FIFTH GENERATION OF FILM
China is known in international film circles for the beautiful art films of the Fifth Generation directors like Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Wu Ziniu and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who all attended the Beijing Film Academy together were “weaned on directors like Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut and Fassbinder." Although films by the Fifth Generation are critically acclaimed and have huge cult followings abroad, for the most part, they have been banned in China and are seen mostly in pirated form. Many of their films have been financed primarily by Japanese and European backers.
One in Eight, a film made by graduates of the Beijing Film Academy in 1984, is regarded as the groundbreaking film for the Fifth Generation. Audiences used to revolutionary films were shocked and refreshed. Among the best known Fifth Generation films are Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine by Chen Kaige; Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Story of Qiuju and To Live by Zhang Yimou; and Swan Song, The Horse Thief and The Blue Kite by Tian Zhuangzuang.
The Horse Thief is regarded by many as Tian Zhuangzuang’s masterpiece. It has little dialogue and story and full of images and sounds from Tibet. All the parts are played by Tibetan non-professionals. It is about a part time horse thief who is expelled from his clan for stealing temple offerings. He feels remorseful but is forced to steal again to keep his family alive. The Blue Kite is a frank account of the Cultural Revolution and prize winner at the Tokyo Film Festival.
Wu Tianming is a veteran Chinese film director. Born in the state of Shaanxi, he began his career at the Xian Film Studio as an actor. His career was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1976 and made his directorial debut with River Without Buoys (1982). The Old Well starred Zhang Yimou.
Song Hwee Lim, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Exeter, told dGenerate Films: The first ten to fifteen years since 1991 can be described as a phase of emergence and consolidation during which important work was done on key issues, periods, genres, and directors. Since the new millennium, I believe we are witnessing a pluralization of the field both in terms of topics covered (for example, gender and sexuality, time and space, ecocriticism) and background of scholars (film studies, art history, and media and communications in addition to the more conventional area studies, comparative literature, and history). More importantly, with transnational cinemas becoming a more common phenomenon in film production, Chinese Cinema Studies is increasingly breaking away from a national cinema model and staging dialogue with world cinema cultures, whether in its consideration of films, directors, stars or genres.
Feng Xiaogang, who rose to fame as the master of the New Year comedy, has made big budget epics about the Chinese Civil War and the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. Huang Jianxin, one of the most interesting and subversive of the Fifth Generation directors, now makes state approved “Main Melody” productions, such as Beginning of the Great Revival, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Blue Kite Good Websites and Sources: dGenerate Films dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema. The site Chinese Films http://www.chinesefilms.cn features news, film release dates, cast and crew details and plot outlines. There are also links to Chinese studios and the websites of film-makers, as well as independent English language reviews of movies. Chinese Movie Database dianying.com ; Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/ ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; iFilm Connections---Asia and Pacific asianfilms.org ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com ; Journal of Chinese Cinemas intellectbooks.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Chen Kaige at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They theyshootpictures.com ; Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, See Separate Article Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California.
Book: Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers by Micheal Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Lights! Camera! Kaishi!: In-Depth Interviews with China's New Generation of Movie Directors by Shaoyi Sun and Li Xun (EastBridge, 2009) It features interviews with Jia Zhangke, winner of Venice Golden Lion for Still Life in 2006, and superstar blogger and female director Xu Jinglei and 19 other leading directors. Sheldon Lu of the University of California, Davis wrote: “It contains illuminating interviews...with the leading directors and sheds light on a whole range of important issues such as independent cinema, censorship, film industry, and globalization.
Links in this Website: CHINESE FILM INDUSTRY Factsanddetails.com/China ; HONG KONG MOVIE INDUSTRY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FILM MAKERS AND THEIR FILMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ZHANG YIMOU AND ANG LEE Factsanddetails.com/China ; HONG KONG FILM MAKERS AND THEIR FILMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOREIGN FILMS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FILM ACTORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; JACKIE CHAN Factsanddetails.com/China ; BRUCE LEE AND JET LI Factsanddetails.com/China
Chen Kaige Chen Kaige is another acclaimed Chinese director. Like Zhang he grew up during the Cultural Revolution and endured harassment, humiliation and hardship during the period. Kaige was 14 when the Cultural Revolution began. His father, a former member of Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist party, was taken away to a re-education camp. After repeatedly being denounced, Chen was sent away to the Yunnan Province where he spent four years cutting bamboo. He later joined the People's Liberation Army and spent five years stationed near the Laotian border.
