China Cinematography – The Latest Generations

According to, between the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, therefore, a generation of directors developed which allowed, in the space of a few years, the affirmation of Chinese cinema on an international level. Also thanks to figures such as Xie Jin – who was also perceived by the young people of the ‘Fifth generation’ as an expression of the old cinema, of the cinema of the fathers, that is to say to be overcome -, Sang Hu and Xie Tieli, masters of the new directors, the authors of ‘Fifth’ and ‘Sixth generation’ were able to make Chinese cinema better known in the West, also as a sign of the new contemporary waves. In 1979 a manifesto was drawn up on the modernization of cinematographic language by Zhang Nuanxin, a leading expression of the ‘new Chinese cinema’ and author of Qingchun ji (1985, The sacrifice of youth), courageously set in an era of cultural revolution. But, to confirm that even the new post-Maoist political course was not very indulgent with the ‘new cinema’, it is enough to think that a 1980 film, Ku lian (Unrequited Love) by Peng Nin, a broad narrative in time of the life of a painter, was harshly criticized. The one who is considered the godfather of the ‘Fifth Generation’, Wu Tianming, author of Meiyou hangbiao de heliu (1983, River without moorings), had to leave the country after 1988, only to return in 1995. Even the great films that have conquered the festivals and western markets in the last decades of the century, those of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, are not always of Chinese production but, so to speak, peripheral (Taiwan, Hong Kong). The splendid Da hong denglong gaogao gua (1991; Red Lanterns), which Zhang Yimou revealed to Western audiences, largely made with Japanese funding, has long been banned in China. Often appreciated more abroad than at home, as they are judged to be too hermetic, the films of these two authors – and other ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers, such as Liu Miaomiao, Xia Gang, Sun Zhou, and the directors Ning Ying and Li Shaohong – have also struggled to establish themselves in a market that has dramatically shrunk in recent years (from 29 million spectators in 1979 to 9 million at the end of the 20th century). The possibility of dealing with broader and more complex issues than in the past and the relative easing of censorship (which is still operating) have not compensated, in the eyes of the Chinese public, the cost of the ticket (in Mao Zedong’s time the army and labor units thought of distributing copies to soldiers and workers often for free; and the competition from television, vigorously attacked by director Zhou Xiaowen in his Ermo, 1994, has further aggravated the situation). The same popularity achieved in Europe and America by authors such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and actress Gong Li – repeatedly awarded in various international festivals – has proved not entirely productive for the activity of the interested parties, in a climate still dominated by suspicion and probable jealousies. Hence the need for filmmakers to resort to foreign funding, and for Western spectators to treasure festivals and reviews to be able to admire works that are otherwise not very popular abroad and sometimes not even in their country of origin. For the most part, the cinema of the new generations appeared to be linked to the Chinese artistic model of the 1930s. Precisely because they are rooted in a narrative and figurative culture of great richness, wisdom and elegance, the films of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou constitute some of the most refined and admirable exceptions compared to a today’s era of more general exhaustion and fatigue of film language. Just think of the great tradition of Chinese melodrama and theater, so effectively revived and reworked in Bawang bie ji and Da hong denglong gaogao gua, but also in the other films by Zhang Yimou, from the stylized violence of Hong gaoliang (1987; Red sorghum), in the tones of comedy and apparent ‘peasant realism’ by Qiu Ju da guansi (1992; The story of Qiu Ju) or in Yao a yao, yao dao waipo qiao (1995; The Shanghai triad). Among the most significant works of contemporary production, alongside which we must mention at least Yaogun qingnian (1988, The young rock) and Lan fengzheng (1993, L’aquilone blu), a broad narrative of Chinese history after 1957, both directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang; Haizi wang (1987, The King of Children) by Chen Kaige; Hei shan lu (1990, The passage of Mount Hei) by Zhou Xiaowen, who for having dealt more explicitly with the sexual sphere has run into the mesh of censorship and has been banned for years; the moving speech on the role of women in Chinese society readable in the films of director Xie Fei (Xiang nü Xiaoxiao, 1986, A Girl Named Xiaoxiao, co-directed with Wu Lan, and Xiang hun nu, 1992, The Family of Oil Makers) and the original and courageous attempts of Li Shaohong, a graduate of the Experimental Center of Cinematography in Rome. The latter, which had considerable difficulties with the censorship of her country, is responsible for an interesting re-reading of Crónica de una muerte anunciada (the novel by G. García Márquez, already brought to the screen in 1987 by Francesco Rosi), set in China and not without allusive references to the massacre of Tian’anmen Square (June 1989), entitled Xuese qingchen (1990, Dawn of blood), and the excellent Hongfen (1994, Cipria), on the closure of pleasure houses in 1949 and the re-education of prostitutes in special labor camps. A prominent figure is Huang Jianxin, who trained in Sidney and author of an ‘urban trilogy’ – in co-production with Hong Kong – composed by Zhanzhi le, bie paxia (1992, Stay straight, don’t bend), Bei kao bei, lian dui lian (1994, Back to back, face to face) and Da zuo deng, xiang you zhuan (1996, Left arrow, turn right).

In 1990 the ‘Sixth Generation’ was formed, made up of Zhang Yuan, Guan Hu, Wu Di and Wang Xiaoshuai among others, and since 1991 film courses have been opened in various universities. The last years of the twentieth century have once again seen the historical context and artistic research intertwine, touching in particular the directors of the ‘Fifth Generation’ with the dramatic events of Tian’anmen Square. Between the recovery of tradition and attempts at innovation, the works of recent years reveal some difficulties even in the most mature authors, but Chinese cinema has still been able to offer significant works, sometimes again appreciated and awarded on the international stage: Xiao Wu (1998, Il piccolo Wu) by Jia Zhangke, Guonian hui jia (1999; Seventeen years old) by Zhang Yuan, Grand Jury Prize in Venice in 1999.

China Cinematography - The Latest Generations