[English] Visual Archives: Documentaries on Chinese Underground Music
In this post, I will try to list all the documentaries that were produced on Chinese independent music. A lot of these documentaries can be found online, but there is no systematic listing, and some are unknown to the general public. So here is a list (provisional and that will be updated regularly) of videos that you should watch. Some are free to watch, for others the copyright is… complicated. As a lot of these documentaries are independently produced, for those which can be bought online I will include a link to their digital version, which will help independent artistic creation.
Table of Contents:
- Wang Shuibo 王水泊, Never Release My Fist 绝不松开我的拳头, 2015
- Wang Shuibo 王水波, Swing In Beijing 悠哉, 北京, 2000
- Anarchy Boys 无政府主义男孩 on Japanese Television, 1998
- Zhao Liang 赵亮, Paper Airplane 纸飞机, 2001
- Shaun Jefford, Beijing Punk, 2010
- Olivier Richard, Beijing Calling, 2014
- Olivier Richard, La grande muraille de métal, 2015
- George Lindt and Susanne Messmer, Beijing Bubbles, 2005
- Kevin Fritz, Wasted Orient, 2006
- Max Celko and Heike Scharrer, Oi! Skins in Beijing, 2006
- David Harris, A Tour of the Public Kingdom 公共王国的旅行, 2004
- Karen Winther, Heart Rock Beijing, 2009
- Wei Xiaobo 魏晓波, The Sound and The City 渔湾市, 2010
- Jada Li, Nirvana and Pulp A Story of Scrapped CDs 打口碟纪录片, 2013
- Zhang Yang 张扬, Post-Revolutionary Era 后革命时代, 2005
- Zhao Anqi 赵安琪, Other Side, 2014
- Maya Rudolph, Benny Shaffer, Lulu Chow and Josh Feola, Five Years 五年, 2011
- Chaos Xinxiang 混乱新乡, 2013
- Amuer, Punks From Afar 有朋克自远方来, 2017
- John Yingling, The World Underground. Episode 1: China, 2015
- Joshua Frank, Howling Into Harmony, 2012
- Jsnakelet 大洁, Joker is Back 小丑归来, 2021
- Brain Failure 脑浊, Give You A Live 给你一刀, 2013
- GeekShootJack, Mosaic Party 无码派对, 2019
- Hidden Agenda, 2012
- Martin Atkins, 16 Days in China, 2008
- Hou Zuxin 侯祖辛, My Dad’s a Rocker 老摇滚, 2014
- Gao Wei 高伟, Beijing Rock 摇滚多多, 2006
- Zhang Yuan 张元, Beijing Bastards 北京杂种, 1993
- François Manceaux, Rock in Berlin: The Chinese Avant-Garde, 1993
- Sarah Neiger, L’orient est rock (The Orient is Rock), 1992
- Alain Le Bacquer and Mihai Zamfirescu-Zega, Pékin Underground, 2012
- Sun Zhiqiang 孙志强, On the Edge of Freedom 自由边缘, 2000
- Miserable Faith 痛苦的信仰, 之时, 2009 and Because It’s Here不期而至, 2015
- Sheng Zhimin 盛志民, Night of an Era 再见乌托邦, 2009
- Sameer Farooq, The Silk Road of Pop, 2013
- Billy Starman, Iron Mic 钢铁麦克, 2017
- Jimmy Wang, Underground Chinese Hip-Hop, 2012
Wang Shuibo 王水泊, Never Release My Fist 绝不松开我的拳头, 2015
Let’s begin with my favorite documentary, on my favorite band. Directed by a real filmmaker, Wang Shuibo (王水泊), who already directed Swing In Beijing in 2000 with the punk band UnderBaby. This documentary entitled Never Release My Fist (绝不松开我的拳头), released in 2015, is centered on the Wuhanese band SMZB (生命之饼). Extremely well done, this documentary is able to trace the band’s history, and draws a faithful portrait of the singer Wu Wei (吴维), both political and full of humanity. I could spend many hours speaking about the relevance of this movie, this band and its impact on the Chinese punk community – at the time of its release, Wu Wei toured China to show the documentary throughout China. The most important thing is certainly to watch it.