Chen Kaige is tall and handsome and has been described as dashing. The majority of Chen's films have been banned in China. "I'm an observer, not a politician," he once said. "I don't tell you what to think; I show you what I see."
Chen Kaige's Early Films
Yellow Earth (1984) was Chen’s directorial debut. Some say it as the first classic film by the Fifth Generation directors. Kin of Children was about a school teacher sent to the countryside to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
Chen's Farewell My Concubine, a critically-acclaimed film that dealt with the homosexuality in Peking Opera, was the co-winner of the Palme d’Or (the top prize) at 1993 Cannes Film Festival along with The Piano. Set before and during in the Cultural Revolution, is a strange film that begins at the Peking Opera School, where children are "literally tortured into becoming performers," and then follows a love triangle between two male actors and a prostitute. The film of course was banned in China. It starred Gong Li and Leslie Cheung.
Temptress Moon, with Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, was shot with a crew of 20 people. Set in Shanghai in 1920s, it dealt with incestuous relationship of a family that spoke in a strange poetic language and spent much of their time in opium dens. Temptress Moon was well received at the Cannes film festival but panned by critics as "a boring, draggy movie."
Chen Kaige's Later Films
Poster for Yellow Earth Farewell My Concubine (1993) with The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) and Forever Enthralled (2008). The First Emperor (known in China as The Assassin) is about the Emperor Qin Shihuang. Regarded as over-produced and boring, it was made with a $20 million budget. A replica of the Emperor's Xianyang Place was built that covered an area three times the size of the Forbidden City. Gong Li looks fat.
Killing Her Softly (2001) was Chen’s first English-language. Hollywood-style film. Set in London, it is about a dangerous, sexually-drenched relationship between an American woman and a mysterious British mountain climber.
Together (2003) is Chen’s first film with a contemporary setting. Based on a true story, it is about a boy who becomes a violinist to fulfill the wishes of a father who works himself to the bone to pay for the boy’s lessons. The boy forms a friendship with a young woman who thinks of little else but money.
The Promise was released in 2005. At $35 million it os one of the most expensive Chinese-language films ever made in China. Also known a Huayao Bride in Shangri-La, the film stars the actress Zhang Jingchu as is about a member of minority tribe who gets married and has to wait three years to live with her husband.
The Promise was shot in an area of Yunnan known as Shangri-La. After the film crew was accused of leaving garbage and litter and damaging an area planted with azalea flowers the government decided to place more restriction of film crews and require them do environmental impact assessment before being allowed to film in scenic spots.
Like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige is now embraced by Beijing, which has allowed him to use one of the government’ most important buildings for the premier of The Promise.
Chen Kaige's Sacrifice
Chen’s film Sacrifice (2010) is an adaptation of old Chinese story The Orphan of the Zhao Family with a modern twist. The period film tells the story of a man who sacrifices his own baby son to save hundreds of other babies, especially the son of his master. [Source: Leng Mo, Global Times, December 2, 2010]
"The story of The Orphan of the Zhao Family has strong and complicated dramatic conflicts - between emperor and minister, master and servant, godfather and godson and father and son, these are precious for film adaptations," Chen Kaige said at a promotional event for the film. "But more importantly I want to share a good story."
According to Chen, it is wise to keep a classical story as close to the original as possible while adding modern analysis and understanding. "It's like adapting from Shakespeare's works, you will never fail if you adapt it in the most original way," he said. "Of course, I need to give a certain modern adaptation, we live in a time that values regular people, before people looked up to heroes and worshipped them," Chen added. "Previously The Orphan of the Zhao Family had an operatic adaptation in which Cheng Ying (the father) sacrifices his baby son without any hesitation. This it is not what people commonly do and it is against humanity," he explained.
