Is it art or is it pornography? This is the question most North American people might ask themselves when they see the work of late Chinese photographer Ren Hang. But it seems in China the question isn’t really that important since Ren Hang’s work whether porn or art is considered immoral and often illegal. Zhang Ximing’s film “I’ve Got a Little Problem” is a point in time look at the life of Ren Hang, an erotic photographer. Hang passed away in February 2017, he was 29 years old.
Zhang Ximing’s documentary about late photographer Ren Hang is a one man project. I spoke with Zhang Ximing through a translator at the Mulan Film Festival in Toronto Ontario, Canada. This documentary is his first feature film and he encountered a major issue when working on this project. His primary sponsor withdrew their funding after they found out there was nudity in the film. He was forced to finance and produce the film himself. His goal of releasing a finished film and having it distributed was thankfully achieved since he believes this is an important story to tell. Ren Hang struggled with depression and this may have had an impact on his death. Director Ximing also told me this is a story about freedom. It is a film about how one man can follow his passion and create art for his own sake and the world to enjoy, whether or not the culture he lives in believes it is immoral or moral.
Ximing who directed, produced, shot and edited this highly stylized film, follows Hang on some of his photoshoots and we see how he produces his work. Ren Hang was known for photographing his friends and some fans, usually naked. In a few scenes, the crew and Ren are on a roof top in a busy cityscape. His models disrobe, he arranges them, and starts shooting on a cheap film camera. Ren often used unusual props. On one shoot, he places a chicken in the crotch of one of his male models. The model complains that the bird is scratching his privates and everyone has a laugh. The scene tells us a lot about Ren’s style and approach to nudity and his method of creating photography in general. It’s all very light hearted and natural, a stark contrast to how the Chinese authorities see his work. In the film, Ren talks to Director Zhang Ximing about how he believes nude bodies are natural and the exotic mystique of the Asian nude is a myth. Hang says, when naked they are just like any other person.
Director Zhang Ximing has created a very artistic film. He uses a number of different formats and framing devices throughout the doc. Some scenes are framed in a perfect circle, others four by three, some in 21 by 9. In one shot, we see a bicycle and the shot is a circle creating a kind of match shot between the frame and the bicycle wheel. There are also a lot coloured gel shots, some in blue, and other hypnotic rapid fire colours. An attempt to show us Hang’s state of mind is being composed here and these scenes link us to Hang’s dynamic and possibly dangerous way of creating his art. The film is only 45 mins long and Ximing does sit down for some traditional talking, Q&A time with Ren. These traditional interview shots are woven into the rest of the film and these scenes stand out as though they don’t belong. Perhaps an analogy to how Ren himself doesn’t fit into mainstream Chinese art culture.
This documentary is a glimpse into the short life of the striking career of an artist who’s life ended much too soon.
You can find Ren Hang’s work on Instagram if you search his name. It appears at this time his personal website is offline. Zhang Ximing is working on a new dramatic film about ethics. The project is untitled as of yet but is based on a novel called the Island of Yesterday. “I’ve Got a Little Problem” had it’s North American premiere at the Mulan Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario Canada.