A Piece of Red Cloth: Jin Jiang on Republic

A Piece of Red Cloth: Jin Jiang on Republic
February 27th 2024

“That day you used a piece of red cloth / It covered my eyes and covered the sky.” When the father of Chinese rock Cui Jian first sang those words at the Beijing Worker’s Stadium in the late eighties, the still-young People’s Republic was on the cusp of another socio-economic transformation. Over the next three decades, contradictions and consumer goods quickly, and quietly, occupied every Chinese home and mind.

In Beijing, the hippie Li Eryang runs Republic, an experimental form of "socialism in one room." Jin Jiang’s new documentary, also titled Republic (2024), shows Eryang and other drifting youths trying to resolve, or at least suspend, the contradictions brought in by objects and people from outside their miniature utopia through speech—dialogues, monologues, and drug-induced utterances. Truth in Republic is a process, not an end. This process is constituted by language—everything it touches is changed by it. The camera stays inside the room, watching its inhabitants as they try to nullify the role money plays in their lives.

“In Soviet communism, every commodity became an ideologically relevant statement, just as in capitalism every statement becomes a commodity,” wrote the art critic Boris Groys in The Communist Postscript. As the debt-ridden Eryang covers himself in his American-flag blanket, one cannot help but wonder if the piece of red cloth has changed in nature—the answer is perhaps blowing in the wind. Ahead of Republic’s North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight, I spoke to Jin Jiang about the state of China’s youth—their faith, their paradoxes, and where he sees himself in relation to their struggles. This interview has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

Y-Z Li: I remember my father used to sing Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name.” In Republic, the red flags, the hairstyles, and the flair of Beijing reminded me of an earlier time. You were born in ‘89. What do you think is different about this generation’s rock n’ roll youth?

Jin Jiang: I think they’re more advanced. As a whole, they have quite a mature understanding of music, almost akin to that of artists. For example, sometimes [the youths in Republic] would discuss someone like Yan Jun, a contemporary sound artist in China who is kind of like Yoko Ono in terms of experimental music. Another thing is most of them are highly educated. Li Eryang graduated from the Beijing Institute of Technology and studied cybersecurity. Their horizon is very different when it comes to music and contemporary art when compared to the previous generation. It’s all about information, how much information you get determines what kind of artist you will become. Right now they have [access to] vast quantities of information, maybe on par with what you can get in any developed country in the world. They can access any music or any video they wish instantly. But in a way, they also don’t match up to the previous generation. I don’t know if this is an appropriate assessment, but I feel like this generation generally—maybe because of their fundamental pursuit of freedom—is unable to present complete works. There’s a lot of spontaneity.

YL: There’s a shot in the film where the camera gets passed from one side of the room to the otherthere’s no cut and you don’t seem to be in the room. What was the filming process like? How much space did you give them to create and document themselves?

JJ: I was on the top bunk. By then I was fully asleep. We had been filming for three days and two nights—around twenty hours up to that point. But they often played around with my camera.

YL: Is there a boundary between reality and fiction in your film?

JJ: I don’t think film provides reality, it’s just a perception. I don’t have the responsibility to show you the truth either. I’m only responsible for making the audience believe this perception when they watch the film. If they believe it, then I think I did my part.

YL: Louis Althusser says, “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” In Republic, Buddhism, Christianity, the universe, and the Party often feel interchangeable.

JJ: Yes, it’s like that.

YL: What are your thoughts on the faith of the youths in the Republic?

JJ: I don’t think what they had was true faith. Communism is very hot-blooded—it’s very easy to inspire people. During that process I was in a state of being influenced too, for a long time. But to be able to present the film in the end, I had completely jumped out of that state of mind. If [their] faith, like you said, could be interchangeable among those things, even interconnected in their heart, or occupying the same space, then maybe they didn’t really understand it themselves.

YL: Behind this faith, is there some kind of resignation or self-deception around reality, around power?