Chen spent 18 months drafting the script and making it more relatable and realistic. "I wrote the story and made Cheng Ying give his son to Tu Angu (a minister), because Tu promised he would not kill the baby. Tu then kills the baby and makes Cheng a hero who could sacrifice his own son for others, in this way it makes more sense and gives Cheng Ying more humanity," the director elaborated.
The response at the preview was less than expected. "I thought it was an ok film, not so great, neither too bad and the second half is boring," film editor Liang Wen told the Global Times. "It highlights Cheng Ying rather than the orphan and the orphan's revenge, I expected to see more of the orphan," 26-year-old Wu Tong told the Global Times.
Chen Kaige's Stage-Show Xiyi Premiered in Dali
In July 2011, the Global Times reported, the premiere of director Chen Kaige's stage show Xiyi took place in Dali, Yunnan Province after almost a year's delay. Though drawn from a traditional Bai ethnic love story, the play combines numerous modern performance elements while the director himself makes a special appearance in the play as its narrator. [Source: Global Times July 8, 2011]
The play tells an ancient tragic love story between a princesses and a hunter, who is eventually killed by a jealous general. The princess then offers her own life to the goddess of mountain in exchange for reviving her lover for just a few minutes at the end. In updating the story to modern times, Chen decided to add various elements, including Peking Opera, folk dance, acrobatics, and the very special art of shuanghuang, in which one person is speaking or singing behind another person, who is performing the character's movements.
The sets receive a grandiose treatment as well and include a 261-meter rainbow bridge, which also doubles as a screen to display different animations, lyrics and lines throughout the performance.
Feng Xiaogang Beijing-born Feng Xiaogang was one of the most commercially successful directors in China, He is known for his string of satirical comedies and acclaimed marriage dramas.that established him as China’s box office king in the late 1990s and blockbuster made in recent years. Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky starred in his 2001 film Big Shot's Funeral. In China, his popular films include Be There or Be Square (1998), a comedy about the troubled encounters by a Chinese couple in a ludicrously hostile Los Angeles. The star of Sigh was his second wife Xu Fan. Feng got tired of battling government censors and switched to making entertaining films in his desire to get rich.
Feng’s popular romantic comedy If You Are the One , earned about 350 million yuan, and his blockbuster Aftershock (2010) are among the most popular Chinese filsm aver made. Aftershock become the highest-grossing domestic film of all time in China, earning $79 million in the summer of 2010. It tells the story of a mother's emotional reunion with her daughter, three decades after a 1976 earthquake devastated the Chinese city of Tangshan, killing more than 240,000 people.
When asked in a Sina.com interview if he was a master filmmaker he replied, “I’m not. This is not an era that can produce masters.” Why not? “Because we face too many danger points, Feng said. You can’t get too close to these danger points. You can’t just casually cross the stream. You have to jump from this rock to that rock and carefully try to move forward. But sometimes there is no rock, and then you have to make a detour, because, if you just jump into the water, you might drown.
Feng Xiaogang Criticizes Harvey Weinstein
In June 2010, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang accused the U.S. producer and Miramax found Harvey Weinstein of being “a cheater” at the Shanghai film festival. “Harvey is a cheater in the eyes of many Chinese moviemakers,” said Feng, who said Hollywood executives were interested in buying Chinese films only as a symbol of friendship, but without the intention of selling them and thus helping China's film industry grow. He dismissed two Weinstein-backed films, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, two of the highest-grossing Chinese language films of all time, as “Hollywood movies”. “They're not Chinese movies,” he added. [Source: Ben Child, The Guardian, June 16, 2010]
According to The Guardian: “Feng's attack was all the more remarkable because Weinstein himself had only just left the stage at the Shanghai event... He had been on hand to discuss his forthcoming second world war-era thriller, Shanghai, starring Gong Li and John Cusack, which screened at the festival on Sunday night, and had spoken positively about Chinese film and The Weinstein Company's interests in the region. “It seems to me that in the last five years Asia and China in particular are on the cutting edge of things,” he said. “We intend to buy and make more movies in the area.”
Aftershock, China’s Top Grossing Film
Aftershock Trailer Aftershock (2010) become the highest-grossing domestic film of all time in China, earning $79 million in the summer of 2010. Directed by Feng Xiaogang, it tells the story of a mother's emotional reunion with her daughter, three decades after a 1976 earthquake devastated the Chinese city of Tangshan, killing more than 240,000 people.
