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Ice City: Harbin

Shuai Li: Director, Producer, Researcher
Title of work: Ice City: Harbin
Length: 563 seconds
Year: 2020
15 videos on TikTok (interactive experience on TikTok)
Videos accessible on TikTok: @icecity_harbin



Research background 


This practice-led PhD project explores the TikTok short-form video format in the context of the city symphony phenomenon (Jacobs, Hielscher and Kinik 2018). Ice City: Harbin will develop an original storytelling mode for the emerging format of networked mobile media. To this end, the research applies a creative arts method and will involve the creation of a series of 15 short videos on the video-sharing platform TikTok.

Ice City: Harbin will be composed of two parts: one city film disseminated via TikTok and another edited on the iPhone shared via YouTube. TikTok as a short-form video platform, previously known as, has attracted the attention of the younger generations and has expanded globally in only a short amount of time. Furthermore, the increasingly dynamic mobile media environment recognises platforms and network media as a “site of practice” (Miles 2014). With the introduction of Adobe Premiere Rush and LumaFusion, editing and post-production can be conducted almost anywhere—and on location. Narrative considerations are shifting to a more ephemeral character (Graing 2011) that can further refine mobile media art aesthetics (Baker, Schleser and Molga 2009). “Cinema of attractions” (Gunning 1990) will be examined as a theoretical framework and will be further expanded through the “mobile cinema of attractions” (Ok 2012). The early cinema prior to 1907, as much as the features of contemporary TikTok videos, spark the curiosity of audiences through magic moments, tricks and fancy images rather than via narrative constructs.


The aim of this research is to both examine the creative process and point at creative innovations in mobile filmmaking (Berry 2017) and our understanding of editing and post-production in mobile cinema (Atkinson 2014). The study will encompass the redefinition of the city film genre and emphasise the emergence of a Chinese sub-genre in the theoretical realm of the city film, which has flourished with the rise of micro-videos in China (Xing, Hanhui and Chong 2009) since 2005. This research project will contribute a novel way of mobile storytelling based on the current mediascape.


With the introduction of TikTok in 2018, new micro-forms and formats for mobile storytelling surfaced. A global audience of 800 million TikTok users represents a more general shift towards mobile viewing experiences. According to Guta (2018), 78% of videos are viewed on mobile devices globally. Storytelling in micro-formats includes the drama series Flunk Series (2018) and Eva Stories (2019) and documentary/non-fiction productions Badan Jilin (2019)  (巴丹吉林) and Selfie (2019). The 21st-century city film offers an interactive viewing experience.  Manovich (2001) defined database “as a structured collection of data”. This research project adapts the concept of the database in mobile filmmaking to explore more possibilities.


Atkinson, Sarah. 2014. Beyond the screen: emerging cinema and engaging audiences. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Baker, Camille, Max Schleser, and Kasia Molga. 2009. “Aesthetics of Mobile Media Art,” Journal of  Media Practice, 10(2&3), 101-122.

Berry, Marsha. 2017. “Mobile Filmmaking.” In The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography, edited by Hjorth, Larissa, Heather Horst, Anne Galloway, and Genevieve Bell. New York: Routledge.

Grainge, Paul. 2011. Ephemeral media: transitory screen culture from television to YouTube. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gunning, Tom. 1990. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Cinema, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, edited by Elsaesser, Thomas and Adam Barker, 56-62. London: BFI Publishing.


Guta, Michael. 2018. “78% of Video Content to be Screened Via Mobile Devices, Marketing  Study Predicts.”

Jacobs, Stephen, Eva Hielscher and Anthony Kinik. 2018. The City Symphony Phenomenon : Cinema, Art,  and Urban Modernity Between the Wars. Milton: Routledge.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. London: MIT Press.

Miles, Adrian. 2014. “Interactive Documentary and Affective Ecologies” in New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, edited by  Nash, Kate, Craig Hight and  Catherine Summerhayes, 67-82. London: Palgrave.

Ok, Hyeryoung. 2012. “Cinema in Your Hand, Cinema on the Street: The Aesthetics of Korean Cinema.” Public (40), 109-117.

Xing, Wang, Hu Hanhui and Wu Chong. 2009. “A theoretical and empirical study on China’s  transition to digital TV.” Telecommun. Policy, 33(10), 653-663.


Badan Jilin (巴丹吉林), Yongqiang Ren, 2019

Eva: Stories, Mati Kochavi & Maya Kochavi, 2019

Flunk Series, Melanie Rowland, 2018

Selfie, Agostino Ferrente, 2019


This is an interesting research project exploring the use of mobile media-making, city films and popular social media platforms TikTok and YouTube. The project videos available on TikTok feature some lovely cinematography and editing. In your research statement, you mention the significance of mobile media-making as well as mobile media-viewing. For future research presentation, it might be worthwhile providing explicit writing comparing the differences between (1) media-making through relatively traditional means and (2) shooting and post-production on a mobile device. How have these differences impacted upon your creative project? Do the particular affordances of mobile media-making allow you to produce something novel or innovative, relative to (1) traditional film depictions of cities and (2) social media video depictions of cities on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube? If so, what are these innovations or novel aspects? I suggest that you have a think about similar issues or aspects when it comes to publishing and distributing the media as well as media viewing and reception.


A significant feature of social media is audience/user/participant engagement. Perhaps further research could explore how your depictions of the city could spark or encourage engagement with people on a local level (eg. Harbin, China) as well as globally. One option would be to consider your creative project to not only be media making and distribution (one-way communication), but rather producing media (and media strategies) that prompt a network of audiences to comment, discuss, share, and perhaps create their own media that contributes to an overarching creative/social goal of your media project.

