There is no era in the history of Chinese Cinema that could be correctly labelled as defining. For every period of its 100+ years, from Shanghai’s Golden Age to the Mainland’s new wave, are imbued with the crucial colours that, once fused together, form the vast canvas of the Nation’s Film. However, through its embodiment and juxtaposition of the various elements that were developed during the country’s earlier years, it wouldn’t be sacrilegious to consider the work of the Fifth & Sixth Generation of filmmakers to be the country’s most fascinating.
Contrasting the resplendent visual flair of Chinese genre pictures with the hard-hitting narratives of the early socio-political movies, the films of Fifth & Sixth Generation sought to re-enforce the country’s cinematic foundations while also developing new and unique ideas following the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The results, as you can see below and at the BFI throughout August, September and the beginning of October personify the characteristics that make Chinese Cinema so wondrous… so special… so defining.
Yellow Earth (Dir. Chen Kaige, 1984) – 23rd & 24th August
Though there were many incredible films produced by China’s Fifth Generation, Yellow Earth is perhaps one of the most important. Kaige, making his directorial debut, adhered to the themes of socialist cinema through the narrative and characters, but imbued them with avant-garde ideas. The result is a film that valiantly embodied the convention-busting components of the new wave and set a course for China’s most fascinating era of filmmaking.
The Horse Thief (Dir. Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986) – 9th & 11th August
Martin Scorsese was once quoted as saying that The Horse Thief was the best film he saw in the 90s and it’s not hard to see why. This visually alluring tale of life in Tibet was Zhuangzhuang’s response to being sent away from China’s main centre of film production during the Cultural Revolution. Though it wasn’t politically motivated, it was still blithely dismissed as being elitist. Westerners however, saw it for what it really was: radical, restrained and, quite simply, remarkable.
Red Sorghum (Dir. Zhang Yimon, 1987) – 16th & 19th August
The gorgeous Gong Li remains one of the defining faces of the Fifth Generation and indeed of Chinese Cinema itself. Director Zhang Yimon, himself making his directorial debut, unveiled Li upon the world with Red Sorghum, a tragic tale that addressed ideas of forced marriage and true love. The resulting film marked Yimon as an exciting new addition to the new wave of directors and led to a remarkable bond between himself and Li that continued to prosper as it developed.
The Blue Kite (Dir. Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993) – 28th & 31st August
What distinguishes The Blue Kite from any other film on this list is that it continues to be outlawed in China. Examining how society was broken by China’s various political movements, this historical epic was condemned and subsequently banned by the government upon release for its political ‘leanings’. For the rest of the world though, The Blue Kite was and continues to be a revolutionary picture, which manages to honestly examine the effects of China’s ever-changing political system in a devastatingly intimate way.
Farewell My Concubine (Dir. Chen Kaige, 1993) – 23rd & 25th August
If you’re looking for the quintessential film of the Fifth Generation, then look no further than Farewell My Concubine. Like The Blue Kite, Kaige’s masterpiece sought to examine the turmoil of China’s socio-political changes, this time through the eyes of two singers in a Peking opera troupe. Though banned by the government at the time, Farewell My Concubine is now celebrated in China as one of their seminal works; its use of astounding visuals and symbolic characters to address China’s turbulent history still employed by Chinese filmmakers today.
The Days (Dir. Wang Xiasohuai, 1993) – 1st & 7th September
In much the same way that Yellow Earth signified the true start of the Fifth Generation of filmmaking, The Days indicated the birth of the Sixth Generation and the beginning of a new direction in Chinese Cinema. With its minute budget and unknown performers, this tale of two struggling artists in 1980s Beijing drew upon first-time director Wang Xiasohuai’s own opinions and experiences, heralding a new cinematic era for the country that swapped period epics for modest contemporary tales.
Chungking Express (Dir. Wong Kar Wai, 1994) – 7th & 10th September
Wong Kar Wai’s seminal masterpiece may appear to be a dreamy dalliance on the surface, but under the neon lights is a visceral vista of metropolitan living. Told through a heavily stylized aesthetic, Wong’s two parallel tales of unrequited love expose Hong Kong living as a lonely existence, despite the relentlessly bustling city. Fused with a trendy soundtrack and offbeat tone, Wong’s film epitomized the experimental approach of China’s Sixth generation of filmmakers and continues to be regarded as one of their most prized productions.
Made In Hong Kong (Dir. Fruit Chan, 1997) – 12th & 18th September
To all those who don’t believe brilliant cinema can be made without a budget, Made In Hong Kong is essential viewing. Fruit Chan’s story of an aspiring gangster trying to create a name for himself in the city’s underworld was shot on leftover film reels, which led to its uniquely low-budget.
In The Mood For Love (Dir. Wong Kar Wai, 2000) – 26th September & 5th October
Though not as immersive as Chungking Express, Wong Kar Wai’s poignant parable of passion and longing remains a highly celebrated symbol of the director’s extraordinary talents. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung vividly bring to life this tale of two people brought together after they discover their spouses are having an affair with each other. Wong’s virtuoso eye effortlessly combines with the film’s naturalistic performances, creating an emotive atmosphere that perfectly enhances this tale of suppressed desire.
Platform (Dir. Jia Zhangke, 2000) – 27th September & 5th October
Charting China’s social and cultural history from the viewpoint of a young theatre group, Jia Zhangke’s second feature is notable for shifting its focus away from the contemporary and towards recent history. This understated account of how socio-economic changes effected the Chinese population and continued to resonate years later is considered by many to be the apex of the films made by the Sixth Generation. For us it marks the perfect culmination of our own journey through this ever-changing and developing land of extraordinary cinema; its combination of astonishing visuals and a socio-political storyline exemplifying the very best of what Chinese Film has had and always will have to offer.
You can find more information on the BFI Chinese Cinema season here.