Chinese Cinema: "The Fifth Generation"

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A magnolia in a strip of filmThe "Fifth Generation" were, in 1982, the first film makers to graduate from the Beijing film school after it's re-opening at the end of the cultural revolution 1. This arbitrary grouping by age should perhaps suggest that there be no overwhelming artistic similarities other than those that arise from a common education, and sure enough there are many differences between their films.

Director Zhang Junzhao says, "No generation of directors are all the same. Everyone has a different understanding and different feelings about life and art - every person has his own begging bowl! As for extremes, I do feel that formal experimentation is completely necessary. From quantitative change to qualitative change, one has to go through a process."2

There are however two broad areas in which these directors are similar. Firstly in the sheer diversity of their pictures - it may seem somewhat perverse to call this a similarity, but when one considers how bound to formality Chinese Cinema has been in the past the new experimentalism is, in a way, a trend. Despite an early manifesto by the New Wave group within the Fifth Generation to "Break with cultural / socialist realism" and use only "unspoiled actors" rather than stars, this line was not followed for long or by many. Secondly, there seems to be an adoption of various traditional artistic Taoist methods in their films, a current which is of long standing in Chinese film, but these film makers have developed it in many ways and have radicalised it for there own ends. This has lead to the gradual development of a new visual style, which alongside new narrative conventions, developed alongside their Fourth Generation contemporaries, give many of the film makers a distinctive hallmark.

Assessing the Fifth Generation's work as a body is difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly many of the groups first features are spread over a number of years, owing to lengthy production periods, political stalling and lack of resources meaning directors had to wait their turn! By the time the later artists in this group graduated or came to begin making films the polemic of the New Wave was already old hat, the earlier films being something to be broken away from, developed and experimented with, for commercial, political and artistic reasons.

Also during this period in which they began making their films, many of the soviet trained forth generation film makers were making their first pictures, having been denied the chance during the Cultural Revolution, and those who had previously made pictures were expressing their Cultural Revolution experiences for the first time. The Fifth generation emerging amidst these changes also had a desire to record elements of their Cultural Revolution experiences in some way on film. Many had left school to join the army (Tian Zhuangzhuang, Li Shouhong, Hu Mei) or work with the peasants (Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou), and their experiences had left them critical in a way that set them at odds with Mao's "On Contradictions". Inevitably this was to lead to censorship, bans and in some cases exile. These two separate "generations" were accidental contemporaries, inevitably the simultaneous evolutions of these two groups meant they both influenced and collaborated with one another.

Thirdly the emergence so soon from the Fifth Generation of the so called "Sixth Generation" in the early nineties gives yet another influence, making the Fifth seem all the more confusing and fragmentary.

The Fifth Generation, Changes in China, and changes in cinema.

As the Chinese film industry began to revive after the Cultural Revolution, the directors of the Fourth Generation began to make films that were often very different from those they made during or before it. Fourth Generation Xie Jin is a case in point, Two Stage Sisters (praised by Fifth Generation directors) is a carefully observed and complex analysis of the socialist emancipation of women and the obstacles they face. The traditional world of the theatre, and the dangers of commercial success are seen to threaten their freedom and friendship. Whereas in Hibiscus Town he observes the socio-political problems of the Cultural Revolution but clumsily dichotomises between good and evil to apportioning blame. Here, Xie is typical of his peer group, on one hand facing social problems and making severe criticisms, but at the same time using the kind of moral shorthand that Mao insisted upon3 and Jiang Qing encouraged, both on stage and screen, in the revolutionary opera.

As the Fouth Generation began to introduce new themes and story lines into Chinese pictures they remained largely within the boundaries of socialist realism. Their stories remained in contemporary village settings, but their characters, often women, were increasingly troubled, fighting apparently insurmountable social pressures. Such a suggestion, that China was not a socialist idyll, would have been unthinkable a few years before.

