I first heard about China's independent film movement in 2000, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis held a special screening of Jia Zhangke's film Platform. I had spent a semester studying in Beijing a few years earlier and was itching to go back to China any way I could. So I bought a ticket and settled into a seat at the back of the theater, hoping to ease my wanderlust with a cinematic journey.
It took a few scenes before my American eyes, accustomed to the fast pace of MTV-style editing, adjusted to the rhythm of Jia's filmmaking. Each take lasted a minute or more, with the camera holding steady while events and conversations unfolded. It felt more like a documentary than a feature film.
But soon I was wrapped up in Jia's story of the Peasant Culture Group from Fenyang, a troupe of musicians and dancers traveling from village to village in the central Chinese province of Shanxi. The film follows the troupe through the 1980s, a decade of great change in China as economic reforms loosened the government's grip on society and allowed capitalistic influences to slowly spread across the country.