Wang Shuibo 王水波, Swing In Beijing 悠哉, 北京, 2000
I already wrote about the previous documentary of Wang Shuibo, Swing In Beijing in the post about Underbaby. Here is again only a small part of the 2000 documentary – the full version is still not available online.
Anarchy Boys 无政府主义男孩 on Japanese Television, 1998
Not a documentary, but a 10 minutes interview with Anarchy Boys, one of the first Beijing punk band, on Japanese television. Rare footage of the Scream Club, a must-see for archival purpose.
Zhao Liang 赵亮, Paper Airplane 纸飞机, 2001
Another documentary directed by a “real” Chinese independent filmmaker: Paper Airplane (纸飞机) by Zhao Liang (赵亮), released in 2001. An excellent documentary from the independent filmmaker, way before his Government-approved movie Together (在一起). Paper Airplane is centered on a group of drug addicted punks who squat old abandoned Beijing hutong houses to do drugs. The last scenes are very emotionally charged and give an explanation to the title of the documentary – it will be used by the rock band Hedgehog in a song about addiction. Since it was produced by the French (like always), it can be streamed on the INA website – but with only French subtitles.
Shaun Jefford, Beijing Punk, 2010
Beijing Punk, by Shaun Jefford, 2010. In many respects, Beijing Punk turns to be a bit annoying, since we see an English filmmaker – who doesn’t speak Chinese of course – coming to China during the Olympics to “see” Chinese punks, which implies a lot of orientalist fantasy. But there is something interesting going on during the documentary between the filmmaker and the bands – mostly the punk band Demerit (过失) and the Oi! band Misandao (蜜三刀). Some sequences are memorable, especially when it comes to alcohol (and oddly enough, cough syrup). Unfortunately the bands have to communicate with Shaun Jefford in English, which limits some of their analyzes, which would have been much more interesting in Chinese (especially the difference between “politics” 政治 and “society” 社会, but I go astray). It is interesting to note that the two bands featured in the documentary were in open conflict, until the death of Misandao’s singer Lei Jun (雷俊) in 2015, which of course is not noticeable in Beijing Punk or in any of the documentaries that are centered on these two bands. And they are numerous.
Olivier Richard, Beijing Calling, 2014
Without any chronological logic, let’s talk about Beijing Calling, by Olivier Richard for the French TV Network France 4 released in 2014. Like Shaun Jefford’s documentary, Olivier Richard is focused on Demerit and Misandao, but seven year later, so we can see for instance the organization by Lei Yang, Demerit singer, of the “Strawberry Fucktival”. Less invested in his subject than Shaun Jefford (the filmmaker is not getting drunk with the bands), Olivier Richard’s documentary is more classical, features an omnipresent voice-over, and is way too much didactic. Again, the documentary is in French. Who said it was useless to learn French?
Olivier Richard, La grande muraille de métal, 2015
Let’s continue with Olivier Richard who, the following year, released La grande muraille de métal (The Great Wall of Metal) for French TV. The documentary is this time centered on metal music (but also features Demerit… Maybe some leftovers from the previous documentary). It shows the bands Ego-Fall, a Mongolian-influenced band, Chaos Kills the Pain, Barbaric Chieftains or the legendary band Yaksa. The ethnic and identity component of metal music is unfortunately never addressed in the documentary. Unfortunately, due to copyright issues Olivier Richard asked to take down the video from the internet, and is nowhere to be found (not even a paid version)
George Lindt and Susanne Messmer, Beijing Bubbles, 2005
Beijing Bubbles, by George Lindt and Susanne Messmer was released in 2005, and forecasts the wave of documentaries on Beijing punk that will follow. The documentary follows the adventures of the band Joyside, which embodies at this time the revival of Beijing punk rock scene. Bian Yuan, Joyside’s singer, is particularly photogenic. We can also see Hang On The Box or Hanggai, and it is always a pleasure to see the late D22 live venue. In this excerpt we see the filmmakers speak about the filming – you can buy the documentary on Vimeo.
