The Chinese cultural underground is a phenomenon that is still very under-documented, but one that you can quicklty take the pulse of if you have only the patience to watch an engaging film or two. One that I strongly recommend is Li Ning's 2010 opus Tape: it's a film whose unconventionality and chaos is intriguing enough that viewers will attribute it to something unique in the Chinese experience, yet it is also well attuned to universal human qualities of aspiration and desperation, hope and futility (and particularly the relation of those qualities to the struggle for accurate and open self-expression.) Filmed in the city of Jinan over the period 2005-2010, the film uses a complex metaphor of tape - as both an adhesive material and as an information storage medium - to elaborate on a broad thesis statement about connectivity, which is open to several interpretations.
Both adhesive tape and magnetic recording tape are used in as many contexts as Li can fit into the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time: we see the filmmaker-cum-protagonist struggling to organize piles of recordings on mini-DV videotape, or pasting everything from paper money to mannequin parts onto his bared chest, or staging a performance in which protestors are hosed into submission by 'police' shooting a seething purplish goo. In most of the episodes that Li Ning presents, the 'tape' motif accompanies sequences of conflict, be they inter-personal or within one's own mind. We are given one, and only one, explicit hint as to the philosophical significance of 'tape' to the filmmaker, but this is enough to act as a guide to much of the action that unfolds: in a brief sequence where the shaky camera hovers over Li Ning's open notebooks, we see a meditation about how it is not the "stickiness" of tape that interests him, but the "duality" that it makes possible - two forces inhabiting a single merged body.
Much of the film is dedicated to footage of public "guerrilla performance" actions by Li Ning's "Made in J-Town" dance troupe, in which tape and other adhesives play a starring role in both inhibiting the dancers' movements and in giving them a kind of unique identity even as they fight to break free from the surfaces and other humans who they become 'stuck' to. The dancers themselves, apart from committing the occasional sardonic act like wearing adhesive-stained 'Mao' jackets, are an upbeat and fairly normal group of university-aged kids who defer to their 'teacher' Li in matters of methodology. They apparently wish to emulate his penchant for risk-taking, and indeed the disarming charisma of the teacher - who himself could pass for a university student if he didn't personally confess to being in his late 30s - comes through in numerous scenes where he shares communal meals with his troupe and counsels them not to be discouraged by the total lack of financial compensation that can be expected from their public activity.
For the first 25 minutes or so of the film's total running time, it seems as if we're going to be treated to an overwhelming three-hour collage of this group's actions, which are both demanding physically (e.g. the opening scene which sees the filmmaker swimming naked under ice) and socially (Li Ning and company run afoul of the police, and "cause China to lose face" by writhing amidst refuse - an act that Lin Ning sets in stark contrast to the Riefenstahl-esque choreographed performances typifying the glitter and pomp of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.) Soon, though, a different set of demands comes into play, when a woman revealed to be Li Ning's mother complains of her apartment home being demolished, and laments the untenable expense of relocation.
Owing to this back-and-forth between Li's anarchic fantasies and his despair with mundane life, Tape is fairly unorthodox as far as documentaries go: it is essentially a "making of" of the very film that we are being shown. In the past, "making of" docs like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse have implied that the film under examination is nowhere close to its ideal form (something that comes through in sequences hinting at missing equipment and aborted shoots.) Unlike Hearts of Darkness, though, Tape doesn't serve as a companion piece to the final product - rather it is the final product, in which Li seemingly presents us with whatever footage he was able to salvage and contrasts it with the very raw footage of his daily life during the roughly five years of performing and filming.
It's immediately unclear how much of the action in Tape is fictionalized or embellished, and just like any 'reality show,' there exists a possibility that there are still some omissions. Yet this ambiguity or lack of absolute truth does not detract from the film's message(s). Li is highly skillful at the role of artist-as-editor, and while conviction should never be perfectly be equated with truth, his determination to see his project to fruition is palpable. Awkward camera angles and movements abound throughout Tape, along with unnaturally sharp film edits and glitches - even in an era where these elements can be aestheticized as well as anything else (and disingenuously tacked on to create a feel of ersatz "authenticity"), the overall impression is of experimental results that Li has to show rather than ones he necessarily wants to show.
A confessional at the film's end acts as a capstone on Li's struggles, which I leave here in its grammatically incorrect form to preserve the manic energy:
Last for five years,
After moved three times (including been demolished),
And four-time computer broke down,
Investigated by the policeman twice,
More than thirty cameraman changed
And four groups of actors changed
100,000 RMB which ate up all of my resources.
There's no exaggeration when said working my heart out,
And I have changed myself to be a tape,
Which firmly stick to my film Tape.
Finishing this, I could hand a good answer to my life.
This conclusive statement only seems like boasting when taken out of context, since the fragility of Li's situation is never lost on the viewer. Though the film's p.r. text on its Fandor page suggests an artist who is tormented by inability to distinguish between his personal constructed reality and objective reality, the truth lies somewhat elsewhere. He has not fully reconciled these dueling realities to the point where they would be industinguishable, and he is in fact repeatedly being exposed as being weak or ineffectual outside of his creative life. One poignant narration comes during Li's recall of a conversation in which his bravery during art actions is compared unfavorably with his weakness in other areas of life: "You can jump into the icy water for your own art, but you cannot stand the cold water when washing the dishes."
Up until the end of the narrative, Li's problems with dependency are repeatedly confessed in a way that is extremely refreshing coming from the counterculture - i.e. a culture where artists too often go to ridiculous extremes to denigrate the idea of "outside assistance." In this case, his dependency is on family, anonymous donations from well-wishers, and commissioned performances in which his otherwise challenging dances become wallpaper for corporate get-togethers. It is a situation not so different from the one that most artistic outsiders - still seen as the most expendable members of any society - face in their daily lives. And so, beneath the icy - but not opaque - surface of Li Ning's film, there seems to be an encouragement for artists to shed their phobias of "sticky" adhesion to support networks that may include the unenlightened or 'non-artistic.' Tape at least attempts to lead viewers beyond a simple 'parasite vs. host' paradigm and towards a more symbiotic relationship with some of these elements. Or, more accurately, it is a challenge for artists to make these interpersonal connections themselves into kernels of creativity, rather than valuing them only for the material support they provide. In the same way, it is a challenge for one to transform the conflicts between opposing poles of personality into something of lasting value - few may "become a tape" as naturally as Li Ning does, but his doing so points the way.