Aftershock earned more than 100 million yuan (about $30 million ) within three days of its release, breaking the Chinese box office record previously held by The Founding of a Republic . The figure did not include the movie's earnings from IMAX screenings.The Founding of a Republic, which earned a total box office of 420 million yuan, took three and a half days to earn 100 million. [Source: Xinhua, Global Times, July 27, 2010]
Aftershock was first Chinese movie to be screened in IMAX and the first Chinese movie to be made in partnership with IMAX, the Canadian company that specializes in huge-screen projections, and it’s expected to show on IMAX screens all over the world. “Our collaboration will promote the blossoming radiance of Chinese films on the world stage,” proclaimed Wang Dongjun, the chief executive of Huayi Brothers, the main Chinese partner in the production of Aftershock . [Source: Richard Bernstein, New York Times, August 11, 2010]
Describing the opening of Aftershock , Richard Bernstein of the New York Times wrote: “First you see a tremendous swarm of dragonflies, which is one of those odd natural phenomena believed to prefigure an earthquake. Then there are some modest scenes of domestic life in the Chinese city of Tangshan on July 27, 1976. An unsuspecting brother and sister squabble over a single tomato, until their mother settles the dispute by giving it to the boy...Then at 3:42 a.m. on July 28, unmitigated disaster strikes...Buildings shake, the earth splits apart, bricks, concrete slabs and roofs cascade downward as a city of one million people is reduced to rubble in the space of 23 seconds. Among the victims are the two children we’ve already met, pinioned under a concrete slab, covered in dust, their lives ebbing away.” [Ibid]
Feng Xiaogang Extravaganza
The beautiful coastal area of Beibuwan, Guangxi, selected to stage Feng Xiaogang’s mega-outdoor gala. Following in the footsteps of Zhang Yimou's Impression series, Feng's Menghuan Beibuwan (Dreamy Beibuwan), dubbed as a historical adventure, was and is scheduled to open in October 2010. It is collaborative effort between Feng and the local government of Fangchenggang, the town at the site, with the sea as the stage. [Source: Leng Mo, Global Times, May 17, 2010]
Zang explained that Menghua Beibuwan will be set among the outdoor landscape of Beibuwan and will recreate the ancient Maritime Silk Road and the voyage of navigator Zheng He to the Western Ocean (now called the Indian Ocean). “We will build up the stage in the sea of Beibuwan, it will be the world's first stage built in the sea permanently, with the natural landscape as the scenery, it creates a brand new genre in drama,” Zang said]
“Beibuwan is one of the starting points of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, there is rich history to tell,” Luo Zhixian, vice mayor of Fangchenggang told the Global Times. “It also has beautiful natural landscape and is one of the few coastal areas that hasn't been developed into a commercial region.”
The project is being made with investments from Hong Kong Global Holdings and production team from the Comrades-in-Arms Cultural Troupe of the Beijing Military Command, People's Liberation Army. Zang, “There are technical challenges ahead, like how to make the stage strong enough for a storm, but we will solve them,” he said]
Lou Ye and Suzhou River
Shanghai-born Lou Ye made the visually stunning Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly, Summer Palace and Spring Fever .
Lou Ye, is having a successful career as an international festival filmmaker, even as he counted down the filmmaking ban imposed by the Chinese government following the unauthorized screening of his very unauthorized Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) at Cannes in 2006. Well, the ban is over, and I hope that means he will return to mainland-based filmmaking soon.
Suzhou River , directed by Lou Le, (2000) is a mysterious, modern noir film that finds its visual inspiration in the watery channel that runs through Shanghai, and takes its narrative framework from Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo". At its center is the unseen videographer through whose eyes the film unfolds. One actress plays two women, who an obsessive love is unable or unwilling to tell apart. She is both Meimei, the videographer’s girlfriend and a "mermaid" at a sleazy tropical nightclub, and Moudan, a businessman’s teenage daughter who is in love with a motorcycle courier working for her dad. No good comes from this convoluted plot, but as the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman observes, director Lou Ye "has transformed Shanghai into a personal phantom zone . . . making a ghost story that shot as though it's a documentary---and a documentary that feels like a dream."