Finally, it may be worth continuing to consider the goal for the city films. What aspects of the city are you uncovering or revealing for people? Is it the beautiful landscapes, architecture, aspect of culture, society or people? For future work, I think you could find an angle or particular aspects to focus on. Best of luck with your future research.



Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

The submission is interesting in its transposition of content and form – the content a perspective on the emerging social/spatial phenomena of the modern city by the emergent media of the film; and the form of an emerging contemporary media platform with associated durational and spectatorial practices. This work suggests new possibilities for this media platform; the grid of video start frames on the user page has been ingeniously exploited by the artist/researcher to display a tiled visual indication of some of the contents to be explored in the video clips.

The video clips explore aspects of the city and are smartly edited to upbeat music. Interaction with the grid is back and forth – to this reviewer the videos open in a separate window to play and are not connected to one another so a clip prompts another to play – a hub and spoke model in the hands of the viewer guided by the graphic layout rather than programmed in sequencing or narrative.

Some of the clips present enigmatic narratives of movement through spaces and sites in Harbin – but their significance is not clear albeit there are clear limitations in the 1-minute video duration native to the platform. There is a sense of a coherent approach to the depiction of an activity special to this city – working with ice by sculptors/workers; otherwise, some of the spaces and activities are not very distinguished. For instance, we are not given the significance of a sand-dune shaped building in a park that is featured in the top-left of the tiled video page.

Does the submission live up to its potential?

The connectedness and significance of some of the sites are open to question. This viewer was not convinced by the personal stake of the artist-researcher in depictions of the urban spaces of the city. What stake does the artist have in ice sculptures, swimming in ice-cold water, the railway station and tracks (to where?); leading to a conclusion this is a fairly generic representation of a city in northern China.

To this reviewer, the spatial expressivity of the medium was not employed to visualize a personal trajectory through the spaces of the city. The possibilities of spatial dexterity and transport of media made for this platform with the temporal limitation of the clips can yield impressive results – for instance, this widely shared #420dogface208 clip

The camera engaged in a form of “transport” through space – and the combination of movement and music imparts a sense of journey, not to say on the highway, jeopardy, to the clip

Can the more abstract ideas associated with the city symphony films – the city as an organic assemblage of social activities exemplified by Vertov; the city as a site of conflict/contest for resources imagined by spatial and cultural critics – not be investigated by the practitioner? Following the city symphony films, can social activities associated with Harbin be filmed; they might respond to the existing performative, embodied, leisure and identity focused material currently on TikTok.

The artist-researcher could be more catholic with her references – for instance, an account of gender, the city and movement is given in Bruno, G. (2007). Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso Books. Many accounts discuss the city-symphony films; Vertov, D. (1984). Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. is one starting point.

How does the submission expose practice as research?

There is evidence of how a city-portrait may be ported to the new platform of TikTok – generating questions of media context, platform and spectatorial engagement. As mentioned above – some innovation is present in the transposition of content onto a media platform not associated with this kind of content.

The work has some contextualisation in a very broad way (Gunning’s cinema of attractions); yet little evidence of any detail on the city symphony portrait films for instance. Nor is there evidence of contextualisation in more expansive accounts of the intersections of the city and subject identity for instance. In the accompanying text, there is some evidence of contextualisation of the spectatorial practices associated with the platform – yet little attention paid to its specifics except to note its prevalence and popularity.

From an artistic perspective, in my opinion, there could be evidence of a researcher’s perspective or focus evident and implicit in representations of place. Allied to this, more thorough interrogative work into the rationale for working this way would be salutary for this project to offer new knowledge, insight and experiences.


These peer reviews are very useful, and I am grateful to the reviewers for their feedback. My research project is in progress and so as a living document, it is liable to change. Therefore, the reviewers’ suggestions and queries raised shall be taken in good faith. I am hopeful to be guided by their input to shape up my research as I advance. Both peer reviews are helpful to me to think deeply about the details and strive to improve.


With regards to the questions from both reviewers, I shall attempt to give a combined response. This research project Ice city Harbin, as a city film, does not have a preconceived story. Rather, the city film follows the cover images displayed on TikTok just as a guide for the audience to view the City of Harbin. I intend to produce this city film around three different aspects including culture, history and city life. As reviewer 1 questioned, I should present this content in the film. In fact, they are in my plans and this will come to light in my productions. Also, TikTok in this research is a tool to conduct not only filming and editing but also to distribute and exhibit the content captured. Some of the videos are produced and posted immediately after filming on location as I seek to enhance immediacy.

This project is to take advantage of the flexibility of TikTok’s interface. Videos are stored as a form of data on TikTok, which generates a database. Manovich (1999, 86). Manovich (1999, 165} points out that “the database becomes the centre of the creative process in the computer age.” For this research project, I am trying to remediate the city film through a database form on TikTok. Lev Manovich introduced the concept of database to filmmaking, which became known as database cinema (Manovich 1999). He experimented through database cinema to produce what is now known as Soft Cinema (Manovich 2002). Database cinema is based on a programmed set of patterns that determine how viewers can interact with the film. This project is based on the algorithm of TikTok.

As TikTok updates the database approach as an algorithm, it helps to eventually define what content is being displayed. The algorithm of TikTok helps to classify the videos and track the actions of users. The videos that use similar backgrounds and hashtags are classified into a group in order to match the interests of users. Also, the algorithm tracks users’ actions like commenting, sharing, like and duration of watching to figure their interests. In TikTok, a combination of other features, like discover, comment, share, location tag and algorithm, boost the multiplicity of new forms of media practice.


Manovich, Lev. 1999. “Database as Symbolic Form.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 5(2): 80-99.

Manovich, Lev. 2002. Soft Cinema. Retrieved from

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