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Films in Transition, Generations in Flux: China on the Move

April 1, 2012 | By

Chinese films have a long history. The trajectory of Chinese films can be best understood with its intimacy with the political happenings of that region.


Three kinds of films are considered as Chinese films by the outside world.

A) Those made by filmmakers based in Mainland China
B) Films made in Hong Kong and Taiwan
C) Films made in Chinese language.

Chinese films thereby have a long history. The trajectory of Chinese films can be best understood with its intimacy with the political happenings of that region. Filmmakers of China are usually categorized as “generations”. Initially, there is a kind of prevailing homogeneity to be categorised as a generation of filmmakers though each of the generation varied substantially from the others.

There are also three kinds of film industries in China: Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. I would be concentrating exclusively on Mainland China, the changes it faced over the years alongside maintaining the timeline.

Pre 1949

This era was marked by the privately owned studios. Filmmakers had a strong orientation towards left politics. The first and second generation of filmmakers like Cheng Bugao (Spring Silk Worm) Wu Yon Gang (The Goddess) depicted the lives of common men.

This post 1930 era is also marked by the rise of “Star System” in China. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. The Japanese invasion closed the most important studio system. The leftist filmmaker’s opposed the invasion. Films made at this period of time are mainly based on the tortured and revolutionary life of the civil war. Films acted as dissidents of imperialism and feudalism. Besides these comedies, crime stories, wuxia films dominated the entertainment scenario of urban Shanghai.

In 1949, People’s Republic of China was born. Communists had won and Chang Kai Shek’s nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan.

Post 1949

Chairman Mao’s cultural supervisor Yuan Mazhi and his third wife Jiang Qing supervised the film scenario between 1949-1966. Though film industry boomed quantitatively. Films are mainly used as communist propaganda, heavily loaded political melodramas. Studios were nationalized by 1950’s. Beijing Film Academy was flourished in 1956. Hollywood films were banned. In this period, politics took centre stage and all the film students of Beijing Film Academy were too sent for social service.

As a result, nothing significant happened during this period. Whatever was achieved before 1949 was completely thwarted by the extreme stance taken by state ideological apparatus.

Arrival of the Fifth Generation

chinese cinema 2After Mao’s death in 1976 and the arrest of “Gang of Four”, filmmakers whose career was stalled due to the infamous Cultural Revolution, came back with new vigour. With the arrival of the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers whose creation is a total departure from their seniors. After the fall of “Gang of Four”, the not-so-young breed of filmmakers, mainly alumni of Beijing Film Academy started making films and created history of their own since then. China was placed globally by these filmmakers known as the famous Fifth Generation.

In 1985, Chen Kaige’s path breaking feature Yellow Earth won rave reviews from Edinburgh, Locarno, and Hong Kong Film Festivals. It could be said that Chen Kaige advented the era of Fifth Generation. He, along with his cinematographer, who later turned into one of the acclaimed filmmaker, created a world where the objectivity of communism was questioned and undermined. There was a total sense of identity crisis since the cultural revolution and film becomes a tool for searching their roots.

After Yellow Earth, Chen Kaige kept on luring the West through his most famous work till date Farewell my Concubine, which was nominated for two Academy Awards and won the coveted Palme d’or.  Interestingly, Chen joined the Red Guards, during the Cultural Revolution and denounced his father, Chen Huai’ai’ a well known director-creator of subversive art, who fell victim to the wholesale cleaning by Madame Mao.

Along with Chen Kaige, most of the filmmakers belonging to the Fifth Generation tried to reinstate of what went wrong during the Cultural Revolution in their films. In the name of revolution what went on was sheer massacre; even the most patriotic of music was banned. It was crime.

Kaige’s next film Together is about modern China, about the society in transition. All of these filmmakers have been a part of history which they want to forget. Chen Kaige, in one of his interviews commented, ‘Political regimes systematically robbed us of history and it’s only now we are beginning to get it back. My wife who is 20 years younger than me has no comprehensions of much of the repression about what went on for decades.” Once the western applause is on, the disapproval attached to these filmmakers back home sounds distant. From the overarching generalisations Chinese filmmakers since late 80’s have evolved and turned into creating a national culture and thereby faced tremendous atrocities from the state authority. The Fifth Generation are the people who mastered enough courage to express the inexpressible.

