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Snapshots: China - Toward Chinese Beauty

This series charts the work of photographers in China, India and Russia who explore their countries through their lenses. Because of the keen observation that photography requires, the artists are perceptive witnesses of the societies they inhabit.

AIRED: April 01, 2021 | 0:26:08
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TRANSCRIPT

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Narrator: The upheaval that is occurring in China

is unprecedented in the history of humanity.

How can this unheard-of disruption best be portrayed,

and where shall we begin?

To understand the crucial period

that China is currently going through,

these films let photographers speak,

for they alone get up close

and capture those decisive moments of mutation

that are too sudden and devastating

for the naked eye to grasp.

Their images create both a rampart against oblivion

and a window unto a world in transformation.

Thanks to them, awareness is raised,

and a Chinese way of seeing begins to take shape.

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[ Indistinct conversation in foreign language ]

[ Shutter clicking, camera beeping ]

[ Laughter ]

Interpreter: The current situation in China

isn't comparable to that of the past,

in the Tang or Song dynasties,

which had a specific overall system.

This is due to an adoption of certain Western values.

With this boom, China is seeking a new identity.

Consumer behavior is the perfect illustration --

people were buying tons of Louis Vuitton bags,

then Chanel bags.

Now they've gone from Chanel bags to Hermès bags

and wondering what they can buy next.

So the time has come for a specifically Chinese beauty.

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Narrator: Chinese beauty is elusive, always slipping away.

It flits around all the more

during these vigorous, cement-filled times

when cities conform to a single norm

and glorify international brands.

Before skyscrapers overwhelmed the landscape,

Grace in Mao's day was the smile of youth,

of the lifeblood of the nation.

But the golden age was even earlier,

when Shanghai beauties with names like Peach Blossom

turned heads and broke hearts the world over.

Since the '80s and the economic reform,

long braids and Mao jackets have become obsolete,

making way for flower dresses

as fresh as the coming Beijing spring.

Chinese people have become city dwellers

practically in the blink of an eye.

They left the countryside in droves,

heading for the big city where the streets were paved with gold

and they would become wealthy, successful, and sexy.

Women discovered makeup and permanents,

and men, blue jeans and two-piece suits.

Emancipation and modernization

gradually reach the middle classes,

who see the trappings of wealth as necessities.

International brands flooded in around the country,

seeking the El Dorado of Chinese purchasing power.

Multiculturalism grew,

tempting the population with Japanese mangas,

Korean pop stars, European luxury,

American street culture, and more.

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The future of Chinese beauty is being decided right there,

on a shifting ground drawn toward a thousand temptations.

It is largely up to photographers

to find the poetry and grace

that will resonate with a new Chinese aesthetic.

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Shya: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I was born in Hong Kong,

so I've been used to this life for a long time.

It's a real mix.

Since I was a little kid,

I've always seen all kinds of things mixed together.

It's a kind of chaos,

like a work of art done in collage.

[ Speaking foreign language ]

Here, we're in an art of assemblage,

so I thought I could transform this collage mixture,

which is crazy and chaotic, into a source of inspiration.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

[General Elektriks' "Raid the Radio" plays in distance ]

[ Men speaking in foreign language ]

[ Laughter, indistinct conversations ]

[ Shutter clicks, camera beeps ]

♪Bring some truth to this town ♪

♪Call your station ♪

♪Tell them we're coming ♪

[ Laughs ]

[ Camera beeping ]

[ Laughs ]

Shya: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I've been inspired by Wong Kar-wai for years.

I had the chance to work with him and take photos of him

when Hong Kong film was very influential.

And I wondered if photography could combine with this world.

So I saw his director of photography and asked him

if he could set up the identical lighting

from one of his movies.

I wanted to use it to tell stories by crossing

the worlds of fashion and photography.

[ Engines rumbling, brakes squealing ]

Shya: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: In the past few years,

there have been big changes in Chinese photography.

