Down: Indie Rock in the PRC
Study Areas: Modern China, Contemporary Issues, Youth Culture, Rock Music.
In Down: Indie Rock in the PRC, Andrew Field and Jud Willmont explore Mainland China’s vibrant underground rock music scene. The 52 minute documentary’s lively pace, edgy subject matter, and insider perspective is refreshingly off the beaten path of most materials developed for students of China language and culture. As such, it can provide a bold counterpoint to more standard narratives of timeless cultural traditions.
Filmed in 2007, Down opens with a succinct history of the introduction of rock music to China before it follows Field on a journey to, as he says, “find out how rock in China has changed since the early days of Cui Jian (the “godfather” of Chinese rock)…, to experience the rock music scene in the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and to find out what that tells us about a changing China.” This “indie rock doc” combines performances, behind the scenes footage at rock clubs and music festivals, and interviews with band members, promoters, and listeners to answer Field’s questions about how and why the musicians make their art, how their music gets performed and distributed, and what its significance is to Chinese and world culture more broadly. Along the way, the music of up and coming bands like Hedgehog, PK-14, Carsick Cars, and Re-TROS are introduced as a new soundtrack to life in China today.
Down provides a window into contemporary China in a medium that will resonate with young people – and former young people - studying Chinese language and popular culture. While focusing on the particularities that gave rise to indie rock in the PRC, the film touches upon timely themes of globalization, artistic expression, youth culture, and urban life. Most importantly, it gives voice to a small but growing counterculture, which is both uniquely local and increasingly cosmopolitan. From shots of the diverse crowds, it is inspiring to see that despite the saturation of commercial Mandarin pop and various challenges to artistic production and performance, there are venues for people passionate about creating their own artistic communities.
Although Down begins and ends in Beijing – the heart of the rock underground – Field and Willmont also document smaller scenes in the rest of the country as they go on the road to music festivals in Shanghai and rural Hunan province. Among the many interviews with the central figures in the indie rock scene, the sections of the film that followed Kang Mao and her band SUBs and their trip back to their hometown of Wuhan were particularly moving. Through Kang Mao’s frank testimony we see the strength and defiance it takes for young artists to pursue their dreams while at the same time struggling with desire for their parents’ approval. While Kang’s story speaks to the economic and social particularities of China today, it also resonates with the concerns of young people all over the world.
Field is a scholar and professor of Chinese history and culture, but as the film’s narrator, his conversational style welcomes viewers who have no prior knowledge of China, as do the clear subtitles and mix of interviews in English and Mandarin. At the same time, Field’s interviews touch on serious and critical questions about art and the industry of culture that will be informative to viewers familiar with the topic.
As the filmmakers point out, China’s indie rock scene is hardly new. Ever since China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s, Beijing in particular has attracted young artists drawn to rock and roll cultures from abroad who consciously refashion some of the most rebellious and activist styles such as late 80’s New York and British punk and early 90’s grunge from the Pacific Northwest. The film’s focus on rock brings to mind some of the most notable early works of the so-called Sixth generation filmmakers like Zhang Yuan, whose documentary and documentary-style narrative films right after 1989 followed around an earlier generation of underground musicians with little narrative intervention. This film’s return to the rock scene captures the enduring spirit and style of China’s rockers while also providing viewers with detailed background and context. The additional information and clear identification of rock venues, record labels, and music festivals, will allow them to continue to explore the scene on their own, either in China or abroad, in a way that was barely possible two decades ago.
Given the fast pace of social change in China, 2007 may seem to be almost an era away, but Down is hardly outdated. Considering the speed at which local music evolves, even with closure of the groundbreaking club D22, it is encouraging that most of the bands and venues in the film are still active. No matter the changes to come, this documentary will continue to bear witness to the spirit and potential of the Chinese rock scene.
In addition to being an excellent resource for undergraduate students studying contemporary China in either a humanities, social science, or business course, Down will be particularly interesting to students on study abroad programs destined for China. A large part of the film is in English, but there are enough interviews and Chinese lyrics that it can also be used in language classes, possibly in conjunction with recordings used in the film’s soundtrack. Classroom activities and discussion could be built upon the film’s comparison with other urban rock scenes and its commentary on youth culture and expectations. However, the mature language and scenes with drinking and smoking may not be appropriate for younger secondary school students and may require parental consent for viewing.
Madeleine Wilcox is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies and has taught Modern Chinese Literature and Film. She is currently writing her dissertation on the role of domestic space and politics in Shanghai urban cinema.
Last Updated: February 24, 2014