JIA ZHANGKE AND THE SIXTH GENERATION FILMMAKERS IN CHINA

SIX GENERATION DIRECTORS IN CHINA

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Jia Zhangke
A group of young filmmakers known as the Sixth Generation have made some interesting low-budget films. They largely work underground and have been banned from working in China. Among the film makers and films associated with them are Zhuan Yuan, director of “East Palace, West Palace” (1996) and prize-winning “Beijing Bastards”, Wang Xiaoshuai, director of “Beijing Bicycle” (2000), and Lu Xuechang, director of “The Making of Steel” (1996). Jiang Wen won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize (the second place award) in for “Devils on the Doorstep” in 2000. Shot in black and white, this film is a great, life-and-death comedy about peasants in a Chinese village during the Japanese occupation in World War II. The film was not allowed to be shown in China because it portrayed the Chinese villagers in a bad light and was too sympathetic of the Japanese.

Sixth Generation directors also includes Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Wu Wenguang---pioneers of China’s first independent film movement. Wang Bing, Li Yang, and Ying Liang are also included in the group

Early “the Sixth Generation” works from the early 1990s include Zhang Yuan’s “Mama” and “East Palace, West Palace”, Wang Xiaoshuai’s “The Days”, Wu Wenguang’s documentary “Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers” and Lou Ye’s “Weekend Lover”. These films are credited with launching China’s independent film movement. The Sixth Generation’ works from the late 1990s include Lou Ye’s “Suzhou River” , Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Frozen”, Zhang Yuan’s “Seventeen Years” , Zhang Ming’s “Rainclouds over Wushan” and Jia Zhangke’s “Xiao Wu” .

Acclaimed filmmaker Jia Zhangke said: “Political tumult was not yet in the distant past for Chinese people in the early 1990s. In the aftermath of trauma and engulfed by societal-wide depression, the so-called ‘Sixth Generation” directors used film to challenge the authorities. I was especially thrilled by the “independent” label that they carried...I was a follower of “the Sixth Generation,” and I regarded them as my teachers. I knew that they formed the oppositional force against the authorities, and they were doing everything they could to fight for the freedom for self-expression. Many years later, when I heard others referring to them as an unfathomable community, quixotic Don Quixotes, and ill-timed and deviant monsters, I laughed.”[Source: dGenerate Films, translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai]

“I still remember vividly one passage from the newspaper that I bought. It was said that for his film The Days, Wang Xiaoshuai climbed up onto a freight train bound for Baoding in Hebei province to buy cheap black-and-white film stock. I have always imagined it in my head that in those days, the young man must have looked nothing like the puffed old man now; he must have been robust and exuberant. Amongst the numerous howling trains that traversed the bustling Hebei plain was one that once carried a young man with the dream to make films...At the time, majority of Chinese were not aware of their agency and did not think much about using film for self-expression. There were 16 state-run studios. Only they had sufficient financial support and grants to make films. All the other film productions were considered “illegal.”

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“From the 1990s we began to hear individuals’ voices outside the official rhetoric, and they were injected with the independent spirit. Today, ordinary people can assert their self-esteem. Shouldn’t we then thank “the Sixth Generation” directors for having directed their attention to the lower rung of society, representing marginalized people, and advocating the restoration of basic human rights to them? Of course, film is not the only force that advances society, but in retrospective, film was the battleground where culture and outdated doctrines played out against each other. Many were banned from making films domestically; some had their passport confiscated too. Yet, many continued to make films, despite having those who stood alongside the authorities laugh at and mock them.”

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.

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 ;

Book: “Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers” by Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara

Jia Zhangke

Jia is regarded as the leader of China’s ‘sixth generation of filmmakers', making independent features outside the state system. He began his career as an "underground" film-maker---directing movies that were praised abroad but never saw official release in China. Now he has a more amicable relationship with the government. He won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival in 2006---apparently earning the approval of China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, who is expected to become president of China in 2012. At 40 he became the youngest recipient of the Leopard of Honor for life achievement at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. Organizers called him “one of the major revelations of the last two decades and one the greatest filmmakers working today.”