Zhang Zimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) won the Golden Bear. Ju Dou (1990) won the Louis Bunuel special award in 1990 Cannes Film festival. In 1991, Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern earned him the Silver Lion in Venice Film Festival and the story of Qiu Ju finally brought him the Golden Lion.

Zhang Yimou along with Chen Kaige and Tian ZhuangZhunang or more famously put the “batch of 1982” felt the dearth of directors at the end of Cultural Revolution and drifted away rather consciously from the propagandist films of the Cultural Revolution. They defied the conventions of Chinese cinema, but went on to search the roots of the aboriginal chinese national culture. They often fell victim of the west’s orientalism. His Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern brings forth the torturing submissiveness of women of feudal China. As a result, his depiction of ethnicity appealed more to the western audience.

This reinvented ethnicity was actually a manoeuvre to lure western interests. Rather, these films ushered a meaning for the reconstruction of new china which is market driven and capital friendly. Raise the Red Lantern which was based on novelist Su Tong’s book Wives and Concubines, faced difficulties due to the fear of the authority that the sorry could be taken as an allegory against Chinese communist authoritarianism.

The trilogy Red Sorghum-Ju Dou- Raise the Red Lantern female characters are depicted as an emblem of sexual prowess. Gong li, who portrayed most of the characters, is not only deliberately fetisized but also become an active participant in choosing her destiny in the form of her male counterparts which was quite unthinkable in the past years. The old men in the lives of the heroines in the trilogy are often considered as the decaying soul of authoritarianism china, especially after the Tienanmen Square incident on 4th June, 1989.

The Blue Kite (1992) by Tian ZhuangZhuang is the story of the resentment of young people subjected to the Cultural Revolution. This film also faced censorship problems. A Report from the New York Film Festival in 1993 titled “In China – Personal is Political” says ‘the film is unrelenting in its indictment of the communist regime, saying, in effect, that, whatever the benefits, the toll taken on individual freedom was too high”.

The Blue Kite was a co-production with Hong Kong backing but the film is not approved for release upon completion. The film was eventually banned in China but received warm acceptance in various festivals rather the euro-Americans celebrated the banning episode.

Banned films becomes as a promotional strategy by the overseas distributors. Tian had to face severe complications at home and his film career was terminated. The particular scene of his film when one the old loyal comrades went out of the meeting to meet the nature’s call and coming back found himself to be a traitor does send cold shivering inside the spine.

Is there any Sixth Generation?

From 1990’s onwards the kind of socio-eco transformations convulsed China was unprecedented. Inspite of heavy subsidies provided to films glorifying the age old communist regime, the changes rushed in were very diverse that the category called fifth generation lost its relevance.

The Sixth Generation people are the products of new century. They throw away the fashionable cinematic veneer and face reality. They are heavily westernised and crude. The films of the illustrious Sixth Generation highlight the uncertainty prevalent in the post modern china and the restlessness of the young people who are left high and dry by the sudden and shocking social changes, happening around them.

The most important films made in this era are mostly under state surveillance as they are real “underground” films, both figuratively and literally. New vigour is infused into old genres and the directors are more daring, dealing with history, with the nation, its leaders, its factions and prejudices. Even they are wildly reactive to the influx of market economy and the ill effects of it. They mostly use amateur actors, hand held camera, silent long takes- a style closer to the documentary aesthetics of the 1980’s or more akin to Italian neorealism rather than the extravagant productions of the fifth generation. They try to depict the present day ideological and existential anxieties. They don’t use steadicam which is a conscious effort as they don’t want the audience feel like a detached stranger. The steadicam makes everything feel stable and as a result, the audience are not involved enough to feel the jerk of the complicated life of the present generation. They don’t even use much light. Most of the shots are taken outside of the closed rooms, they prefer shooting in the real locations, taking incidents from everyday lives. They believe in a kind of filmmaking which caters to both local and global audience.