Kevin Fritz, Wasted Orient, 2006
In 2006 Kevin Fritz released Wasted Orient. Obviously, the subject was covered by Beijing Bubbles since the documentary is centered on Joyside. But Wasted Orient possesses a certain quality: it takes it time, focusing solely on Joyside and their daily life. The documentary does not avoid the clichés that can be found in some of the Western documentaries that we talked about and their somehow orientalist point of view. But the filmmaker lets the band speak, and captures their daily interactions.
Max Celko and Heike Scharrer, Oi! Skins in Beijing, 2006
In 2006 again – a great year for Chinese punk documentaries – a short documentary was released on Misandao (蜜三刀), Oi! Skins in Beijing by Max Celko and Heike Scharrer. This time, it is only centered on Misandao and the skinhead subculture, and we can follow (in English) the life of Lei Jun, who unfortunately passed away in 2015. Again, the title features the word “Beijing”. Come on guys!
David Harris, A Tour of the Public Kingdom 公共王国的旅行, 2004
The documentary A Tour of the Public Kingdom (公共王国的旅行), by David Harris was released in 2004. It follows the band P.K.14 on tour throughout China. The very good idea of the filmmaker is to closely follow the band, and their daily interactions during the band’s tour.
Karen Winther, Heart Rock Beijing, 2009
Let’s continue with a documentary that also follows a band on tour with Heart Rock Beijing, excellent movie on the band SUBS and its legendary singer Kang Mao (that we can also see in Never Release My Fist, Kang Mao is indeed from Wuhan). A documentary by Karen Winther, released in 2009.
Wei Xiaobo 魏晓波, The Sound and The City 渔湾市, 2010
I am very happy to have found The Sound and The City (渔湾市) by Wei Xiaobo (魏晓波, fortunately for him his last name is not Liu), released in 2010. This documentary is centered on underground rock in Changsha (the capital of Hunan province). It is an excellent documentary on the punk scene in Changsha, and the links between punk rockers and other artistic communities, social movements (against forced evictions for instance), and other political activists, especially during an homage to the democratic movement of 1989. Let’s also not forget that Changsha live venue, the “46 Livehouse” can be translated into 46-98, which, when you read it upside down, is the date of the Tian’anmen massacre.
Jada Li, Nirvana and Pulp A Story of Scrapped CDs 打口碟纪录片, 2013
A short documentary by Jada Li on the dakou, these scrapped CDs that were sold on the black market during the 1990s, and allowed Chinese youth to discover rock and punk. It is called Nirvana and Pulp A Story of Scrapped CDs (打口碟纪录片), and was released in 2013. We can see in it the female punk band Hang On The Box, rock critics and former dakou sellers.
Zhang Yang 张扬, Post-Revolutionary Era 后革命时代, 2005
An interesting documentary by Zhang Yang (张扬) released in 2005, named Post-Revolutionary Era (后革命时代). The movie (without subtitles sorry) follows the organization of one of the first “Midi Music Festival”, now the most important rock festival in China.
Zhao Anqi 赵安琪, Other Side, 2014
If you were wondering what Joyside was doing since Wasted Orient this documentary will answer all of your questions. After disbanding Joyside, some of them opened a live music venue in Beijing, the School Bar, now the new Mecca for underground music in Beijing. Other Side by Zhao Anqi (赵安琪) allows us to see the School backstage, the crazy live concerts of the Diders or Bian Yuan’s usual spleen. In short, the School daily life.
