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Family Values and Tradition: Perspectives of Three Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers

November 10, 2009 | By

The works of the Fifth Generation filmmakers in China are perhaps the most important in post-revolutionary film culture.

Following the Cultural Revolution in China, values associated with family and tradition rarely got underscored in mainland Chinese cinema. It was too dangerous an area for filmmakers to tread. Yet the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema—the group of filmmakers that improved the image of Chinese cinema abroad during the 1980s and 1990—has succeeded in making a handful of films that obliquely look at family values and tradition with élan.

Family values and tradition: Perspectives of three contemporary Chinese filmmakers

Three films of three distinguished Fifth Generation filmmakers raise the lantern of tradition and family values in a rapidly evolving Chinese society, where respect for elders seem to diminish and urban values eclipse the richer traditions of rural China. The three Fifth Generation filmmakers that have touched upon these aspects are Zhang Yimou, Zhang Yang, and Gu Changwei. (These filmmakers are some times referred with their surnames first, and on other occasions, surnames last) All the three films that I choose to discuss have won international accolades at reputed film festivals and indirectly won world attention for Chinese cinema.

The works of the Fifth Generation filmmakers in China are perhaps the most important in post-revolutionary film culture. The autonomy in narrative direction and the emergence of subjectivity within these films mark the characteristic rendering of the socio-political configurations occurring within modern China.[i]

Most of these filmmakers were alumni of the Beijing Film Academy adopting unorthodox approaches to filmmaking[ii]. Yimou Zhang or Zhang Yimou (director of Red Sorghum) is no exception. His film Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not one less) (1999) is an unorthodox neo-realist Chinese film, ideal for family viewing, and ironically does not depict a regular family. However, nuances of the family and Chinese traditions pervade the film. The ‘regular teacher’ shown at the beginning of the film is a ‘father’ figure for the young ‘substitute teacher Wei.’ The film also suggests the Chinese and oriental respect for elders in the manner Wei respects absent ‘regular teacher’s’ wishes that there will not be one student less in the school when he returns. This is not a wish of a teacher counting numbers—but the wish underscores a real problem in China today stated in the end titles of the film that ‘a million people drop out of Primary school each year.’

Long after De Sica made Bicycle thief and Fellini his La Strada, neo-realist traditions strike a chord with me like no other in cinema history. The Chinese film Not one less, made half a century after the Italian masterpieces, underscores several aspects of neo-realist traditions—non-actors who can transform into great actors provided you have an intelligent script and a talented director, poverty which attracts anyone with a conscience, the candid camera as a marvelous tool (the director was a cinematographer), location shooting adding value to the tale and human values that can be appreciated irrespective of national boundaries. It truly deserved the Golden Lion it won at the Venice film festival.

A reluctant substitute teacher taking on a job that would fetch a doubtful ‘50 yuan’ from a village mayor with questionable priorities transforms into a national hero in less than a month as she strives hard to ensure the number of her students do not dwindle until the regular teacher returns. Her resolute actions transform the economic state of the school, make her students into socially responsible ‘young adults’ and teach a lesson to the wily mayor, and a gatekeeper in the city TV station who go by rules rather than by discretion.

Zhang Yimou’s films often throw up stubborn individuals and their incredible resilience to overcome the odds stacked against them. In Not one less the substitute teacher goes to extreme lengths to ensure her number of students do not diminish under her care until the eventual return of the regular teacher.

The brilliance of the film is that the film hooks the audience as a thriller would until the film ends. Yet there is no sex, no violence, no beautiful faces, no delightful music or engaging camera angles—only reactions caught by candid camera (at least most of the time). It has the feel of a semi-documentary that would be acceptable to the Chinese censors while the regular parents of the students are almost always physically absent.

To Zhang Yimou’s credit, the seemingly propagandist film throws up several thought provoking questions at the viewer. The most poignant comment is the young student’s comment ‘I loved the city but it made me beg for food.’ The director shows many homeless individuals with cell (mobile) phones sleeping in the proximity of a railway station. For a contemporary Chinese film made under tight censorship—the film’s director Zhang Yimou seems to offer layers of comment beyond the obvious story line. Did substitute teacher Wei do what she did for the sake of money or as a responsible teacher? Are you likely to forget propagandist songs but recall simple songs on family values? Is individual greatness (teacher Wei) appreciated more than group actions (school as a group, nation’s need for good athletes overriding permission of the parents of potential athletes)? Is the richness of rural lifestyles discounted by rising urban materialism? Does it require an individual’s actions to underline the demands of the rural poor? These are hidden questions for each viewer to answer.

Family values and tradition: Perspectives of three contemporary Chinese filmmakers

I have only seen one other film of director Zhang Yimou and that’s Red Sorghum. Not one less towers over Red Sorghum in every department of film-making, even when the former only relies on non-professional actors and has adapted the story from a novel by Shi Xiangsheng.

Communist China’s population (including its foremost filmmakers) seem to continue to relate to Confucian and Daoist (Taoism) principles in action—respect for elders (xiao), correct behavior following the rules (dao for Confucianist), living in harmony with nature (dao for Daoists).[iii]  Zhao Yimou’s film Not one less quite evidently conforms to the first two principles. The third principle could not have been better captured as it has been in Zhang Yang’s critically and commercially acclaimed film Getting home.

