San Yuan Li begins with a journey, yet it is neither the journey itself nor the specific destination-the actual place named San Yuan Li –which is the subject of the film. The journey that has been created here by Ou Ning and Cao Fei is metaphoric: the topic is what happens to communities as modernization encroaches upon their living environment with an impact so great as to annihilate everything the people have previously understood as quotidian ‘existence’. Ou Ning and Cao Fei are based in Guangzhou, the manufacturing dynamo on China’s southern coast that runs inland across the Pearl River Delta, with Hong Kong just beyond its borders. This proximity to Hong Kong bred in the local urban population an early awareness of the affluent lifestyles led by its expatriate community and considerable number of Chinese tycoons. Since gaining the status of Special Economic Zone in the mid-1980s, Guangzhou has developed apace-a development that sought to emulate Hong Kong physically and economically. This process was not without its casualties.
San Yuan Li was once a rural suburb of the city of Guangzhou until the rabid expansion of the metropolis finally brought the urban sprawl to its door. The bustling suburban community suddenly found itself sitting on prime land and courted by hungry real estate developers. In China, where land belongs to the State, communities like that of San Yuan Li usually have no defense against the forces of mass relocation. For some, a modern apartment in a newly constructed highrise block is attractive because of the basic amenities it promises. For others, it represents an isolated anonymity far from familiar environs. Either way, choice is not usually an option. The San Yuan Li community, however, refuse to concede its ground, forcing developers to build around it. The result is an extraordinary enclave of crowded, well-worn tenement, narrow streets, and a hotchpotch of shops and eateries, boxed in by fashionable modern developments. To many of the new white-collar inhabitants, San Yuan Li is an eyesore; for Ou Ning, it represents the essence of a disappearing local culture, and evidences the humanism of the Guangdong people, many of whom are forced to live in cramped, often unsanitary and chaotic circumstances. So this is the crux of San Yuan Li: the response of unrepresented and impoverished communities to the momentous thrust of an economic boom that, to all intents and purposes, leaves the lower classes out in the cold. The journey is across the gulf between here and there-from the smart surface of society into that which is kept out of sight.
Ou Ning has played a formidable role in developing an independent forum for short films, art-house style feature films, and documentaries in Guangzhou since the early 1990s. He brings to San Yuan Li his vast experience as director and project coordinator. The vision that drives the film is his, yet the footage was created by an invited team of aspiring local filmmakers, each of whom brings their own observations of the community to the table. The journey begins along Guangdong’s waterways, with camera angles that run close to the river’s mien, and cut to a commissioned music score that unfolds to compelling rhythms.
The initiative behind San Yuan Li arose out of the Canton Express exhibit, curated by Guangdong native, Hou Hanru for the Venice Biennial, 2003, and which established a precise framework for the artists invited to participate. Canton Express sought to encapsulate the dynamic social and economic forces at work within the present cultural framework: an immeasurable contrast to the plodding pace of European life, and to the enduring aesthetic tradition that the Venice Biennial embodies.
The cinematic quality of San Yuan Li reflects Ou Ning’s specific interests, yet his collaboration with others, particularly the young video artist Cao Fei, adds rich visual dimensions. In her own work, Cao Fei prefers saturated technicolor and takes a tongue-in-check approach, parodying the current aspirations and lifestyles of Guangzhou’s burgeoning white-collar class. The activities of both artists, is an integral part of the creative scene in Guangzhou today where film screenings and festivals regularly attract capacity audiences from all walks of life, without parallel anywhere else in China.
The Chinese: Photography and video from China (catalogue) , Wolfsburg Museum, Germany, 2004