Wu Wenguang’s seminal documentary Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京, Liúlàng Běijīng) opens with a stark title card explaining that it was filmed between August 1988 and May 1990. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the film never mentions what happened between those dates and is in a sense defined by the things it doesn’t say. Often regarded as the father of Chinese independent documentary, Wu’s shooting style breaks with the accepted norms which had favoured meticulous control by shooting handheld and in 4:3 with a grainy camcorder as he interviews his counterculture friends accidentally documenting their lives on either side of an unbreachable divide.
As the opening explains, his subjects are a group of 20-something bohemians who have each rejected their State assigned jobs and relocated to Beijing, without proper residence permits, to participate in an artistic and cultural revival in which anything seems possible. Zhang Ci was a magazine editor in her hometown but hated it and came to Beijing to be a freelance writer. Zhang Dali studied book binding in the city and stayed on living as a freelance painter, while his classmate Gao Bo did the same thing but is a freelance photographer. Also a freelance painter, Zhang Xiaping was working as a scenic artist in Yunnan and has only recently come to the capital, while Mou Sen, originally from Tibet, is a struggling avant-garde theatre director.
While perhaps fulfilling the starving artist stereotype, what Wu discovers in the stories of his friends is a sense of despair and inertia at odds with the supposed hopefulness of the times. Ci often appears on the brink of tears as she talks about her life, obviously dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the harshness of her living conditions making use of the facilities at the near by university, offended and perplexed when foreigners compliment her on her bohemian lifestyle. Dali too declares himself bored with Beijing and its dull culture vultures while lamenting that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance artist, only foreigners have money to buy his paintings and there aren’t many of those around. There is perhaps a sense of artistic rivalry between Dali and Xiaping who appears to have achieved a degree of success preparing for a big solo show while complaining that she hates selling her paintings and would almost rather sell her body.
Dali and Bo expand on the phenomenon of “Cen Fan” as they sheepishly convince friends currently doing better to spot them dinner, while Bo declares himself a vagabond at heart but also remarks on the various anxieties of living on the margins trying to make rent in a fracturing Beijing. They each insist that they live for their art, Mou Sen certain that there could be no life for him without theatre, but some also dream of more conventional lives, Ci and Dali longing for materialist comforts of a decent home and a car even if in his case he wants these things to facilitate his art rather than to improve the quality of his life. Increasingly despondent, they discuss the idea of going abroad, Ci eventually making a, it’s implied, cynical marriage to an older American man to get a visa to emigrate while Dali eventually marries an Italian and Xiaping an Austrian. When Bo takes a job in Paris, Mou Sen is the only one left behind yet even he had mused on the idea of marrying a European in order to see Europe while admitting the possibility he may find a nice Chinese girl he likes and simply marry her.
The artists’ mass exodus seems to run in tandem with the shockwaves of Tiananmen, as if they have given up on the prospect of social revolution and concluded that their only future lies abroad. Shortly before we are told she has left for Vienna, Xiaping appears to suffer a period of mental distress culminating in a public breakdown in a KFC from which Mou Sen and Wu himself had to rescue her, an incident which seems overly pregnant with symbolism as if the rapid changes of the modern China have fractured her mind. Wu never mentions Tiananmen, how could he, and it seems he encountered a degree of resistance including distressing footage of Xiaping’s manic episode (not for reasons of taste or privacy but shame on the part of the authorities), but the sense of painful defeat echoes all the same in a well placed title card as the artists make their exit signalling both the death and the failure of this short-lived counterculture movement.
Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.