JJ: I feel like it’s just pragmatism. Chinese people have always had a pragmatic attitude toward faith, like worshiping Caishen [the God of Wealth] or lighting incense for their children before the Gaokao [the national college entrance exam]. In China, faith in communism is a safe faith. It is absolutely safe to pin a Chinese flag or a red star on your chest—you can do anything and say anything you want. Even if you have nothing, once you have this it’s like you have found a big brother.

YL: Halfway through the film, issues around money and debt start to arise, and the music begins to feel detached from reality. I feel like I saw a microcosm of the country.

JJ: [Laughs] Of course, it’s good to think that too, because the name of the place is very political to begin with—their lifestyle as well. Their material life at the beginning was so abundant because it was precisely their generation that was the product of a period of rapid economic growth. To be frank, I feel like they didn’t know how to be frugal. They never had that concept.

Li Eryang’s friend, Liuzi, never had any money. We usually had to pool money together to pay for his meals. This one time, we heard he finally made 200 yuan so I said he had to pay for our meals the next day. He arrived right after I finished my sentence. On the way from the bar where he got paid to the bar where we were, he had already spent all 200 yuan on cigarettes. The 10-yuan cigarettes he usually bought were sold out at the store, so he bought the 50-yuan ones. That was the general lifestyle of their bunch. No one knew a long-term plan. Of course, this kind of idealism is vulnerable in the face of reality. When the debtor calls, or when you can no longer refinance your debt, everything comes crumbling down and your mental state deteriorates. It’s indeed kind of similar to later developments in the Chinese economy. You can see the pattern, the trajectory of larger societal unfoldings, from a small group of people.

YL: How did you grow up?

JJ: I was from the countryside, so I was very curious about their kind of life. I had never really integrated into urban life—bars, youth culture, street culture, underground culture. Even if I had encountered it, it was from the perspective of a bystander.

YL: Were there any documentaries and books you enjoyed growing up?

JJ: Wang Bing was my first influence in documentary [filmmaking]. One day I was watching his Man With No Name [2009] and suddenly I realized I was going to make films. It was very clear. After that, some directors I liked were Bresson, Tarkovsky, and Béla Tarr. In terms of books, the most influential was probably Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It directly influenced the way I present my films. Among Chinese writers, there’s Gao Ertai. Maybe because of Wang Bing, even though we have a significant age gap, the people I follow are mainly the kind of people he portrayed in The Ditch (2010)—the writings by those from that period, like Mo Yan and such.

YL: What are your thoughts on tang ping, the Chinese anti-work movement that has spread across the country?

JJ: To be honest, I like it. I have a kid and I’ve been taking care of my kid for the past two years. Only now do I have some free time. I haven’t had this kind of free time in three years, so it’s a luxury for me. During that time when I occasionally saw a friend, I would discourage them from getting married, or even from having kids. It’s not that I don’t love my kid, since I’m already at this point. But I might not choose this kind of life if I had another chance. I feel like existence is all about experience. When you’re at a certain age and you discover that there’s not much you can change, you might as well lighten your experience.

YL: What have you been concerned with lately?

JJ: My first film involves children, my second involves old people, and this is my third film. I want to make a film with middle-aged people next. What I’ve been concerned with is this kind of midlife confusion. Personally, I’m almost at that age but not quite. I’m not in that general situation middle-aged Chinese people are in. Their general situation is paying back car mortgages, home mortgages, buying stocks that crash hard, being unable to repay debts, or buying [apartment units in] lanweilou [unfinished apartment buildings]. But I’m still not sure if these things are really all that middle-aged people feel resigned over. After making this I probably won’t have anything else I want to make, at least in terms of documentaries.

Republic screens tomorrow, February 28, and on March 3, at the Museum of Modern Art as part of Doc Fortnight. It is the film’s North American premiere. Director Jin Jiang will be in attendance for Q&A.