In the light of the first few Fifth Generation pictures this sentimental Cultural Revolution shorthand was attacked by critics and Fifth Generation directors alike. Xie Jin was accused of "cinematic Confucianism" by Zhu Dake accusing him of "blatant emotional manipulation to put across dated moral points.". After the resulting debate narratives became much more symbolic, the characters' problems metaphors for the whole of China, and though these struggles would invariably be resolved, the pedagogy gave way to a certain ambiguity.

The Fifth Generation and Chinese Philosophy

In terms of Chinese philosophy, the younger directors seemed to be taking a Taoist stand against both the black and white moral boundaries of Confucianism and the Legalist theory of centralisation adopted by the Communist Party in their Stalinist periods. The 'first' Fifth Generation film One and Eight featured an accused Communist officer and various criminals who prove themselves to be patriots and morally worthy, it also championed regional and individual autonomy. Secret Decree also features a traitor - a KMT officer, who is morally strong in refusing to suppress an embarrassing political document. The difficult portrayal of the Eighth Route Army's relationship with the peasantry in Yellow Earth, highlights the gap between ideology and practice (Mao's revolution was after all originally a revolution of the peasantry, not the proletariat as Marx outlined.) In the narratives of these three films then, we can see the concept the concept of Yin Yang in it's Taoist form - the balance of nature providing a little good amidst the bad and a little bad within the good. The state however followed very strict moral guidelines (in line with the Confucian model of discrete and opposing Yin Yang forces) and this moral ambiguity, coupled with their criticism of elements of Communist Party history, lead the young film makers into dangerous ground. Their films began to be censored and suppressed, but they were also critically praised and popularly received (when allowed to be seen)4.

The 5G were not universally disparaging about the state however, and they championed Mao's communist successes against tradition as much as they criticised their Menciusist and centralist leanings. Principally this agreement falls in the area of sexism/feminism. The CP sought to emancipate women from their traditional roles and destroy the ethic of 'noble male and base female' that the Confucians had derived with their logical approach to Yin Yang. The Confucians suggest "The Yang and strong becomes the male, the yin and smooth becomes the female...the yang is benign, the yin is malign, the yang means birth and the yin means death"5. The Taoists whose beliefs originate in a much earlier matriarchal society feel "Yin is the supreme feminine power, characterised by darkness cold and passivity and yang, it's masculine counterpart, is representative of brightness, warmth and activity...and in man their equilibrium governs moral and physical health."6, the Taoists venerated feminine and maternal characteristics, extolling receptivity, humility and apparently negative qualities such as weakness, emptiness and passivity (wu wei) as virtues. The representation of gender in this way was also central to the 5G. They showed women struggling against traditional Confucian roles (September, Red Sorghum), and women successfully taking male roles (Army Nurse, In the Wild Mountains) alongside the liberation of women by socialism (Yellow Earth) and the need for men to accept the feminine sides of themselves (King of the Children).

Both these metaphysical shifts brought them into line with the libertarian politics of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, Li Shih-tseng, Wu Chih-hui and Chang Ching-chiang and also with the early filmmakers of the Chinese left, Cheng Bugao, Sun Yu, Yuan Muzhi or Zheng Junli.

The Fifth Generation and the Chinese Arts

These directors of the thirties and forties began an important feature of Chinese film, what Christian Metz refers to as "The bracket syntagm" and which he named Chinese montages. These sequences are formed of static camera images of different subjects abruptly cut together, a form which echoes the lyric technique of Taoist poetry. This juxtaposition of often human and natural scenes represents both mans position in the world and the complex interconnectedness of all things, hence a need for balance between the human and natural worlds. As one of the few stylistic features of Chinese film which did not die out with the Cultural Revolution the lyrical montage is not a uniquely Fifth Generation trait, but their incorporation of it into a wider visual language is.

