The Art of Independence

What does it take to be an independent filmmaker? A few credit cards to max out, a few friends willing to work cheap, and a little faith in your own talent are about all you need to make a movie in the United States. But in China, to be any kind of independent-minded artist is a risky pursuit; making an independent film was recently declared an illegal act. Frozen, an independent Chinese movie about a group of young performance artists, was a doubly risky project that forced the filmmaker to adopt the pseudonym Wu Ming -- or "No Name," in Chinese. He smuggled the raw footage out of the country and completed the film in Europe. It's not likely to show up in Chinese multiplexes any time soon.

Frozen is a morose but fascinating work about a loose community of young artists in Beijing, kids seething with ambition and ideas but so stultified by life in China that their art emerges in nihilistic and self-destructive ways. Qi Lei (Jia Hongshen) is a particularly moody painter and performance artist who plans to literally die for his art. He proposes a yearlong performance culminating in an "Ice Burial" in which he will melt a block of ice with his own body -- thereby freezing to death. Even his more melancholy friends think this is going a little too far, though they support the purity of his vision.

Life for these twentysomethings is mostly hanging out, drinking 40-ouncers, and arguing philosophy and art, or brooding in the tiny apartments they share with their families. Qi Lei lives with his worried sister and her husband, who's more interested in the potential value of Qi's paintings after he dies than in his actual death.

His artist friends work out their angst in various ways. In one astonishing scene we watch two guys sit down at an outdoor table to a sparse meal. With knife and fork, they each consume a whole bar of soap, slowly chewing, gagging, and vomiting while an audience quietly watches. The performance is meant to illustrate the concept of revulsion, and boy, does it ever.

This is not a fun-filled movie. Wu Ming, though not without a sense of irony, has a very serious intent here. Frozen is an ambitious attempt to capture the anger and helplessness of modern young people in China, a whole generation frozen out of participating in their country's culture. Like a lot of political films, though, it's a bit bloated with self-importance. The characters are so depressed and self-absorbed, and the atmosphere so doomy, that I couldn't help wondering if antidepressants are available in China. The film also takes a bizarre turn just when you think it's over, a development that throws doubt on the previous hour's veracity in a very confusing way. In other words, it's a "flawed" film. Like more than a few American indies, the production history is more interesting than the film itself. But it's a unique and intriguing document of a little-seen aspect of China. You won't see its ilk until China's many other Wu Mings can make independent art in their own names.

Written by"Wu Ming" and Pang Ming; directed by "Wu Ming"; with Jia Hongshen, Ma Xiaoquing, and Bai Yu.


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