Zhang Yuan’s Mama (1990), according to the Chinese film scholar Berenice Reynaud is the “first independent production since 1949”.  His second film Beijing Bastards is based on the underground artists of the PRC. This film got distributed internationally and the government was irritated and prohibited Yuan to make further films in China. Yuan loves to call his films documentary-feature; he is dedicated to enlighten the world about the real marginal of the society. The gays, the footpath dwellers, the mother-son relation cannot be explained under the wide umbrella of communism, there are things which are subjective in nature.

For example, Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace (1997) is the most celebrated Chinese film on gay relationship. The title is a slang used for public toilets at the edge of Tiananmen Square, famous for gay mating. The film obviously triggered off enough controversy and Yuan’s passport was confiscated and he was detained from participating at the 50th Cannes Film Festival that year where his film was in competition of Un Certain Regard. The film is about the chance encounter of a gay poet and a straight police man who hunts him down and a night long conversation begins. The poet tells him his story in flashbacks often making the police man wonders about his own sexual preferences. His constant success established his status as an auteur. Since then the west has got a special place for the banned films and its filmmakers. Though eventually Yuan compromised with the authority, he was treated as a teacher and his films seem to have lost the cutting edge.

chinese cinema 3Wang Xiaoshuai in his Beijing Bicycle (2001) narrates the realities of Beijing youth centering on a bicycle which obviously brings forth the memory of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief. Jian, a school going boy, hailing from a lower class background, is expected to get a bicycle from his working class father. His father can’t make his ends meet. Another poor boy Guo-Lian-Guei, from the countryside, comes to the city in search of a job. He starts working in an express delivery service centre. His only means of communication is his bicycle provided by his office. He accidentally loses his cycle and his job. On the other hand, Jian stole few yuans from his father, goes to a second hand cycle market and buys Guo’s cycle.

Thus begins the never ending story of the boys, their complications, achievements, conflicts and love. No class struggle anymore, but the sheer struggle for survival reigns supreme. The cycle chase following the dark alleys of the poor man’s shanties show that nothing is very well in Beijing. Chinese Government doesn’t like to face realities, therefore it becomes invariably the solemn duty of these young comrade-directors to keep the authoritarian government in check and be faithful to the happenings of modern Day China. Some of them attributed the dismal condition of their nation to China’s entry to the modern capitalist market.

Interestingly, these new generation independent filmmakers have mixed feelings towards piracy. Some of them know without pirated DVD’s it would never be possible for their film to reach every nook and corner of the globe.

Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (1995) is a chilling account of two murderous con-men in the unregulated and notoriously dangerous mining industry of Northern China. Yang started off as a documentary film maker and a professional actor before venturing into film making. This is his first film and much talked about film in recent day’s China. China’s mining industry is the most corrupted one. Lots of workers get killed every other day. The two main protagonists kill people and extract money from the mine owners, knowingly that they can be any day get killed by the mine owners, too. It’s a dog eat dog out there and no one can escape that.

The Director besides showing the dark side of not so socialist China does sympathise with the boys as it is quite natural for them to do what thy have been doing in a harsh situation they are put into. Li is a German citizen now, who has to literally bribe the bureaucracy to use some of the privately owned coal mines for shooting. He did a thorough research on mine workers, their lives, atrociticites they face. The scene where the tough woman who lives in the mining camp does not think twice before barging into the men’s toilet, is once again the unbelievable reality. Water is very expensive there. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. There is no social security existing, not even in case of education. The turn from socialism to unbridled capitalism has been too heavy for China’s citizens. Many of the Chinese family could not even send their children to the school because the fee is too high. Li find himself standing someway in the middle of Fifth Generation’s orientation with the bygone era and the Sixth Generation’s dealings with contemporary China. He is an outsider in China whose film is not even regarded as a Chinese film in the Mainland China. In an interview with Stephen Tao, li Yang declares his nonacceptance of the existence of any “Sixth Generation” because for being any generation, the goal should be systematic and uniform for all its participants.

