At Image Tunnel, a wooden loft known as Shanghai’s smallest cinema, everything is done differently.
The owner rarely hangs posters. Movies are projected on a wall rather than a theater screen. And they show movies that you probably can’t find at any other cinema.
“We show independent movies,” explains Han Yuqi, 47, owner of Image Tunnel.
While China’s commercial cinemas are turning their backs on young creators with low-cost movies, Han gives them a platform at her painting studio.
This has positioned her among the very limited forces that support Shanghai’s indie film movement.
“I support movie makers born during the 1980s and 1990s,” says Han, “because they will shape the future of China’s film industry.”
Show what the others don’t
Ask Han, a passionate painter, why she has become one of Shanghai’s most well-known indie film advocates, and her answer is simple: “My goal is to improve China’s cultural influence on the global stage.”
To achieve that, she needs outstanding films.
In 2005, when Han by chance viewed a few Chinese indie films, she realized that although they were good films, the masses had no access to them.
Surprised by this discovery, Han started bringing local indie films into the spotlight.
In 2006, she profiled more than a dozen Shanghainese directors in a book called, “It Started from Silence.”
A year later, she launched weekly workshops that introduced 100 indie films to the public.
Those films covered various issues, including street cats, the life of a flower seller and China’s post-1980s generation.
She now regularly holds one or two salons per month.
Making a name for local indie films doesn’t come without its challenges.
During the past five years, Han often watched movies overnight — forgoing sleep — in order to prepare for the salon’s screenings. As things were picking up, Han’s biggest headache actually came from dealing with the people she was trying to help.
She recalls how suspicious movie makers were when she approached them with offers to promote their work for free — a rarity, to say the least, in the Chinese movie community.
“A director once replied to me, ‘For free? It’s too good to be real,’” Han says, laughing and shaking her head. “I ended up chasing him down and persuading him to accept my help.”
Creating better indie films
Unlike other cinema owners, who try to attract as many people as they can, Han limits the size of audiences to ensure the quality of interaction.
At Image Tunnel, after movie screenings, directors are always present and ready to discuss their work with audiences.
“This is really helpful,” commented Jin Ge, an independent filmmaker who has shown two movies at Han’s studio. “The audience there really cares about movies, so you can get good feedback on how to improve an ongoing shoot or find a useful ally to make a movie with you.”
Such interaction also inspires some viewers to make their own indie films.
Han counts herself as one of them.
She says she barely watched movies before she started her salon.
In 2008, however, three years after getting involved with the local film community, her documentary, “On the Other Side of Dream,” was selected to be shown at the fourth REEL China Documentary Biennial Festival.
Perhaps because of her painting background, together with her career as a lecturer at local university’s architecture department, Han is eager to add elements of other arts into the creation of independent movies.
Han has already arranged gatherings for Shanghai musicians, designers and movie makers. She has also scheduled a classical music concert at Image Tunnel for the end of this year.
“If we can combine traditional art with contemporary art, we can create better movies,” says Han. “Only after we make this progress, will we be able to win wider support.”
Photo courtesy of Han Yuqi