Love and Bruises (Hua) managed to secure a premiere at the Venice Film Festival sidebar Venice Days. Lou Ye is perhaps the most prodigiously visually gifted of his sixth generation colleagues. His films have sustained a remarkably daring (in a Chinese cinema context) interest in the political erotics of relationships; Lou is willing to venture into the kind of dark, sexually mature material that few of his Chinese colleagues know how to explore.
Love and Bruises features a deliberately inexpressive Chinese female lead who is in love with inarticulate French brute who abuses her, forces her, cheats her, and pimps her to an even more violent rapist-friend. She also cooks and cleans, between frequent bouts of fucking that are shot far too tamely to hint at the kind of feral circulation of sexual desire that might account for the persistence of the couple's relationship.
Lou Ye, His Film Mystery and Battle with Chinese Censors
Brice Pedroletti wrote in the The Guardian: Mystery (Fucheng mishi)---first film by Lou Ye to be screened in China for 10 years was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012 May and released in China the following October. It is a story of a love triangle that turns to tragedy against the smoggy backdrop of Wuhan, taken from a woman's real-life account about her unfaithful husband that caused a stir in China in 2009. This is Lou Ye's seventh film but only the second (with Purple Butterfly in 2003) to have been released in his own country. It nearly failed to make it this time, when a last-minute battle with the censors led to three seconds and 23 frames being darkened and Lou Ye removing his name from the credits. The censors didn't come out all that well either, since Lou Ye decided to go public and post all his exchanges with them live on Weibo, China's Twitter, which brought him widespread public support. [Source: Brice Pedroletti, The Guardian, November 20, 2012]
The return of the enfant terrible of Chinese cinema was bound to cause a stir. He had been banned from making films in his own country for five years after presenting Summer Palace at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival without authorisation. That was not the case with Mystery, however. When it was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes it had received the seal of approval from the State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (SARFT). Lou Ye had even joked that the film had all the necessary authorisations to leave China "unless there's been a last minute hitch". He never thought for a minute there would be. The script and the Cannes version of Mystery had been passed after intense negotiations with the supervisory bodies. According to Nai An, who produces most of Lou Ye's films, "We had to do a lot of explaining and communicating. This time we were prepared, since we knew they would be very cautious with this film."
Mystery is beautiful and violent, both in the emotions it deals with and the scenes that display them. It echoes some of contemporary China's own problems, such as corruption, money, ambiguity and morality. And yet as the French co-producer Kristina Larsen of Les Films du Lendemain put it, you could almost think you were dealing with some bobos from Massachusetts. She explained that since there are no film-rating categories in China, Lou Ye had made the necessary concessions for the domestic version, such as adding a text at the end explaining that the two protagonists involved in the crime were later arrested by the police. That was left out at Cannes. [Ibid]
On September 8, just before the press conference, Lou Ye was informed by the Beijing Municipal Film Bureau that his film "could not be a co-production" and that two scenes (one displaying sexual violence and the other murder) had to be cut. "It was an order that was quite inconsistent with earlier decisions. Since no discussion was possible, Lou Ye decided to go public," explained Nai An. Lou Ye posted about 20 of these exchanges with the censor on Weibo the form of messages and scans of documents. "I accept that I'm a film director working in an era of censorship. I just want dialogue, not confrontation," he wrote on 15 September. [Ibid]
The press picked up on it and intellectuals and other filmmakers applauded. The conflict was with the Beijing Municipal Film Bureau the administrative office that dealt with his film. The SARFT, which in principle has authority over the municipal body, pressed for conciliation. Since it was impossible to cut scenes once the sound mixing was finished, several seconds were simply darkened. [Ibid]
Now the Chinese and French co-producers have been informed that the co-production, agreed to in principle, has been cancelled. That will impact the subsidies the film obtained from the Centre National du Cinéma et de l'Image Animée (CNC) as a French co-production. The Franco-Chinese film production procedures signed in 2010 are extremely complex. The China Film Co-Production Corporation, the official body authorised to deal with these matters, did emit a favourable opinion on Mystery, but according to an internal source, failed to obtain the final authorisation from the SARFT. It has not yet officially informed the CNC. "Going back on their word just weeks before the film was due to come out, will threaten the entire financing of the film. It undermines the producers and distributors in France as well as in China," said Larsen. The vagaries of Chinese censorship are a Mystery indeed. [Ibid]
City of Life and Death
City of Life and Death trailer City of Life and Death (2009) is a Chinese-made film by Lu Chuan about the invasion of Nanking in 1937 that has been both praised and condemned for portraying the Japanese in a somewhat sympathetic light. The film depicts the Nanking massacre through the eyes of a Japanese soldier who is shocked and terrified by the atrocities committed by his compatriots and ultimately kills himself after letting a Chinese prisoner of war escape. Even though the film attracted a large audience and was approved by the Communist Party, Lu was accused by some as being a traitor.
