The Ragtag Cinema, Missouri
© Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

I feel a bit sad that there’s no cinema in China that I can talk about properly for this column. Now there are arthouse theatres – they aren’t completely independent – but when I grew up in the mid-90s, it was all commercial theatres that were semi-state-owned. The films they showed rarely intrigued me.

The most vivid movie-going memory I have was when I was in primary school and they would take all the students to the local movie theatre – the Wuchang People’s Cinema. This cinema would have been built after the Cultural Revolution, in the 1980s. It’s a shopping centre now. Going there was a really exciting event for me.

Zhu Shengze

The school didn’t take us to see big commercial films – I remember we all wanted to see Titanic [1997] but they would never allow that. We were taken to old propaganda films about heroic soldiers – films like Tunnel War [1965], set during the Second Sino-Japanese War. There were around 1,000 students. We would stand in line and you walked into a huge auditorium one by one, class by class.

After 2000, there were more commercially run cinemas in China and sometimes I did go with my friends, but most of the time we would buy pirate DVDs from small shops outside the cinema and watch the films at home. This was the only way of accessing arthouse and foreign films.

They were tiny shops with no decoration. Every shelf was filled with boxes of DVDs. All generations went there. It wasn’t just young people. At the front they put the TV series and commercial films that couldn’t be distributed in China because of censorship. The shops just had to deal with the local bureau of commerce, not those in charge of censorship.

My mum would be in the front, and I would be in the back where you could find more unusual films. It was here I encountered Edward Yang’s A One and a Two [Yi Yi, 2000] and Wong Kar Wai’s films.

I moved to America in 2010 to study journalism in Columbia, Missouri. I didn’t realise it was a very small town. My hometown Wuhan is the biggest city in central China. I had never been alone in a foreign country before. It was so different and it wasn’t the America I had imagined.

I was swallowed up by loneliness. I missed my home and family. One day I was walking in the so-called downtown – it was just three or so streets – and I saw a film theatre called Ragtag. It’s very small. Just one storey. There were two screens. One is more of a traditional cinema, but the other one is smaller and had lots of sofas.

It was a very community-based theatre – now it hosts the True/False Film Festival. Back then, I’d never seen a theatre like this before. In China cinemas are huge and fancy and normally part of a shopping mall.

Ragtag showed a mixture of Hollywood and independent films. I saw The Tree of Life [2011] by Terrence Malick, Amour [2012] by Michael Haneke and Certified Copy [2010] by Abbas Kiarostami. In China I would never have had the opportunity to watch these films on the big screen. Also, I was surprised that half of the audience were senior citizens. In China people of my grandparent’s generation rarely go to the theatre. It’s just not part of their experience.

I went to Ragtag every week. I sometimes didn’t understand what was happening on screen but the theatre was an oasis in a town where there was nothing to do besides online shopping. When I go to the theatre now and I’m surrounded by Americans, I still feel lonely, as often I’m the only Chinese person.

But when you watch a film with strangers you do have a shared experience with them. You both laugh and cry together even if you don’t know each other.

Zhu Shengze was talking to Isabel Stevens.

Originally published: 24 April 2020