Maya Rudolph, Benny Shaffer, Lulu Chow and Josh Feola, Five Years 五年, 2011
If you like this School documentary, you will definitely love this 20mn documentary about the late D-22, 五年 (Five Years), produced, edited and subtitled by Maya Rudolph, Benny Shaffer, Lulu Chow and Josh Feola of Pangbianr Production. 五年 focuses on the late D-22 live music venue, opened in 2006 and closed in 2012, which allowed a new generation of indie Chinese bands to flourish in the mid-2000s (and forced a generation of Chinese students to sleep at the McDonald because the concerts ended after Universities’ curfew). The documentary features interviews with Michael Pettis, founder of the D-22 and the label Maybe Mars and prominent figures of this golden era: Zhou Shouwang of Carsick Cars, Yang Haisong of P.K.14, Snapline, Rustic… A book by Matthew Niederhauser, Sound Kapital, also provides an overview of the D-22. (Thanks to Josh for the link)
Chaos Xinxiang 混乱新乡, 2013
Here is a short documentary released in 2013 on the punk bands The Diders, Sochu Legion (烧酒军团) and Pumpkins, touring Xinxiang. It’s called Chaos Xinxiang (混乱新乡). If you like amateur movies, loud punk rock, and bands playing naked, this documentary is made for you!
Amuer, Punks From Afar 有朋克自远方来, 2017
A new documentary released in 2017 directed by the Inner-Mongolian borned young filmmaker Amuer: Punks From Afar (有朋克自远方来). The documentary follows Chinese punk bands (mostly GT Bitches, Cars Cars Cars, The Flyx) touring Taiwan, and features also some Taiwanese bands (BB. Bomb, 少年A). Interesting to see some cross-strait punk relations.
John Yingling, The World Underground. Episode 1: China, 2015
Another Western filmmaker discovered Chinese independent music scene in 2015: The World Underground. Episode 1: China, a documentary directed by John Yingling. The project is ambitious: to create a documentary archive of all the underground music communities in the world. For now, only the Chinese part was completed, the filmmaker is financing little by little his trips. You can make a donation here to help him continue. In an hour and a half, with an omnipresent voice-over, John Yingling travels all around China with P.K.14 and meets no less than forty (!) bands.
Joshua Frank, Howling Into Harmony, 2012
In 2012, the now VICE China producer Joshua Frank released his NYU thesis project, Howling Into Harmony, on Chinese independent noise (噪音) music. This forty minutes long documentary focuses on young noise musicians, like Soviet Pop, Yang Yang and the “NO JIJI” collective, but more importantly on their relationships to their parents, the city they live in and international youth subculture – something that is not addressed that often in other documentaries. (Many thanks to Josh and Johan for the link)
Jsnakelet 大洁, Joker is Back 小丑归来, 2021
After Joyside’s come back for the iQiyi TV-show “The Big Band” 乐队的夏天, the famous punk-rock act toured China with its (more or less) original crew. The guys behind the School Bar (including Joyside’s bassist Liu Hao) produced this documentary, following Joyside on tour.
Brain Failure 脑浊, Give You A Live 给你一刀, 2013
One of the first Beijing punk band, Brain Failure 脑浊 released in 2012 a new album, “歪打正着”. This documentary follow the band during their 2013 tour, entitled “Give You A Live / 给你一刀”, where they tour China in a private bus. Only for archival purpose.
GeekShootJack, Mosaic Party 无码派对, 2019
This 2019 documentary focuses on the disco-rock band Mosaic 马赛克 during the recording of their album “劲歌热舞”, but also shows their internal conflicts and their creative process. They became better known after their participation to the second season of The Big Band on iQiyi.
Hidden Agenda, 2012
In 2012, after being shut-down by the Hong Kong authorities twice, the crew of the legendary Hong Kong live venue “Hidden Agenda” released a documentary screened at the Venice Architecture Biennale Hong Kong Exhibition. The documentary tells the story of one of the most important livehouse in Hong Kong, how it nurtured an alternative music scene, and its relation with the social movements in Hong Kong. It definitely closed down in 2017, before being reopened at another location under the name “This Town Needs”, before getting closed-down again… For more information, I recommend From Indie to Underground: The Hong Kong DIY Rock Scene in the Post-Hidden Agenda Era“.chapter in Fractured Scenes, “
Martin Atkins, 16 Days in China, 2008
In 2006, the English music producer and ex-drummer of Public Image Limited Martin Atkins came to China to produce some indie-rock bands. He came back with a 68 minutes long documentary, published in 2008, titled 16 Days in China. He came across the best of the Beijing indie-rock scene, and eventually remixed Snapline’s first album, “Party’s Over Pornostar”.