It's as if all of a sudden,

a powerful machine has started up, just like that.

[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Like an actor who all of a sudden discovers the movies

and tries to adapt to all kinds of different roles.

Or like an actress who turns up in the big city

and suddenly becomes a powerful businesswoman.

Narrator: From Hong Kong, Wing Shya watched China transform.

Along with their rural exodus,

Chinese people made a huge leap into the future

in stiletto heels and dark glasses.

They switched from one era to another,

from a China seen as backwards to a futuristic one,

with the naiveté and clumsiness of the first time.

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[ Squeals ]

[ Laughter ]

[ Squealing ]

Narrator: A young female fashion photographer has emerged

from the frenzy of the past few years.

Smart and sassy, she has become the star photographer

that all the big brands have to have.

[ Women speaking foreign language ]

[ Laughter ]

Chen Man: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Even as a child, I was really into faces.

I'd see people on the street and immediately know

what angle would make them the most photogenic.

That's why so many Chinese celebrities

ask me to photograph them.

Chen Man: [ Speaking foreign language ]

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Chen Man knows how to juggle the cultural fusion of her time.

She uses symbols and styles from all over --

Mickey Mouse, Mao, Chinese ethnic minorities,

sequins and bling, and pure unspoiled nature.

Her women are ultra-sophisticated --

almost unreal.

They stride with determination toward all that glitters.

Interpreter: My photography has gone through several stages.

Firstly, it was very visual,

with a lot of touching up.

It was very far out and unreal.

Secondly, it became more realistic,

and I photographed modern-day China.

Then thirdly, I started capturing Chinese philosophy.

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Chen Man: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: After that,

I started trying to understand other people and myself.

That's how it started.

[ Women speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: My work is intended for the public at large.

I don't do things for myself.

I produce what the market demands.

Chen Man: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I adapt to people's needs

because I think that my job

is to tell them what they need to do to look beautiful

and how to behave in order to marry East and West.

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Narrator: An arranged marriage that favors Western ideals of beauty

and Western brands whose sheen can be blinding.

How can a population hold on to its identity

when its culture has been upended by history

and globalization makes it even more suggestible?

Chinese women are torn between different points of reference.

Should they be femme fatale

and choose rich, tall, and handsome men,

or Asian dolls sheathed in satin and respecting tradition?

[ Camera shutter clicking, equipment beeping ]

Man: Spread your legs really wide.

And arms out front.

Yeah, super hero. That's good.

Shya: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Asian women have what you could call

a melancholic beauty --

a nebulous beauty, filled with a kind of solitude.

Something I find rather attractive.

[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I try to capture the moment

when she hides her own story within,

rather than tell it.

I believe that a woman's appearance

always hides another story.

So I tried to put across a message --

to send viewers an enigma,

so that it gives them something to think about.

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[ Traffic rushing ]

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[ Book shuts, plastic crinkles ]

Shya: [ Chinese accent ] When you look at my photo,

most of the woman, it looks really weak and sad.

And this is the first time

I really try to do something very strong in France.

[ Vehicles passing in distance ]

So I find a movie reference from "Blade Runner."

I find it very mystery. I want to bring that atmosphere.

So I talked to the stylists -- Can we do something like you

don't know where it is?

Lots of smoke, lots of feeling.

You don't -- you know, it's mystery.

And the woman can be strong,

but somehow you can feel the woman is weak

and she don't have hope --

is really hopeless but somehow strong.

I always create this kind of lonely,

and I find it sexy, you know, that kind of lonely, weak --

is really romantic and sexy by themself.

[ Fan whirring ]

I think sometimes I compare with Asian woman

to the Western woman.

I always find, like, Asian woman, they hide things,

so many things, inside.

I always find something like...

something worry or something that's, like, inside.

I always waiting for that moment.

Narrator: Sexy and romantic for some,

the flaws evoke the nostalgic charm

of Hong Kong films

where the lonely girl and the sad gangster

don't live happily ever after.