City of Life and Death won the top award at the San Sebastian film festival in Spain Lu won an award at the Tokyo Film festival for his film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol about men trying to protect Tibetan antelope from poachers. For City of Life and Death he won the Best Director award at the fourth Asian Film Awards, held during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. While the film continues to garner attention following its successful theatrical run in China and international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it has yet to be shown theatrically in the US, following an aborted spring release with National Geographic.
Shelly Kraicer wrote in Cinema-scope: “It is a full-out war epic, massively budgeted and vast in ambition. Huge sets of devastated Nanjing were built, and thousands of extras mobilized to illustrate the battle scenes that open the film. Lu films his striking set pieces in a beautifully modulated black and white, where cinematography, art direction, staging, music, and sound design all conspire to create massive, intentionally overwhelming images of violence, horror, and devastation.”
Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Lu Chuan’s film is highly unusual in several ways. Apart from the dedication and a few scenes of Chinese screaming “Long live China!” before being machine-gunned into the Yangtse River, there is nothing especially patriotic or polemical about the movie. On the contrary, it is almost too easy on the Japanese. The real story of Nanking was far worse than what is shown in this film. A particularly refreshing departure from the usual depiction of squat, buck-teeth-baring, thick-necked, bloodthirsty Japanese villains is the lack of any stereotyping. On the whole, the Japanese soldiers are shown as ordinary young men, rather more handsome on average than they might have been in real life, thrown into extraordinary circumstances. And the main Japanese character, Sergeant Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), is a bewildered, naive figure whose conscience is so shocked by what he sees that he ends up shooting his brains out. [Source: Ian Buruma, New York Review of Books, October 13, 2011]
However, the development of individual characters is not the movie’s strong point. Lu is better at conveying group behavior. Shot in black and white, the film is made up of a series of sometimes surprisingly poetic vignettes of man’s inhumanity to man. The reenactment of the atrocities, even though in a somewhat muted form, is not what makes this film original, however. More interesting is the way Lu, who served for two years in the People’s Liberation Army, dramatizes the behavior of young men who can switch from moments of humanity, even tenderness, to savagery in a matter of seconds. He makes nonsense of the cultural theories about the Japanese being uniquely and naturally brutal because of ancient warrior codes or whatnot. Instead, he shows how terrifying ordinary young men can be when they exercise their power over people who have none. Anyone who has encountered large groups of soccer supporters, whether they be British, Dutch, German, or Argentinian, recognizes the phenomenon. One minute, they will be singing along, happily enough, and the next minute, sparked by anything at all, they erupt into mob violence, and once that happens brutality can escalate fast. The sight of first blood invites more. It is as if the helplessness of the victims only provokes greater aggression.
In City of Life and Death, the Japanese soldiers, all but two of whom are acted by Chinese, look like Japanese men of their generation: innocently horsing around, singing popular songs, clowning in country dances. And then, those same boys (most are little more than that) turn into savage beasts, pumped up with predatory violence.
