‘The Cold Winter’ is a documentary on the chill of bureaucracy

The Cold WinterThe Cold Winter

Directed by Zheng Kuo

China, 2011

“Why are there violent demolitions in a harmonious society?” asks artist Zhang Jun as he leads the cameras of director Zheng Kuo through the derbies of the wall that once stood behind his art studio. His joke about the Chinese phrase “harmonious society” is repeated later as he points out broken objects that lay scattered across his studio floor. The Cold Winter – or Chinese “暖冬”, meaning ‘warm winter’ and taken from the name of the ‘Warm Winter Plan’, the subject of the film – is a documentary feature by Zheng Kuo. The film focuses on a group of artists living in a number of Beijing’s arts districts and their struggle to save their studios from demolition by land developers during one of Beijing’s coldest winters. Zheng made the documentary after happening upon the Warm Winter Project while shooting another film, 798 Station, also about the Beijing art district.

Throughout the film we are presented with a detailed story, beginning with the build-up (the land developers’ eviction notice), to the protests and finally to the internal conflicts within the arts community and those involved in the Warm Winter Plan. For more information on the actual events you can start readinghere and here.

The footage used throughout The Cold Winter is primarily talking-heads of the artists involved. There are a few scenes of events and protests staged by the artists – one notable example being a trip through the Beijing metro wearing masks where, at each subway stop, the artists pile onto the platform to take a group picture – and a notable fight captured by Zheng at the beginning of the film. That said, the major events – the February protest and the attack on the artists by “thugs” alleged to be hired by the land developers– stand only as stories. The event which is described as the most politically charged – a protest involving international art-star and Chinese political dissonant Ai Wei Wei down Chang’an Ave and towards the Forbidden City and Tiananmen square– is given a relatively short amount of screen time. Instead of inciting a continued alliance, this protest, serves to further divide the artists. Zheng successfully allows any significance that may or may not exist from the performances to be muffled by the group’s internal conflicts.

"We are cold"
“We are cold”

The Cold Winter is really the story of the line walked between making a political statement and trying to maintain personal rights; possibly a subtle distinction, but an important one. This is an idea that the artists themselves question and consider, directing backhanded criticism at one another’s actions. One artist even states clearly that the Warm Winter Plan was divided between those who wanted to keep what was theirs (the studios), those who wanted financial retribution, and those who wanted to make it a larger statement. The notion of artists “selling out” even within a social sphere as politically charged as Beijing rings with the same clarity as it would anywhere else in the world. To be commercial or to be poor? To be political or to be threatened? Questions quietly asked throughout the stories.

Perhaps the most striking element of The Cold Winter is the overwhelming and nearly frustrating presence of the bureaucratic hand. Artists who we are initially introduced to as sympathetic people trying to recapture their land become bickering talking-heads as they rehash the events. The slow and natural deterioration of the artists’ camaraderie is a testament to Zheng’s editing. The Cold Winter plays out like the bureaucratic conversation that inspired it; a film whose attempt to remain fair and objective has given a clear sense that nothing is what it seems, especially when wrapped in bureaucratic systems. This is both the biggest success of the film and also the most difficult element to digest.

The Cold Winter (3)In short, anyone interested in hearing tales from one of many of China’s forcible-relocation stories would be interested in The Cold Winter. However, the minute details of conversations could lose audiences who aren’t already interested in the subject matter. As with anything of this nature, the question of how political or non-political the message is a relevant factor, and one that is left relatively open by Zheng. In a personal statement he has noted his interest in “fairly and objectively” presenting the events. While this is an undoubtedly dubious statement for any documentary filmmaker or even a journalist to make, Zheng’s attempt to do so is clear. He is unflattering to governmental bureaucracy, the faceless land developers and, especially, the artists.

– Adrienne Lilly

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