Hou Zuxin 侯祖辛, My Dad’s a Rocker 老摇滚, 2014
Hou Zuxin, the daughter of the rock singer Hou Muren, famous for his 1992 cover of socialist songs (红色摇滚) interviews the first generation of Chinese rockers. A very touching documentary, about ageing rockers, death, and youth rebellion. The major contribution of Hou Zuxin’s documentary is to give a voice to relatively less well-known rockers and music critics, instead of interviewing the same rockstars, i.e. Cui Jian and al.
Gao Wei 高伟, Beijing Rock 摇滚多多, 2006
A slightly more conventional documentary on Chinese rock, featuring interviews with rock critics and institutional actors: Beijing Rock (摇滚多多) by Gao Wei (高伟), released in 2006. The documentary is interesting for its historical part, and the interviews with great figures of Chinese rock. It’s a bit long nonetheless.
Zhang Yuan 张元, Beijing Bastards 北京杂种, 1993
It’s not a documentary per se, but a major film for the Beijing rock community, four years after the Tian’anmen crackdown. The independant filmmaker Zhang Yuan sets his new movie Beijing Bastards (北京杂种) in the fringe community of Chinese rockers, and adopts a documentary-style of filming (also because he doesn’t have any authorization to do so). He captures genuine rock and roll “parties”, featuring Cui Jian or Dou Wei.
François Manceaux, Rock in Berlin: The Chinese Avant-Garde, 1993
In 1993 also, a French-German documentary was released on a performance by Chinese rockers in Germany – maybe one of the first documentary on Chinese rock directed by foreigners abroad. The documentary includes concerts and intersting interviews with Cui Jian, Cobra, Wang Yong and Tang Dynasty. Cui Jian talks about his parents and his musical education in Maoist China. Weirdly enough, the only video available on the internet is subtitled in Japanese.
Sarah Neiger, L’orient est rock (The Orient is Rock), 1992
According to her website, Sarah Neiger came to Beijing in December 1989, only a couple of months after the Tian’anmen crackdown. On New Year’s eve, she met with Cui Jian at Maxim’s, the foreign restaurant where the Beijing rock circle used to plan “parties”. She directed an award-winning documentary on the Beijing rock scene of the early 1990s, L’orient est Rock (The Orient is Rock) in 1992, with the usual gang – Cui Jian, Cobra, He Yong, Tang Dynasty. The documentary is in French of course. Many thanks to arnauld for providing the info and the link!
Alain Le Bacquer and Mihai Zamfirescu-Zega, Pékin Underground, 2012
Why French people keep coming back to Beijing, being astonished each decade that there is a underground music scene in China? I have no idea, and I suspect I myself participate unwillingly to this weird orientalization of the Chinese alternative music scene. Between 2000 and 2008, the French photographer Alain Le Bacquer came to China to witness the evolution of the Chinese society, from underground rockers to “lolitas technoïdes [whatever that means], girls of bars, students, and young migrants”. He published a picture book, Pékin Underground in 2008, “The rebellion of the red capitalism children”. You know that you’re not fighting the clichés when you use that kind of catchphrase, but the pictures themselves are beautifully done, and some are very precious, in particular the one documenting the “Tree Village” (樹村) where rockers lived in the early 2000s. Le Bacquer also directed a series of documentaries for his (very well-done) web project in three parts in 2012, based on his book and the interviews he conducted. To be honest I’m not a fan of the documentary and the constant use of voice-over, and let’s say it once and for all, if you need voice-over in your documentary, it means that there is a problem in the way you edit and envision your movie. The analysis provided by the director through the voice-over are over the top, and quite frankly awkwards. See for yourself. If you speak French of course.