But for those who want to take their fates

into their own hands,

this fragility is more like proof of a certain maturity.

[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Women with a past are more elegant

because they have experienced a lot --

been in both favorable and difficult situations.

And I've been confronted with all these different things.

There's an accumulation of experiences

that gives a woman a natural elegance.

Interpreter: Life isn't always easy --

it's full of setbacks, worries, and stress.

Contrary to that, elegance is a kind of quietude, tranquility.

However busy you are, you stay cool and level-headed.

That's elegance --

being able to show one's inner tranquility.

[ Object clatters ]

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[ Conversing in foreign language ]

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[ Conversation in foreign language continues ]

[ Laughter ]

Man: [ Speaking foreign language ]

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[ Sighs ]

[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: That's not an easy question.

I prefer to think of elegance

as a spiritual attitude.

It's not a schema -- it's not formatted.

It's not something you can actively seek.

It's more a question of natural serenity,

in daily life, in your nature, in the material.

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[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: True elegance can't be apprehended --

you can only discover it in someone's spirit.

That's elegance.

Elegance shown on the outside isn't true elegance.

[ Conversing in foreign language ]

Interpreter: I think the work of Yang Fudong

has a very strong leaning towards an aesthetic

that's very Asian, very Chinese.

His photos have a great imaginative quality.

But they're also full of very strong contradictions.

He's fascinated by aesthetics and by a kind of visual poetry.

But he associates this aestheticism

with the Chinese concept of what is beautiful

in quite realistic scenes.

His photos are often set in a kind of timelessness,

in which things mix together.

You don't know if the scene is in the past or the present.

In a single movement or pose,

things present and things past combine.

The two dimensions are, in a way, mixed.

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Fudong: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I'd sum up the mood of Shanghai

by saying that it arouses in you a feeling of going back in time.

Shanghai is like suddenly going back 100 years into the past

then shooting back straight again.

It's a very strange feeling.

When you're at home, with friends, you have one mind-set.

But when you're outside, it's surprisingly different.

The city arouses aspirations and invites you into reverie.

This fleeting sensation is extremely interesting.

[ Car horns beeping, bells tolling ]

It doesn't matter whether the sensation is real or not.

It's whatever you want.

The important thing is to live it.

Its presence must fit in with an objectively real state,

and then you let yourself become drunk on its beauty.

[ Car horns beeping, bells tolling ]

Narrator: The beauty of elsewhere

haunts all those who want to escape from reality

and reach the paradise of peach trees

blooming in the mythical orchard where mankind lives in harmony

with untamed and unspeakably beautiful nature.

♪♪

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A priceless source of inspiration

that you still have to leave sometimes

to face your own times,

however chaotic they may be.

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Chen Man: Hmm.

[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: We're now in a phase where Internet

is randomly amalgamating everything.

In the Northeast, there's a kind of stew

with all kinds of ingredients thrown in haphazardly.

It's called luan dun, and it means chaos.

That's what characterizes today's era.

It explains the appearance of people like Lady Gaga.

It's because what we call classics

are at the end of their shelf life,

in which case we need to create a new kind of classicism.

Creations from the dawn of materialism

have reached their zenith, so we're at a point

where we need to jumble everything together.

And what we're seeing today is the natural result of that.

In China, there's popular culture

and what you call beauty.

These things go back to ancient times

when people believed in the concept of unity

between man and the universe.

This concept nourished the soul,

a thing many Chinese still believe in.

That's why I think being fashionable

means going back in time to revive these concepts

and give them a new interpretation.

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[ Car horns beeping ]

Narrator: Their imagination is evolving quickly,

but we still don't know what kind of world

the Chinese truly want to be touched by.

♪♪

After decades of a single model,

the aesthetic and political issues of Chinese beauty

matter all the more

in that the world is waiting to see the true face of a country

that is now ultra-modern, at least in appearance.

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