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Film Maker Liu Gaoming: Chronicling Fallout from the Shenzhen Dream

On Tuesday, December 2, 2008 SACS hosted the Shenzhen premiere of Shenzhen filmmaker, Liu Gaoming’s film, “A Song.” Mary Ann O’Donnell interpreted in the after-film discussion. QSI Shekou provided the venue.

Ostensibly straightforward, “A Song” tells the story of the Anti-Shenzhen Dream: a young guitar player migrates to Shenzhen, loses his job, lives off his friends and falls in love with the possibly drug-addicted hostess who lives in the apartment across the alley. When not hanging out or trying to sell commercial yellow pages over the phone, A Song spies on his pretty neighbor. One day he vanishes.

However, unlike traditional films, “A Song” challenges genre conventions by documenting the filmmaker Liu Gaoming’s memory of A Song, rather than presenting a cinema verité of A Song’s life. In 1996, Liu also migrated to Shenzhen. For three months, he and A Song lived together in a crowded apartment in one of Shenzhen’s urban villages. Then Liu changed jobs, moving to another part of the city. He and A Song lost contact with one another. Later, through a mutual friend, Liu heard that “Maybe A Song made a mistake, so maybe he’s hiding from the police.” Liu has repeatedly wondered what could have turned his first Shenzhen friend, the friend who cooked him dinner and cared for him, this basically decent human being into a swindler? What actually happened while Liu was at work and A Song hung out at the apartment?

“A Song” is Liu’s painfully intimate exploration of that fundamental time, when both men faced the existential challenge of making a new life in an alien city alone. According to Liu, “The only difference between me and A Song is that I persevered and stayed while he left.”

In fact, unlike A Song, Liu Gaoming has achieved the Shenzhen Dream. He is now the creative director of his own design company, has a beautiful condo in one of Shenzhen’s upscale neighborhoods and drives an imported car. His wife is an equally talented and successful fashion designer and their four-year old daughter laughs easily.

Liu came to Shenzhen after receiving a teaching degree in painting from a teacher’s college in Ganzhou, Jiangxi. After graduating from college he taught middle school art class for half a year before deciding to pursue his dreams in Shenzhen. During his first year in Shenzhen, Liu did odd jobs in art-related businesses. However, the following year, he was hired to work in a design studio and his life became more stable. He settled into his job, learned the trade, and then in 2001 opened his own design company, Brothers Design.

However, the more materially successful Liu has become, the more he has felt disconnected from the city that enabled his rags-to-riches transformation. This is one of the paradoxes of the Shenzhen Dream. Once a migrant achieves the dream and becomes a “Shenzhener,” it becomes apparent that although everything is different, nothing essential has changed. The desires and dissatisfaction that compel one to migrate to China’s most important post-Mao experiments don’t simply disappear because one makes good.  If anything, existential questions become more acute. Indeed, thirty years after the Reform and Opening era began, many of the beneficiaries of Deng Xiaoping’s policy to transform Maoism are actively asking themselves if there is a spiritual dimension to all this economic booming.

For Liu, the question, “How did I get here?” became salient in 2003, when his parents visited him. He was shocked to realize that they really were already old and that time really was that relentless. Liu Gaoming suddenly wanted to know: how did I get here?

In order to understand both his alienation from the Shenzhen dream and the actual city, Liu Gaoming began making films. However, when he picked up a Sony 790 and turned his gaze on Shenzhen and its residents, Liu had no previous film making experience. In fact, no one on the production team of “A Song” had any film making experience. Liu himself still doesn’t know what kind of sound system was used during film; he only remembers that they used two hanging and two body mikes. Consequently, Liu has humorously named his film company “Amateur Productions.”

To date, Liu has completed two films (“Rib” and “A Song”), is editing a third, “Beijing,” and is planning his fourth. Each film focuses on a Shenzhen anti-hero, someone whose life never quite takes root in the city. Instead, like the pirated DVD hawker of the eponymous documentary “Rib,” the Shenzhen anti-heroes who populate Liu’s films start off at society’s edge, begin a downward spiral into its uncharted depths and then vanish without a trace.

Filmed in 2004 and edited in 2007, “A Song” was Liu’s first interrogation of the Anti-Shenzhen Dream.  The film implicitly asks: If the only difference between a Liu Gaoming and an A Song is that Liu stays and A Song leaves, what does it mean to inhabit Shenzhen? Is there any point to staying in the city?

Liu takes a non-judgmental view of A Song’s inability to pursue the Shenzhen Dream. Instead, he matter-of-factly shows the sparse conditions of A Song’s life. The apartment is not only cramped, but also presses up against other apartments so closely that if A Song were to reach out through the barred window, he and the neighbor could shake hands. The incessant noise compounds the visceral lack of privacy. At the same time, A Song doesn’t speak with anyone; he practices speaking Cantonese with a book, he pretends to call customers on the phone, and he grunts instead of answering the pretty girl who washes his hair and cajoles him into joining her for a “chat.”

A Song’s silent implosion is painful to watch, but Liu holds the camera unwaveringly on the memory of his friend. A Song stands on bench. A Song smokes a cigarette. A Song rides a bicycle in the apartment living room, first circling then crashing into the long sofa. A Song becomes nothing more than a body occupying space. A Song vanishes. Liu admits that he originally filmed in color and then converted the files to black and white because “that’s what I felt like when I was making the film.”

“A Song” ends with a fantasy sequence in which Liu imagines that A Song has returned to his hometown and resumed his career as a music teacher. This image poignantly speaks to how migrating to Shenzhen has changed individuals like A Song and Liu Gaoming, begging the question: is going home the last, unrealizable Shenzhen Dream?



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