The newly released The Great Wall is the latest example of the Chinese film industry attempting to create the kind of big-budget spectacle that used to be the sole preserve of Hollywood; yet another sign of a new globalist outlook in blockbuster filmmaking. Its director, Zhang Yimou, is famous for his big-budget trilogy of films Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. However, Zhang did not always wield such gargantuan budgets. In fact, he belonged to a generation of Chinese filmmakers who, in the 1980s, produced intimate art films for minor studios that went on to receive international acclaim. To understand why, we must go all the way back to the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution to eliminate his rivals and consolidate power. He claimed that bourgeois intellectuals had infiltrated every level of society, and sought to undermine the Communist regime. This mobilised young Red Guards to persecute local officials and intellectuals in the tens of thousands. During this tumultuous time, feature film production in China virtually ground to a halt. Starting around 1968, 20 million zhiqing, or “educated youths”, were sent into the countryside to toil on the land and learn from peasants. When universities started admitting students again in 1977 after Mao’s death the previous year, many of them saw it as a chance to seize the lives they had always wanted. Thousands applied to the Beijing Film Academy, yet actual places were severely limited. 1982 saw the graduation of the “fifth generation” of filmmakers from the Academy, many of whom would later incorporate their experiences of the Cultural Revolution into their films.
Many applicants brought with them unpleasant memories of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige, who went on to win the Palme d’Or and Academy Award in 1993 for Farewell My Concubine, had denounced his own father in one of the notorious struggle sessions common during the Cultural Revolution. Wu Ziniu was another director who had endured terrible trauma in that period; amid the chaos, his sister suffered a mental breakdown, and he witnessed up close the killing of a young Red Guard when violence broke out in Leshan. Wu would later go on to make films that explored violence and trauma. While everyone came to the Academy with stories, Zhang Yimou’s case was particularly extraordinary.
Zhang was born in 1950, shortly after the formation of the People’s Republic of China. His father had been in the National Revolutionary Army, and like many of his contemporaries he was sent into the countryside to work during the Cultural Revolution. Initially interested in painting, Zhang came to learn photography. He was so dedicated to his craft that he hand copied, word for word, two whole books on the subject. Through obsessive practice in his spare hours, while also working at a cotton mill, Zhang developed his photographic skills. Unable to take the entrance exam for the Cinematography Department at the Beijing Film Academy on account of being over the age limit, Zhang’s film career could have ended before it had even begun. Fortunately, his extraordinary talent was noted, and thanks to a directive from the Minister of Culture he was accepted, making him the only person to ever be admitted to the Beijing Film Academy without taking the entrance exam.
After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, many members of the Fifth Generation made films for small regional studios. Their first major film was 1984’s One and Eight, produced by the minor Guangxi Film Studio. Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the film was considered refreshing for its focus on individuality and its humanism.
However, the film that was to launch the Fifth Generation to international renown was Yellow Earth (1984). This was also set during the war, although no combat is seen. It follows a Communist official called Gu Qing, who visits a small farming family, hoping to collect folk tunes. While there he inspires the farmer’s daughter, Cui Qiao, with his Communist ideals. Directed by Chen Kaige and with cinematography by Zhang Yimou, Yellow Earth is a staggering work of art, and a radical departure from the norms of Chinese cinema. The Communist figure in such films was usually framed as a saviour, but Gu Qing is a far more troubling character. His attitude to the peasants is condescending, and the film implicitly questions his ability to improve their lives. Another way the film challenged conventions was through its style, with the filmmakers trying to express the story through visuals rather than dialogue. According to Chen Kaige: “[they] wanted to create a new kind of cinematic language.” Indeed, the film prioritises the rural landscapes as a means of expression. Here, Zhang Yimou’s talent as a cinematographer truly shines, as the composition of wide-angle shots evoke Chinese landscape painting, in which human figures are rendered minuscule against monumental horizons.
Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns writes: “It’s tempting to put an exact date to the birth of the ‘New Chinese Cinema’: 12 April 1985. That was the evening when Yellow Earth played to a packed house in the Hong Kong Film Festival.” Yellow Earth went on to receive international acclaim thanks to its sophisticated storytelling and striking visuals, and soon more Fifth Generation directors were receiving awards from film festivals. This reached its zenith with Chen Kaige winning the Palme d’Or.
