Beijing Punk is, to my knowledge, the first documentary of its kind, exploring the exploding Chinese punk scene. The documentary focuses around club D-22, in many ways the CBGB’s of China, and the bands and individuals involved in the scene surrounding the club. Principle interviewees include D-22 club owner Michael Pettis, booking manager Nevin Donner (who run the label Maybe Mars together), Lei Jun of Mi San Dao, and Li Yang “Spike” of Demerit. The documentary also covers the bands Joyside, Snapline, P.K.14, The Gar, Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, and Candy Monster, with either live footage, and/or interviews.
Beijing Punk not only does a great job of covering much of the D-22 scene, it also tackles some of the bigger issues involved in being a punk in totalitarian China and the lives of individual musicians in the Chinese punk scene. Most of what we in the West see of contemporary Chinese culture has been heavily sanitized by state censors, so I was excited to see how well a western film crew could peer behind the curtains and explore the realities of not just the Chinese punk subculture, but Chinese culture more generally. I think they succeeded admirably.
What we see is the story of a culture undergoing a dramatic shift. D-22 owner Pettis in one interview compares this cultural shift to the American cultural paradigm of the 1960s. For punks like Li Yang “Spike,” and Lei Jun though, punk is less about some kind of grand social change and more about survival. In one clip Lei Jun asks why he would want to give up making punk rock for the sake of having a job like his father, a respected doctor, when his father only makes the equivalent of four hundred U.S. dollars a month.
For “Spike,” even if his band were to become financially successful, he wouldn’t want to give up the freedom of living in the punk house apartment he and his bandmates share in the Thingzhou district of Beijing, one of the roughest neighborhoods in the world. “Poverty makes us strong,” he sings in one of Demerit’s songs. At the same time, Chinese punk bands find themselves under growing scrutiny from the government. Every step of the way, the label Maybe Mars has had to fight Chinese censors to see their bands’ albums published. The label’s manager has even had his house raided.
For as much as I loved this documentary, and how well it captures a snapshot of the entire D-22 scene, it is not without slight blemishes. There are a number of clips of interviews with Lei Jun that seem to be in the film simply because of his over-the-top antics and things he says, rather than anything that necessarily advances the story or contributes more to the viewers’ understanding. That said, I found this documentary thoroughly fascinating, and now have about a dozen new bands that I’m stoked to check out. –Paul J. Comeau (MVD Visual, PO Box 280, Oaks, PA 19456, mvdvisual.com, [email protected])