Sun Zhiqiang 孙志强, On the Edge of Freedom 自由边缘, 2000
Released in 2000, 自由边缘 (Ziyou bianyuan) by Sun Zhiqiang (孙志强) looks back at the blessed era of the 1990s for the alternative music communities. “自由边缘” is also a song by Miserable Faith (痛苦的信仰), when they were still a metal band and hadn’t tasted Yunnan’s marijuana. We can see a lot of 1990s bands, most of them studying at the Midi School of Music. It’s also the story of an era and a particular space, a small village in Haidian, where artists found a place to live and create.
Miserable Faith 痛苦的信仰, 之时, 2009 and Because It’s Here不期而至, 2015
Since we’re talking about Miserable Faith (痛苦的信仰), here are two documentaries about the band – and mostly their tours accross China. The first one was released in 2009 for the band’s 10 year anniversary and it’s called 之时, when Gao Hu, the singer was still wearing hats, jumping on stage and singing a mix of metal/punk/rap songs. Seeing the Midi Festival audience singing together “哪里有压迫，哪儿就有反抗” (“Where there’s oppression, there’s resistance”) is something quite exciting. In 2015, a new documentary on Miserable Faith (now renamed “Tong Young”, don’t ask me why) was released, 不期而至 (Because It’s Here). We can see the changes taking place, Gao Hu now has long hair, and speaks about Buddhism and Bob Marley. In 2015 they also participated to the popular TV Show 中国之声 (China Star), where Cui Jian was one of the judge. Even if they were criticized for their participation, they sang “哪里有压迫，哪儿就有反抗” (“Where there’s oppression, there’s resistance”) on Chinese TV. Just for that, Gao Hu and Miserable Faith deserve our respect!
Sheng Zhimin 盛志民, Night of an Era 再见乌托邦, 2009
A very institutional documentary on Chinese rock, but it’s worth it since it features legendary rockers as Cui Jian (崔健), Dou Wei (窦唯), He Yong (何勇), or Zhang Chu (张楚). It’s called Night of an Era (再见乌托邦), by Sheng Zhimin (盛志民) and was released 2009. Seeing Cui Jian performing “一无所有”, even 20 years later, is always thrilling.
Sameer Farooq, The Silk Road of Pop, 2013
We leave the Han Chinese to travel to Xinjiang in The Silk Road of Pop, a very good documentary on the Uyghur alternative scene, by Sameer Farooq released in 2013. It shows Uyghur folk, metal and hip-pop, but most importantly shows how Uyghur identity is redifined by alternative music. And we do like that. Since it’s a very good independent documentary, I advise you to rent it online: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkroadofpop
Billy Starman, Iron Mic 钢铁麦克, 2017
Ok, so let’s talk about Chinese Hip-Hop, which is under a lot of pressure since the so-called “hip-hop (and tattoo) ban”. The documentary Iron Mic (钢铁麦克) by Billy Starman, released in 2017, shows how rap battles was introduced in China in the early 2000s by the American rapper Dana Showtyme. These “Iron Mic” contests helped now famous MCs start their carreer, like MC Webber, Ma Jun, MC Dawei…
Noisey China, the Vice website dedicated to music, also conducted a lot of interviews with Chinese MCs:
- Interviews about Sichuanese trap, including Higher Brothers: http://noisey.vice.cn/read/trap-in-southwest-part-1
- Chongqing trap with the now infamous GAI and Wudu Montana: http://noisey.vice.cn/read/trap-in-southwest-part-2
Jimmy Wang, Underground Chinese Hip-Hop, 2012
A documentary on the underground hip-hop scene by Jimmy Wang, released in 2012. The documentary goes back to the emergence of Chinese hip-hop with the international crew Ying Tsang 隐藏, MC Webber, MC Ma Jun and of course In3 阴三儿, the underground parties, the rap battles… before the 2015 blacklist which featured plenty of In3’s songs. An interesting part of the documentary is the interview with “Crooked Eye” (at 23:00), a hip-hop public relations manager on censorship and liberty of press. Thanks to 多多底料 D.U.O for the link and this discovery! See the documentary online here: https://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/underground_chinese_hip_hop
That’s everything I got for the moment. This post needs to be updated constantly, so if I missed something, don’t hesitate to tell me!