Zhang Yang’s Luo ye gui gen (Getting home) (2007) is a beguiling comedy that makes you reflect on human behavior. ‘A falling leaf returns to its roots’ is a Chinese proverb. This endearing film is based on this proverb. It is a modern day story of mainland China–an emerging economic power. Rural migrants are attracted to the cities like moths to a flame in search of prosperity. One such 50 year-old-migrant construction worker Zhao (a commendable performance by actor Zhao Benshan), is surprised to find during a drinking bout in a pub that his buddy is not dead drunk but dead as a doornail. As a good peasant would, Zhao vows to keep his promise made during the drinking session that if either buddy died, the other would carry/transport the dead body to the dead man’s village and bury his body there. As a promise is promise, Zhao uses all his wits and physical strength to transport the dead body to the village. The fallen leaf has to return to its roots.

What a yarn, you will say! But hold on. The Chinese director Yang Zhang and his scriptwriter Yao Wang built the film script around a real incident in 2006 when a Chinese peasant did carry a dead buddy to his village oblivious of all Chinese laws that prohibit such an action to ensure that the dead man did not transform into a ‘hungry ghost.’

Now director Zhang, scriptwriter Wang and a fascinating comic actor Zhao Benshan weave a Pilgrim’s Progress type road-movie story that constantly shifts from escapist top-gear to formidable realism overdrive as it un-spools an array of human behavior–some loathsome, some endearing, some moralizing, some quirky but all very real.

There are vignettes of Asian values. You encounter robbers who appreciate the value of friendship and return their loot to those who honor commitments of friendship. You are shown mothers living as anonymous rag-pickers and professional blood donors, so that their offspring can pursue a comfortable career in the city. Wealthy rural folk do not know who really loves and respects them, and therefore arrange mock funerals following their own faked death to glimpse the truth. There is the philosophical young man who would like to ride to ‘Tibet’ or the roof of the world. There is a family that lives far away from society because the wife/mother has been disfigured by an accident, and yet is a lovely person underneath the scars. How better could a filmmaker revert to the Daoist (Taoism) principle of living in harmony with nature? There is a truck driver who having lost his love is crestfallen, but needs someone else to set the compass of his life to regain his lost love.

There are other vignettes that show the unhealthy characteristics of economic progress. Construction companies employ migrants but cheat them by paying salaries in counterfeit notes. Highway restaurants overcharge their clients and use thugs to extort money if they don’t pay up. Seedy blood banks pay money for any type of blood donor because there is money to be earned in the business. Rich families in cars do not stop to give lifts to the poor and stranded on the roads. Once-robbed travelers do not show compassion to the individual who was responsible for the return of their stolen goods—they are concerned only with their possessions not human values. Women accuse men of staring at them without bothering to check if the accusation is real or imagined. The list goes on.

The movie underlines that there are two sorts of people. One lot cares for others, empathizes with their problems and helps them get out of their predicaments. The other lot lives for themselves and concentrates on their own material interests. The rural folk seem to fall into the first category, while the neo-rich fall into the other.

7-c (Peacock)

The ultimate destination of this Chinese ‘road movie’ is the controversial Three Gorges mega-dam. On route to the dam, the viewer can glimpse breathtaking landscapes of China. Is the director feeling sorry for the village of the dead man (and the associated values that go with rural, simple life) that has been covered with the waters of the dam? Only the director can answer, we can only ask the question.

The funny thing about the movie is that while the characters and milieu are Chinese, the essential elements are universal in any economy ‘progressing’ from rich traditional values to a more consumerist, urban rat race. It is no wonder that the film won the 2007 Berlin Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Best Asian film NETPAC award at the recent International Film Festival of Kerala. The movie makes you laugh, but tugs at your conscience. The ‘falling leaf’ in your soul, would like to return to ‘the root’ or traditional life styles when people bonded well and were not out to make a quick buck.

Zhang Yang’s interview[iv] at the Berlin Film Festival throws more light on the film and its depiction of tradition and family values. Says Zhang Yang,

The main character is a migrant worker, on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and the people he meets on the road are all working-class or sub-working-class types too. I wanted to use his journey as a way of showing relationships and attitudes in this ‘underclass’. I do want to show something of a social panorama, but the key thing is to show what’s in the characters’ hearts, good or bad.

Zhang Yang adds in the interview

The film’s Chinese title Luo Ye Gui Gen means literally ‘Falling Leaves Return to their Roots’. It’s a well-known saying, and it expresses the film’s theme very concisely. In the Three Gorges area on the Yangtze River, countless communities and individuals have been uprooted and resettled elsewhere — because their ancestral homes are about to disappear under man-made lakes. In other words, roots can be displaced, but then grow again somewhere else. There’s also a larger social implication. Modernization displaces tradition, just as a dam may displace people who have lived in the same place for countless generations. That’s one of the key stories of contemporary China in a nutshell

Very close in subject and treatment to the 2004 Iranian black comedy Khab e-talkh (Bitter Dreams), director Zhang (who is essentially a student of drama and a scriptwriter before turning to direction) and scriptwriter Yao Wang need to be complimented for painting a ‘celluloid’ canvas that entertains those who crave for feel-good escapism (amidst all the black humor). The viewer has to discount the fact that the body does not decay and the Zhao never tires carrying a dead man around. While the escapist element is in the foreground, the real strength of the film comes from the realistic vignettes that are not Chinese but universal in values and temperament.