Further to this literary styling the fifth generation have adopted cinematographic styles which use or echo the techniques of composition in Taoist art. This visual approach comes perhaps not from traditional Chinese cinema but through still photography. One of the first films to be made by Fifth Generation graduates was the children's film Red Elephant which was co-directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang and co-photographed by Zhang Yimou. Both became prime movers in the Fifth Generation and both were professional art photographers before coming to film. Their working together on their first features perhaps allowed the precipitation of ideas from their previous discipline which they carried into their later work. Features of Fifth Generation films such as compositional balance in accordance with ideological balance (for example the framing of men, earth and sky at various points of One and Eight or The Big Parade); the distortion of perspective according to Taoist models; the symbolic use of colour (in say, Yellow Earth or Ju Dou) and blank space; and the overall allowing of the image to speak for itself (allowing the minimal dialogue and image based narrative development in Yellow Earth or alternatively the replacement of narrative by autonomous image sequences in On the Hunting Ground); all of these features could have entered 5G films from traditional pictorial arts through still photography7.

The very earliest Fifth Generation films seemed to deliver this package complete, unifying image and ideology. The newly ambiguous images told newly ambiguous stories, the Neo-taoist ideologies shown using methods adapted from traditional Taoist art.

These early films of the New Wave group which have been largely dealt with so far, took their visual styling to an expressionist extreme, (eg. The Big Parade). But as the early impetus of the new wave died down and the directors began to experiment further greater and greater emphasis was placed on realistic naturalism. Acting styles became more fluid and less theatrical as the storylines and pace of the films themselves became less melodramatic. In some early films the realism was highlighted against melodramatic set pieces. In The Last Days of Winter the setting of the film in a Chinese gulag demanded a certain amount of stylisation if the film was to escape the censors and be seen at all. So the inmates crimes are presented in flashback, with all of the theatrical melodramatic excess they can muster, while the present is shown with stark realism, intimate and striking. A sequence in which a female inmate breaks down after receiving a gift from her brother of hundreds of sanitary napkins is worthy of Ken Loach or Terrence Davis in its touching blend of the sublime and the ridiculous. Some directors (notably Zhang Yimou) have maintained these theatrical elements to counterpoint their more realistic characters. Other films such as Tian Zhuangzhuang's On the Hunting Ground and Horse Thief are almost documentary in the naturalistic approach.

As in other Asian cinemas, Chinese films had long relied on theatrical conventions and traditions to put its message across to its audience. Asha Kasbekar says of Hindi cinema "Traditional forms of entertainment placed great emphasis on spectacle and used elaborate masks, ornate costumes and decorative head dresses. Indian cinema having incorporated their aesthetic conventions, places similar importance on spectacular visual display"8. The Chinese theatre was similarly stylized (as can be seen in Farewell My Concubine) and with the adoption of realistic acting and sets directors and cinematographers used other elements theatrical elements within their mise en scene, such as symbolic use of colour (and darkness) and complex semiological signifiers to communicate meaning. In both Last Days of Winter and Farewell My Concubine the filmmakers use theatrical colour to highlight the unreal, the complex and the past (all Yang properties) and darkness to show the moment, the simple and the emotional (all Yin properties).

The Fifth Generation; Art and Language

One of the difficulties facing a Chinese director wishing to make definite statements with his film, is the inability to rely heavily upon dialogue. As Kasbekar says (again of Indian cinema) "the arrival of sound was a serious problem...India with its linguistic diversity, would need...films in different regional languages which would mean fragmentation into smaller regional less lucrative [markets]" The Chinese avoid this with speech being dubbed on in postproduction, in a variety of translated regional dialects and languages. But the director faces problems imposing authorial control and continuity over dialogue. The visual image then must carry the meaning of the film in order to ensure that it remains the same film in all of its languages. The beauty of cinema as a visual language is that it should be universal, and silent cinema, was often just that, but since the advent of sound, more and more emphasis has been placed on dialogue and representational realism, to the extent that much of the communication technique established by early film makers has been lost.

