Fifth Generation /film directors


Fifth Generation /film directors
The ‘Fifth Generation’ is a group of directors whose films represent a particularly creative moment in the history of Chinese cinema, roughly spanning the 1980s and early 1990s. Educated after the Cultural Revolution, the ‘Fifth Generation’ includes such directors as Chen Kaige, Huang Jianxin, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Wu Ziniu and Zhang Yimou. According to George Semsel, the five generations correspond to historical periods: silent films; first sound films during the 1920s and 1930s; films from 1949 through the Cultural Revolution; films after the Cultural Revolution; and the fifth generation, films made by graduates of the Beijing Film Academy in the 1980s and 1990s. Another way of defining the different generations focuses on the filmmakers’ aims: the first generation, described as May Fourth era filmmakers, were intellectuals concerned with social and cultural reform during the Republican era; the second generation, whose films are categorized as Socialist Realism (inspired by the Soviet Union), combined heroic celebration of the socialist state with condemnation of life in pre-revolutionary China; the third and fourth generations primarily focused on melodrama and produced films consistent with or reinforcing state ideology; and the fifth generation, whose films were made after the Cultural Revolution, continued the May Fourth tradition of social commentary and national critique, albeit from the vantage point of a very different historical moment.
‘Fifth Generation’ Chinese cinema has won international acclaim for films characterized by realism, powerful social commentary, spectacular visual imagery and high production values. These films reflect on Chinese history and engage in cultural critique. Remarkably, the ‘Fifth Generation’ films were funded by the state and passed by the state’s film censors. By setting their films in the past or including dialogue explicitly endorsing the Communist Party, many of these films avoided political controversy. In Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (Huang tudi), the dialogue and visual narrative present contradictory accounts, one praising the Communist Party, the other illustrating how the Party ultimately failed to ameliorate the lives of its converts, and stranded them in a society it was incapable of transforming. In The Blue Kite (Lan fengzheng), which has been banned in China, Tian Zhuangzhuang recounts life from the perspective of a child whose family is torn apart by continuously devastating political campaigns. Perhaps most daring, The Black Cannon Incident (Heipao shijian) by Huang Jianxin, the only filmmaker to set his films in the present and the future, satirizes bureaucracy, alienation and hopelessness in China of the 1980s and after.
The reputation of these filmmakers has not fared as well in China as it has internationally. Some Chinese critics have accused them of pandering to a Western appetite for exoticism. Their films have had limited distribution in China, and since the violent suppression at Tiananmen Square in 1989, many critics consider this critical genre to be over. In spite of this, the ‘Fifth Generation’ directors continue to make films that occasionally provide a flicker of the depth achieved earlier.
Browne, N., Pickowicz, P., Sobchack, V. and Yau, E. (eds) (1994). New Chinese Cinemas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chow, Rey (1995). Primitive Passions. New York: Columbia University Press.
Huot, Claire (2000). ‘Colorful Folk of the Landscape: Fifth Generation Filmmakers and Roots Searchers’. In idem, China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes. Durham: Duke University, 91–125.
Ni, Zhen (2002). Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation. Durham: Duke University Press.
Zhu, Ying (2003). Chinese Cinema During the Era of Reform: The Ingenuity of the System. New York: Praeger.
EMILY CHAO

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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