One of the interesting films of this period is by a young Chinese filmmaker who had to travel to Rotterdam under a pseudonym, Woo Ming, which literally means “no name”. The film in question is called Jidu Hanleng (Frozen) and is about an artiste who is drawn to suicide. The mock funeral ceremony when he freezes himself to death among blocks of ice while the onlookers hold a silent vigil is a very powerful scene. The story is based on the member of a group of nihilist artists from Beijing but need less to say evokes multiple layers of interpretation of Chinese society as it is of today. Most of these films are banned in Mainland China. They are thus supported by International Festivals like Berlin which has this orientation towards anything “unconventional”.

Pusan promotes these kinds of films with their Pusan Promotional Fund. Rotterdam, the festival of Young Cinema, with their Hubert Bals Fund, satisfied some of them also walked away with the coveted Tiger Awards. The Dutch Governments Fortissimo films distribution helped these independent filmmakers find their way through the global market. These filmmakers maintain a kind of detachment from their society, they seldom criticize or condemn it and unlike the fifth they are not ready to be considered as a generation anymore. These people are quite individualistic in their approach. They don’t claim to represent a whole new generation. They very casually mingle with the ongoing globalization phenomenon, extract benefit out of it and become a transnational product. Sometimes, they are sponsored by more than one country. In 2004; Jia Zhangke’ made The World which is based on an amusement park and the hollowness of globalized entertainment industry.

Women Directors of the Generations

chinese cinema 4Another burning issue would be the women film directors of China belonging to these two generations of filmmaking. They have succeeded to carve a niche of their own. They have observed the changes engulfing their society in a completely different manner and reacted accordingly. The equality offered by the socialist regime was a sham and many young women tried to assert themselves as filmmakers not from the above ground.

Emily Tong directed her first feature film Conjugation (2001) which was awarded at the 2001 Locarno International Film Festival. This film boldly addresses the June 4th Tienanmen Square democracy movement. It zooms in the aftermath of the incident and the emotional reaction of the student participants. Perfect Life is her second venture and more personal. The film revolves round the lives of two women Li Yueying who lives on a make believe world. “Her fantasy life bleeds into her real life in a way that simultaneously undermines, decentres and perversely liberates her”.  Along with run another story of Jenny who resides in Hong Kong, goes through messy divorce. Both the women are situated at different locales are related through some common undercurrents of life. While Yueying’s story is fiction, Jenny’s part was done in documentary style. Shot in lower definition camera with natural lighting and actual locations this can always be the story of same women placed into two different modes of life.

In a word, these young brigades of filmmakers have raised curiosity of the world as a whole. Most of the global audience perceive the socio-eco realities of china after the great fall of ideology. The Sixth Generation filmmakers are deviants of their system. They tried to “break away” from the “velvet prison” of the socialist state.

Meanwhile, with little relaxation on part of the Film Bureau the underground filmmaking is moving above the ground. For example, Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams is made under Shanghai Film Studio, (which considerably enjoy an independent place in Mainland China) and went on winning the Prix Du Jury at Cannes. The Sixth Generation and the state government, both are trying to strike a chord for mutual benefit. The directors probably like to contribute to the national cinema and with after Den Xiaoping’s open door policy, it would be insane on the part of the government to ignore foreign market. The utmost beneficiary would be the film buffs in home and abroad, who would be offered to enjoy the real aesthetics of cinema in place of cheap melodramas and soap operas.

1. Being and Becoming: Edited By Aruna Vasudev, Latika Pandgaokar,  Rashmi Doraiswamy
2. Cinemaya: Spring 2003: Berenice Reynaud
3. Cinemaya: Spring 1999: Berenice Reynaud
4. Cinemaya: Summer 1996: Chris Berry
5. Lecture of Peggy Chao delivered during Osian’s Cinefan ,2006
6. Interview of the famous Fourth Genaration Filmmaker and Being Film Academy Professor Xie Fei taken for FilmBuff.

Creative Writing

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Rwita Dutta, an Assistant Professor of Politics, is involved in films in various capacities. She runs and edits the international film journal Film Buff and has acted as a jury in different film festivals at home and abroad. A member of Fipresci, she regularly contributes in journals,websites dealing with serious cinema. Also a filmmaker, she has made documentaries and short films. Currently writing her Phd dissertation on Kolkata city andBengali Cinema(1947-77) and planning to make a long feature film.
All Posts of Rwita Dutta

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