Lu takes other risks in this film, apart from his refusal to depict Japanese simply as villains. In most patriotic Chinese films, especially ones made in the People’s Republic of China, a traitor is a traitor, and a hero a hero, and there can be no possible confusion between the two. However, the main Chinese character in the film, Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), is an example precisely of such a confusion. He is John Rabe’s assistant, speaks some broken Japanese, and does what he can to protect people in the safety zone. A good man, in other words. But he is not just responsible for helping the refugees; Tang is also a husband, and father of a small daughter. Tang thinks he can protect his family by making a deal with the Japanese, informing them that there are Chinese soldiers hiding among civilians. In exchange, the Japanese agree to protect his family from any harm. A traitor? A family man? Both? As it happens, the Japanese still murder Tang’s little daughter, and Tang ends up sacrificing his own life for that of another Chinese. A hero, after all? Such ambiguities are rare in Chinese films.
Other Directors in China
Jiang Wen was first known to Western audiences through his leading role in Zhang's 1987 film Red Sorghum . His 2000 film Devils on the Doorstep, which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, was banned in China. In an unpublished document that circulated in Beijing's film community at the time, censors branded Devils on the Doorstep unpatriotic. The film portrays Chinese villagers who capture a wounded Japanese soldier near the end of World War II. They treat him well until deciding to trade him for food. Jiang also directed of Heat of the Sun. a film about the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of a young boy).
Go For Broke, directed by former psychology professor Wang Guangli, depicts the lives a group of workers in different industries who are laid off from their job. The actors are real life workers, who wear their real life clothes and who are filmed in their real life hang outs. The film di well at American and European art houses.
King Hu, director of A Touch of Zen, and Yim Ho, director of Homecoming, are regarded as auteurs of Chinese film. Zhang Yang made Shower (2001), an indie film about life in a Beijing bathhouse.
Chinese Women’s Cinema: Transnational Contexts edited by Lingzhen Wang Columbia University Press, 2011) is the first book of its kind in English. The collection explores twenty one well established and lesser known female filmmakers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora reclaiming the work of Esther Eng, Tang Shu Shuen, Dong Kena, and Sylvia Chang, among others, who have transformed Chinese cinematic modernity.
Other Good Chinese Films
Hibiscus Town was controversial yet popular film by director Jin Xie released in China in 1987. Set in the Cultural Revolution and based on a novel by writer Gu Hua, it is about a man falsely accused of being a counter-revolutionary and is sentenced to 10 years in prison. When his sentenced is read his pregnant wife shouts out: ‘survive any means! Survive as cattle and horses do! Movie houses were packed for showings of the film. Jin himself had been sentenced to a “cattle shed,” a prisoner camp designated for intellectuals, after his intellectual mother rand father committed suicide.
Shadow Magic (2000) was the directorial debut by Ann Hui. It is sort of a Chinese version of Cinema Paradiso, set at the turn of the 20th century, just as film was emerging in China.
Balzac et La Petote Tailleuse Choinois ("Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress", 2002), directed by France-based Dai Sijlie, is a coming of age story set in a poor village during the Cultural Revolution about two educated teenagers from privileged backgrounds who turn a poor peasant girl onto Western literature. It was one of the few films that is based on a best-selling novel written by the director. Dai, who has been living in France since 1984, was denied permission to shoot his Chinese-language films in China and instead has shot them in France and Vietnam
Two Great Sheep by Liu Hao (2005) wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times is a “mild-mannered satire of hierarchal life in rural China” about a “dutiful peasant and his wife are rewarded for their generosity to the community by being entrusted with the raising if two foreign sheep of a superior breed...You can read this modest little comedy as either an uplifting fable about teamwork and good citizenship or as spoof of frightened society’s blind obedience to authority.”
Warrior of Heaven and Earth (2004) by He Peng was described by the New York Times as “High Noon in the Chinese desert.” Set on the Silk Road in the 7th century, it combines American Western plot devices and character types with martial arts sword play and choreography with a some decapitation and sliced off limbs thrown in. He Ping also directed Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker (1994).
Tuya’s Marriage by Wang Quan’an won the top award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. It is a low budget film that examines the human and environmental cost of China’s rapid growth through a family of herders in Inner Mongolia who way of life is threatened by desertification.
Blind Mountain, (2008) by director Li Yang, is a slow yet gripping story of a woman who is abducted and sold into labor in a remote village. This is Li's second film. His first, Blind Shaft (2003) was about a couple of ruthless grifters.
Image Sources: YouTube, IMDBMovie posters, Wikipedia
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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012