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Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke was described by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times as “among the most strikingly gifted filmmakers working today whom you have probably never heard of.” His work was the subject of the first retrospective of a Chinese film maker at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Upon seeing one of his early films, Martin Scorsese said he experienced a “visceral experience” and called the film “just so moving, so moving and so rigorously made. He told The New Yorker: “The real test of a film is when I look at it---and not knowing where it comes from, or anything about it---suddenly you want to movies again I think that is really what happened” with Zhangke’s film. [Source: Evan Osanos, the New Yorker, May 9, 2009]

Jia is from Fenyang in Shanxi Province, which he said was so boring he used to go the bus station to watch fights for entertainment, and was inspired to make films by Chen Kaige’s “Yellow Earth”. He was rejected at Beijing Film school twice before he finally got in the theory program, and spent his free time there working as a ghost writer from television, once writing a 20-part drama and not getting paid for it. His biggest influences were the Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the Taiwanese master known for his long takes and wide-angel shots, and Robert Bresson, who Jia said “took plot, photography and performance and one-by-one...negated them, leaving only the purity of the film.”

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Jia lives in Beijing, which he regards as a place to work and make films while Shanxi remains his “true China.” Sometimes he becomes so engrossed in his films he rarely goes home, instead preferring to spend his time, and even sleeping in the studio where he works. He keeps his distance from the Chinese government and relies on money he makes from commercials and funding from private investors in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe to make his films. Shelly Kraicer of dGenerate Films, “Jia has long been burdened by that age-old dilemma of what it means to be an artist of humble beginnings whose admiring audience is now primarily based among the Western élite.” Jia also had displays of his art at the China Power Station art gallery in London.

Jia's films feature long scenes and lush cinematography.Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker, Jia’s “films are so subdued, nonviolent and virtually sexless, filled with long shots, long takes and restrained dialogue---that when the actress Zhao Tao---the lead in many of his films---showed her family a film she was in made by Jia “her parents fell asleep.” Ken Kwan Ming Hao of China Beat wrote: “Jia is different from all other well-known mainland Chinese directors, be they of the 5th or 6th generation---his is a singular sensibility that is aware of but not chained to the social-political, which to him are meaningful only to the extent that they are constraints to be transcended and transformed. In an environment of habitual politicization and cognitive rigidity, the sensibility espoused in Jia’s films is liberating.” [Source: Ken Kwan Ming Hao, China Beat, October 20, 2010]

Jia Zhangke’s Films

Jia Zhang Ke made “Platform” (2000), a 194-minute film about the changes in the 1980s as viewed from a dusty town in Shaanxi Province; and “Unknown Pleasure” (2002) a movie about the impact of globalism on ordinary Chinese as seen from the perspective of two unemployed 19-year-olds in the depressing industrial city of Datong. “The World” was his first film to be distributed to mainland theaters.


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Jia’s best films---“Platform, The World” and “Still Life” “provide a wonderful tension between the biographical and the historical. “Useless” and “24 City” are regarded as a detour.

Jia’s best films are insistently about the articulation of ‘space’ amid seemingly insurmountable constraints. In these films, Jia strives to engender a state of serene dynamism in which the sublime is possible. The space that Jia aims for is interior, although the exterior is also incorporated in the articulation, reflecting a central element of Chinese aesthetics. The overwhelming politics in “Platform” , the naked material greed in “The World” , and the blatant hubris in “Still Life” are not simply scorned and despised; instead they are “dissipated” in the expanse of unencumbered imaginative flights. The flowing rhythm of the scene in The “World” in which the lady boss and the main male character contemporaneously step into a little slow dancing; the compact tension of the scene in “Platform” in which the protagonist unhesitatingly closes the door of the beat-up taxi van taking away his girlfriend for good; and the elegant fluidity of the scene in “Still Life” in which a teenage girl dreamily roller skates on a rooftop with the Yangtze River in the background are just a few examples of transcendence and transformation in Jia’s films.

Jia’s is involved behind the scene in of films produced through his company Xstream Pictures These include Han Jie’s debut “Walking on the Wild Side”, which follows a set of young drifters from Shanxi, capturing the grainy, unbeautiful hues that dominated Jia’s own chronicles of one of China’s poorest regions. Shelly Kraicer of dGenerate Films wrote: “But Han’s Jia-like investment in restless, dejected youth is taken to brutal extremes, and all the passionless sex and violence is never anchored in any real curiosity about the film’s characters.”

