|What does it take to be an independent filmmaker? A few credit cards to max out, a few friends willing to work cheap, and a little faith in your own talent are just about all you need to make a movie in this country. But making independent films in China is an illegal act. In fact, to be any kind of independent-minded artist in China can be a risky pursuit. Frozen is a Chinese independent film about a group of young performance artists, a doubly risky project that forced the filmmaker to adopt a pseudonym, Wu Ming -- "No Name" in Chinese. He smuggled the raw footage out of China and completed the film in Europe. It's not likely to show up in Chinese multiplexes.
Frozen is a gloomy but fascinating film about a loose community of young artists in Beijing, kids seething with ambition and ideas but so stultified by life in China that their art emerges in profoundly nihilistic and self-destructive ways. Qi Lei (Jia Hongshen) is a particularly moody painter and performance artist who plans to literally die for his art in a year-long performance that will culminate in an "Ice Burial" in which he will melt a block of ice with his own body and freeze to death. Even his more morose friends think this is going a little too far, though they support the purity of his vision.
Life for these 20-somethings seems to consist mostly of hanging out, drinking 40-ouncers and arguing philosophy and art, or brooding in the tiny apartments they share with other family members. Qi Lei lives with his sister, who is desperately worried about his obsession with his own death, and her husband, who's more interested in the potential value of Qi's paintings skyrocketing upon his demise.
Qi's artist friends have their own angst to work with. In one astonishing scene we watch two guys sit down at an outdoor table to a sparse meal. With knife and fork, they each consume a whole bar of soap, slowly chewing, gagging and vomiting while an audience quietly watches. The performance is meant to illustrate the concept of "revulsion," and boy, does it ever.
Obviously, this is not a fun-filled movie. Wu Ming, though not without a sense of irony, has a very serious intent here. Frozen is an ambitious attempt to capture the anger and helplessness of a whole generation of young people in China who are being frozen out of participating in their own country's culture. Like a lot of political films, though, Frozen is a bit bloated with its own self-importance. The characters are so depressed and self-absorbed and the atmosphere so doomy that I couldn't help wondering whether Prozac is available in China. The film also takes a bizarre turn just when you think it's over, a turn that throws doubt on the previous hour's veracity in a very confusing way. In other words, it's a "flawed" film and, like more than a few US indies, the production history is perhaps more interesting than the film itself. But it's a unique and intriguing document of a little-seen aspect of China. You won't likely be seeing many more like it, at least until China's many other "Wu Mings" can make independent art in their own name.