Back in the Maoist period, Chinese films were uniformly didactic pieces of entertainment, where good Communists always triumphed. Films about the Second Sino-Japanese War and the civil war portrayed Nationalists and Japanese as simple, easy-to-hate villains. For Mao, art should be in service to politics, and be accessible to the masses. To ensure large audiences, mobile projection units were set up to show films to workers in the rural parts of the country. Tickets to mandatory performances were given out to work units, and the audience for these films grew to an enormous 752 million in 1953. Local officials would sometimes translate the dialogue to avoid confusion with different dialects. Many of those living in the rural areas of China hadn’t seen a film before, so ambiguity and sophisticated filmic narrative techniques were often avoided.
It was from this legacy that the Fifth Generation looked to depart. While films of the Maoist period could be excellent works of art (see Xie Jin’s 1964 melodrama Stage Sisters), directors like Chen Kaige were breaking new ground. Zhang Yimou would go on to direct his own films, starting with the internationally acclaimed Red Sorghum (1987). Although he was collecting gongs abroad, Zhang faced significant nativist backlash back home. Some critics saw him as a director who sold exoticised images of China to Western audiences; a criticism leveled at many Fifth Generation filmmakers. Their films were seen as inaccessible, and liable to exaggerating the dark side of China to appease a Western gaze.
Although easily the most internationally recognised names of the Fifth Generation, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou are not the only filmmakers worth seeking out. There were a number of women who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, such as Li Shaohong, Liu Miaomiao and Hu Mei. Released in 1985, Hu Mei’s Army Nurse is an excellent portrait of female subjectivity. The film charts the life of Xiaoyu, who is sent off to enlist as an army nurse at the age of 15. After Xiaoyu gives up on her love for a handsome soldier, the film takes a melancholy turn. Although filled with regret and longing, Xiaoyu continues to put her public duty ahead of private desire. In an interview, Hu Mei admitted that the film was shaped by her own experiences in the army, noting that both she and Xiaoyu keep a journal. While many Fifth Generation films made use of awe-inspiring rural landscapes, Army Nurse takes a different route. The use of voiceover and interior locations makes the film more psychological, and it becomes a rather effective attempt to portray female interiority. This goes to show that while the Fifth Generation may share certain characteristics, these filmmakers were still highly individual.
Another distinctive Fifth Generation director is Wu Ziniu, whose films often focused on violence. His 1988 entry Evening Bell is a powerful artistic achievement on this theme. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War, it tells the story of a Chinese squad who encounter a group of Japanese soldiers hiding in a cave and holding peasants hostage. With Japanese atrocities fresh in their memory, and signs of cannibalism in the cave, the Chinese soldiers find themselves in an impossibly tense situation. Like a lot of Fifth Generation films, the rural landscape is expressively shot: a large, imposing sun becomes a powerful motif alongside the gaping, black maw of the cave. Before the 1980s, war films would rarely get this dark in their subject matter, and would be even less likely to possess nuanced characterisation. In Evening Bell, however, the Chinese characters are sympathetic without being saintly, while the Japanese are far from being simplistic monsters. Through its use of vital visual symbols, and unusually restrained characterisation, Evening Bell is one of the great treasures of Fifth Generation cinema.
In the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, state control of China’s film studios tightened. While the Fifth Generation continued to court controversy with their films, they had always operated within the system. Fifth Generation filmmakers continued to receive international acclaim in the 1990s, but their films were also becoming more commercial, and their style less radical.
In this post-1989 context, an independent sector of Chinese filmmaking was born. It was from here that the new Sixth Generation emerged in the mid 1990s, the most famous of them being Jia Zhangke. Whereas Fifth Generation directors focused on history and lush visuals, the Sixth Generation were more concerned with the present. While the artistically daring heyday of Zhang Yimou and his contemporaries has long since ended, it’s important to see beyond the great wall of Chinese blockbusters of recent years to appreciate what has always been a complex and wonderful national cinema.