Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers

Shot before and shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Wu Wenguang’s 1990 video ushered in a new documentary style in China, focusing on urban issues and operating outside the cultural bureaucracy. The five young artists he profiles–a writer, a photographer, two painters, and a director of avant-garde theater–reject a life tethered to the government yet still hope to modernize the urban cultural scene; their frank ruminations about life, art, and the future are punctuated by groundbreaking verite shots of people doing their chores in squalid back alleys and studio apartments. Wu funded the film himself, using a camcorder to capture his subjects at work and at play, and unlike government propagandists he eschews music and voice-over narration for an intimate naturalism akin to Frederick Wiseman’s. Most revealing is Wu’s portrayal of Zhang Xia Ping, a feisty feminist painter who suffers a mental breakdown; her delirious outburst is the first such episode to be documented in mainland China for a Western audience (Wu especially angered the censors by subtitling his documentary in English). The last third of the video takes place after Tiananmen, when two of the artists have gone abroad and two more are about to leave. The massacre is never mentioned, but Wu documents the artists’ disillusionment and cynicism as unflinchingly as he did their earlier idealism. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, September 1, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Ted Shen