think, as a cultural transformation rather than merely a musical development.

The interviews with the musicians provide a range of impressive insights about the nature of Chinese society in relation to the sometimes overwhelming cultural, economic and political transformations of the last decades. One of the most culturally telling accounts is an interview of a female musician who talks of the intense stigma of being a rock star as opposed to the high status of her parents who are professors. Interviews with mainstream audiences watching a Cui Jian concert who know nothing about rock are juxtaposed with the intensely insular and remarkably devoted fans of alternative rock music who are featured in the rest of the film. The size of the Cui Jian concert also nicely contrasts with the far more intimate, and at times anemic, size of audiences for the majority of the performances in the film.

DOWN is wonderfully filmed, nicely organized, expertly edited, and in many ways feels like a big budget production. It would work equally well as entertainment at home or in the classroom. All in all, it is the best documentary that I have seen on contemporary music in China and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in studying music or popular culture in China.

University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA                 Marc L. Moskowitz

209-210

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MONGOLIAN BLING. Written and directed by Benj Binks; produced by Nubar Ghazarian. Kingsville, Vic.: Distributed by Flying Fish Films, 2011. 1 DVD (90 mins.) Institutions, A$300.00; Home use, A$30.00. In Mongolian with English subtitles. Url: www.mongolianbling.com.

What does it mean to be Mongolian almost a quarter century after the democratic revolution of 1989/90? How are Mongolians, and especially young Mongolians, negotiating their place within society, and between nomadic tradition and the increasingly Western cultural world of Ulaanbaatar? Benj Binks’ documentary “Mongolian Bling” begins to offer possible answers to some of these questions by telling the story of Mongolian hip hop, and how it has become a dominant feature of youth culture in Mongolia, as it has in the west.

The importance of poetry within Mongolian culture stretches back beyond the “Secret History of the Mongols” and today it is still rare for someone devoted to literature not to write poetry. Poetry is the literary default, then, and the ability to use language with sensitivity to sound and rhythm is considered central to a successful career. For hip hop, of course, there is also the importance of presence, of edge, and Binks’ portrayal, not only of the artists Gennie, Quiza and Gee, but of the young rappers whom he meets in the poor ger districts on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, reveals very clearly who has the chops and who doesn’t.

Mongolian rap grew out of the music of techno crews such as Har Sarnai (Black Rose), who are featured here as the “grandfathers” of contemporary hiphop. During the late 1990s, bands such as Dain ba Enh (War and Peace) started to rap using the lyrics of the great maverick poet R. Choinom (1936–1976), whose uncompromising anti-establishment poems, proclaimed sometimes in Sühbaatar Square in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, landed him in jail on at least three occasions. That Choinom’s work influenced hiphop in Mongolia indicates the unusual form which rap’s universal challenge to the status quo has taken in Mongolia, as well as how Choinom himself, whose work was all but unavailable before 1990, became something of a figurehead to the emerging rap scene.

The film’s three central characters reveal more about how contemporary Mongolia looks and feels than about what makes their lyrics and music special. Gee’s well-publicized advocacy of the ger districts—he points out how there is pride and respect among the people who live there, but that outsiders see only the dirt and the apparent chaos—provides an important backdrop to much of the music. It also provides a backdrop to the fact that, as in the West, successful artists can make the sort of money which would have been unimaginable to those with whom they grew up. Now, although there is little love lost between Gee and Quiza (indeed, in a duo with the child hip-hop star MG, Gee mocked the chorus of one of Quiza’s songs; and here he expresses his opinion in graphic terms), and although there is much evidence in Mongolian rap videos of the bling of the film’s title, nonetheless, these three artists are shown at home with their families, living in relative simplicity, and being part of their own extended communities. For all their success, they remain regular Mongolians, who want somehow to help in the development of their nation in the twenty-first century.

“Mongolian Bling” seeks to introduce discussions about the democratic revolution (there is an interesting sequence about the song “Honhnii Duu” [“The Sound of the Bell”], which was sung throughout the democratic protests), about shamanic music and the possible influences of traditional nomadic music on Mongolian hip hop, and about the larger meaning of Ulaanbaatar’s urbanization, but I was left wanting more from the connection between the social and the musical. For instance, we hear nothing of the association, whether real or imaginary, between Har Sarnai and hardcore Mongol nationalist groups such as Dayar Mongol (although Har Sarnai do claim here that they wanted to make nationalism an “addiction”). And exactly how does traditional music function in hip hop? Bands such as Anda Union and Shuuranhai (and Tuva’s Hün Huur-tu) blend Western and traditional styles, but what influence do the damaru and kangling, imported from Indian shamanic ritual via Tibet, have on Mongolian hip hop? Such questions remain tantalizingly unanswered.

The inclusion of Gennie, one of Mongolia’s only female rappers, as a kind of foil to the bickering of Quiza and Gee, provided an excellent example of how hip hop might develop away from the macho and the bling, and towards a thoughtful and more musically sensitive style. We see her recording and at home with her grandmother, and she seems in both contexts to be assured as a young Mongolian, and as an artist. More than anyone else in this film, I will be intrigued to see how Gennie’s career develops. Quiza has become a UN ambassador, and Gee remains an advocate for his people in the ger district, but I would not be surprised if Gennie, as a smart and self-aware female artist in a male-dominated genre, made the leap into the international sphere.

This is a great film, and I congratulate Benj Binks for having the vision to pursue his subject with such integrity. Given the number of hip-hop artists in Mongolia, his was a fine choice, bringing together three rappers whose characters reveal the meaning and potential of Mongolia’s hip-hop industry, as the country addresses the issues of mining and economic growth, alongside urbanization, nationalism and globalization. While I would encourage anyone interested in contemporary Mongolia to watch this film, we should all be aware just how fast the nation is changing, and how the traditions which underpin even the most modern of art forms are themselves changing and adapting to the desires and aims of Mongolian youth and the largely benign influence of imported Western culture.

University of Washington, Seattle, USA                     Simon Wickhamsmith

211-212

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