Apart from Berlin Film festival, Zhang Yang, born in Beijing, China in 1967, has won awards at Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals. While many of the Fifth Generation filmmakers in China are alumni of the Beijing Film Academy, Zhang Yang studied at Zhongshan University, Guangdong, and the Central Theatrical Institute. Being the son of film director Zjang Huaxun, eventually Zhang drifted from drama to film scriptwriting and ultimately direction.

While Zhang Yimou’s film Not one less and Zhang Yang’s film Getting home, do not zoom in on the nuclear family in China, a third member of the Fifth Generation filmmakers in China accomplished that feat. Gu Changwei’s Chinese film Kong que (Peacock) (2005) is a gorgeous family epic, which makes the audience positively reflect on their lives. Kong que not only won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival, it did very well at the box office in China.

Gu Changwei (also credited as Changwei Gu), is an alumnus of the Beijing Film Academy (1982), who had worked on Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum and Robert Altman’s Gingerbread man as the cinematographer. His passion for cinema evolved while working as a ticket collector in a movie theater. He is a classmate of internationally acclaimed film directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

When accomplished cinematographers take to direction, they often make superb films (William Fraker’s Monte Walsh, Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, are examples) that are often widely accepted as great movies much later. In the case of cinematographer-turned-director Gu Changwei, to be awarded a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for his debut as a director must have been nothing short of a dream start into a new career.

Interestingly Chinese director Gu, opted to entrust the camera to Shu Yang and not do the job the world knew him to be accomplished at. Director Gu, however, opts to act as a lonely, blind accordion player who commits suicide.

The film has mesmerizing music by Peng Dou (courtesy Chinese National Symphony Orchestra), enchanting photography, incredible performances and a multi-layered story of a close-knit five member family with family values best appreciated in Asian communities. Though the film is set in the Cultural Revolution of the Seventies, the film is almost devoid of direct political comments.

The film is a common man’s epic. The film a 244 minute film (originally a 4-hour movie) is a tale of a five member family told in three segments by the three children: a daughter who causes trouble for the family but emerges from an ugly duckling into a mature and cynical swan; an elder son who is mentally challenged, physically bloated, but pure in heart; and a younger son, loving, sensitive and occasionally worldly wise. The three perspectives of the family are punctuated by a cardinal shot of the family eating a simple meal. Like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the three versions offering different perspectives of the family provide cinematic entertainment that is demanding of the viewer.

The first segment of the story from the view of the girl is richer than the other two, primarily due to the rich musical subplot of her interactions with the blind musician (played by the director himself). The segment offers fodder for the impressionable dreamer in all of us: the power and the glory associated with a parachutist soldier, the importance of getting married to a loving husband, and the importance of playing music very well as an escape route from the daily social drudgery (here, of washing bottles).

The second segment told from the perspective of the mentally challenged brother looks at society and predictable collective reactions to simple incidents that are not based on reason or analysis.

The third segment told from the practical younger brother’s view takes another perspective–the best way to survive in an evolving society that is neither one of a dreamer or one of submission to mass reaction.

The film ends with three families of the sister and two brothers passing a peacock in a zoo. The siblings state the peacock never dances in the winter. As they move on, the peacock does dance. The beauty of life is best perceived as you move away from the incidents and look at it from a distance, dispassionately. Melodrama takes a back seat. In the forefront, the director presents a philosophical, positive view of life–not in the least limited to the geographical boundaries of China. I rate this film as one of the finest films of the decade. As the Chinese box office has proved, the film recalled to the audiences the importance of family and tradition. It is a film rich in message and artistic quality, not just for the Chinese viewer but for any viewer anywhere, if the viewer is blessed to see this fascinating film and having seen it, reflect on what the film presented.


  1. Law. Jo. Women in Chinese cinema. University of Western Australia.
  1. Yvonne Ng (2002-11-19). “The Irresistible Rise of Asian Cinema-Tian Zhuangzhuang: A Director of the 21st Century”. Kinema.
  1. Burney, Susan. China through the arts—Modern Chinese cinema ”Zhang Yimou’s To Live
  1. Rayns, Tony. Interview with Zhang Yang (Translated by Peter Loehr) ( 9 Jan 2007) 

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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lives in Trivandrum, Kerala. He has been employed with UN organizations for over 20 years, specializing in resource mobilization for international non-profit agricultural research. Earlier, he was a film critic with the Hindustan Times Group in New Delhi from 1978 to 1985, and continues to write on good quality international cinema. Jugu’s blog on international cinema at is quite popular with readers in the Americas and Europe.
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