Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers

Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers ★★★★

Bet your eyes have opened today, Wenguang.
The fuck do you know about art with your fucking documentary...

An already colossally important film becomes an irrefutably great one in the form of this expanded, two hour-plus director's cut, which is apparently also the original cut of the film, before it was edited down to the 68-minute version that most have seen. (Probably because that's what Wu himself uploaded to Chinese video sites like Bilili years ago.) It's important to remember, and not that widely known, that Bumming in Beijing started its life in state TV, as part of a series called The Chinese People, which was shelved by the station along with Shi Jian and Chen Jue's 8-part Tiananmen Square series after the June 4th, 1989 incident. Wu finished Bumming in Beijing on his own, discretely, and managed to get the film seen in festivals -- a much different fate than was to meet the largely buried Tiananmen Square, which is still nearly impossible to find -- in the process effectively realizing one of the earliest transitions from state-sanctioned to independent documentary. Thinking about the structure of TV as a medium, and also the change-process that this project went through, becomes particularly instructive when watching this extended version, which is both divided into distinct 'episodic' sections and which also registers a 'break' in form in its second half. That 'break' is most readily identified in a temporal sense, as an "October 1989" title card makes clear (footage prior to this was mostly from 1988). But the 'structuring absence' of the Tiananmen Square massacre also serves to inform an aesthetic shift, one felt more overtly in this long cut, as the largely talking-head interviews of the first half give way to lengthy, distended scenes of quiet observation -- sequences that, in both versions of Bumming, register a tonal shift, but which here in particular feel like a purposeful reckoning with an emotionally painful period in the lives of these marginalized Chinese artists. Greater emotional depth and a more pointed engagement with the cultural and artistic themes of the period go some way to making this cut of Bumming in Beijing the superior one -- for me, the way in which the extra material better articulates a link between Beijing's counterculture scene and ethnographic interest in Tibet, as well as providing an understanding of the way western influence permeates the creative expression of this group of artists, is especially illuminating. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this cut of Bumming, though, is the way in which its duration-intensive filmmaking plays to strengths recognizable in a host of Wu Wenguang's later works, like 2005's Fuck Cinema and 1999's Jiang Hu: Life of the Road. The social commentary and political implications of this particular film have allowed it to endure as Wu's signature work; in this longer cut, though, free of the inorganically hurried pace of the shorter one, Bumming also feels like a definitive expression of Wu's artistry -- his shrewd balance of observational and informational documentary forms.

Sam C. liked this review