Mandarin writing on a scrollIn many ways the Chinese peoples have a very different and much closer relationship to visual symbolism and sign systems than structuralist film theory or Jungian psychology might suggest for western audiences. This arises not out of any inherent difference in race, but rather from constant exposure to, use of and familiarity with Chinese calligraphy. The writing of China is very old and was originally true picture writing, now reduced to symbols it still retains the grammar of pictorial representation. Freud and Jung both suggested that linguistic modes would be subconsciously absorbed into artistic representations, a somewhat crude example might be a character in the British film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid9 in which a man is driven to suicide by the apparition of a man he killed, and in which the apparition literally drives him (in a cab) to the place of his hanging. Such adoptions of phrase for image are even simpler in Chinese Cinema where the written form is also a visual form. So we find examples of the Chinese pictogram being represented in film. For example in the film Red Sorghum the Grandmother character is pictured framed within the doorway of her house, these moments reflect the points within the story where there is balance and harmony - when she is first free of her enforced marriage, and when she is accepted and supported by her workers. This image of her looking out from her home makes sense as a symbol in these circumstances, but it makes even more sense when one realises that the Chinese character for 'woman', when capped by the character for 'home', literally 'a woman in her home' is itself the character representing 'peace'. Similarly the symbol for 'guilt' is made by taking the character 'man' and enclosing it with a box - literally 'a man who can't escape'. Twice in the film, when the Grandfather character does something which he may feel guilty about later - when he and Grandmother first have sex in the Sorghum field, and they are framed encircled in the flattened crop, and again when he disgraces himself when drunk and his companions dump him in a vat - where he is once again seen surrounded.

These various visual methods provide the filmmakers with a both the semantics and the syntax with which to make complex but clear points, above and beyond plot, story or dialogue.

The Fifth Generation: A movement?

The fifth generation then are a very diverse group. Their films are in many ways very different, but at the same time are in some important ways similar. These similarities, both in visual technicality and philosophical approach, form such a complete method and so distinct from both traditional Chinese and other national cinema's, that it seems only right to suggest that they are indeed a movement. The grouping of one set of graduates, does mean the exclusion of other directors who have influenced and worked within the group (Wu Tienming), as well as including those who perhaps are moving in different directions (Zhang Yuan). In the in the end 'The Fifth Generation' is just a label, a piece of referential shorthand, and what is important is not who is or is not a member of such a group but the exiting and innovative body of work that defines its ideas.


  • One and Eight (1983) (D) Zhang Junzhao; (C) Zhang Yimou; Yellow Earth (1984) (D, W) Chen Kaige; (C) Zhang Yimou;On the Hunting Ground (1984), (D) Tian Zhuangzhuang; The Big Parade (1986) (D) Chen Kaige; (C) ZhangYimou; On the Hunting Ground (1984), (D) Tian Zhuangzhuang; The Horse Thief (1986), (D) Tian Zhuangzhuang; Red Sorghum (1987) (D, A) Zhang Yimou; Starring Gong Li;King of the Children (1987), (D) Chen Kaige;Ju Dou (1990) (D) Zhang Yimou; Starring Gong Li;Raise the Red Lantern (1991) (D) ZhangYimou; Starring Gong Li; The Blue Kite (1993), (D) Tian Zhuangzhuang; Farewell My Concubine (1993) (D) Chen Kaige; Starring Gong Li, Leslie Chung;Shanghai Triad (1995) (D) Zhang Yimou; Starring Gong Li;Temptress Moon (1996) (D) Chen Kaige;Not One Less (1999) (D) Zhang Yimou
1The school, which takes in pupils in blocks rather than yearly entrants, has produced five sets of graduates since its inception hence the title Fifth Generation. Critics of Chinese film also divide the industry into periods: 1905-32, 1932-49,1950-1960 and 1960-80, also making the directors of the nineteen eighties a Fifth Generation. The title is doubly apt, but also doubly confusing.2Interview with Gao Jun in China Film News #56, 5 April 1987 (Translated in Berry; BFI,1991). 3In lectures at Yan'an 4In terms of commercial success the principal example is Secret Decree, the only one of the film just given to be allowed a general release in China, and which sold 240 prints.5From "The Noble Yang and the Base Yin" Dong Zhongshu 2nd c. BC.6From "Tao te ching" by Lao Tzu c. 300 BC.7Photography is largely a journalistic art, a realistic record, and as such could also be responsible for the terrifically candid nature of the Fifth Generation's realist interludes.8"From An Introduction to Film Studies" Ed. Jill Nelmes9(D)Stephen Frears, (W) Hanif Kereshi, 1987

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