Jia Zhangke’s Early Films

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Jia’s first film, “Xiao Shan Going Home”, which he made while still at film school, is about a cook trying to reach his home in Henan Province for New Year. He cast a fellow student who his professor said was the worst actor in his class. The film was largely dismissed by his class mates but nevertheless Jia was urged to enter it in the Hong Kong Short Film and Video Awards, where it won first prize.

Jia’s second film “Xao Wu” was about a small time thief---the subject of an acclaimed Bresson film. Inspired by the tale of a childhood friend who became a petty thief, the film was dismissed by the film community but embraced by intellectuals for its honesty. It won awards in Berlin, Pusan, Vancouver, and San Francisco but was so disliked by Chinese authorities they banned Jia from making films.

Jia’s third film “Platform” is about a village-to-village, song-and-dance troupe during the period between the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, made on the sly while Jia was banned from working. It stars Zhao Tao, a tough dance instructor from a steel-making family who caught Jia’s eye during a visit to her school. She has been in five of his films but initially was so suspicious of Jia’s intentions she showed up for shooting with a stun gun. The rough footage of “Platform” was smuggled to Hong Kong for editing. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and won a half dozen awards. Film Comment critic Kent Jones compared it to a work by Godard in the 60s or Altman in the 70s.

Jia Zhangke’s Later Films

Jia made then made “In Public”, a short documentary shot in a train station and a dance hall; and “Unknown Pleasures”, about restless youths in a decaying industrial town but became so distraught that his films were largely unseen in China that he quit film making for a while and hung out with old friends in Shanxi.

In 2003 the ban on Jia's film work was lifted and he made the “The World”, a film with a relatively high budget for him of $1 million about the real-life theme park with miniature version of famous landmarks. “The World” (2004) is about listless love affair pursued through text messages in a Beijing theme park filled with replicas of famous buildings like the Taj Mahal, World Trade Center and St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Jia Zhang-ke won the Golden Lion---the top prize---at the Venice International Film Festival in 2006 for “Still Life”, a low-budget film that examines the human and environmental costs of China’s rapid growth in the context of the social and physical upheaval caused by the Three Gorges Dam. The film was shot in the village of Fenje which has since been submerged by water backed up by the dam. “Still Life” is about a man searching for his wife in a city to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. Jia made it after he made a documentary called “Dong” about the artist Liu Xiaodong who painted scenes of local workers at the Three Gorges dam.

Jia wrote the script for “Still Life” in three days while holed up in a hotel and cast his cousin---a real life coal miner who returned to his job after he made the film---as a coal miner searching for his estranged wife. The film combined rugged realism with surreal shots of buildings taking off like rockets and U.F.O. appearing from the sky. Again the film did dismally in China and Jia vented some his frustration a filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who Jia said was turning his back in relevant subject to make blockbusters that pleased the government.

Jia’s 2009 film “24 City” is blend of documentary and fiction that uses both real and acted interviews to tell the story of a factory that employed 30,000 workers that was closed down to make way for luxurious building complex in the city of Chengdu. The reaction to film shows the purgatory that Jia has come to inhabit: the film did better at the Chinese box office than his other films but was still largely ignored and some intellectuals did not like the work because it wasn’t political enough and it used actors in a documentary format.

The painter Liu Xiaodong, is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary “Dong” . Liu’s 2010 work “Getting Out of Beichuan,” according to Harvard’s Eugene Wang “marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene.”

Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew

In 2010, his documentary “I Wish I Knew”, an oral history of Shanghai, premiered at Cannes and at Expo 2010 in Shanghai and was screened at mainland theaters. Jia told AFP,”The movie touches on sensitive issues. One we deal with these events that influenced Chinese people’s memories, and we can form a common sense of Chinese society.” Jia said he viewed the film as a chance to reach a wider mainland audience. “When Expo is over, at least 200,000 people will have seen the film. This is a very good opportunity,]

Jia Zhangke’s eloquent Shanghai elegy recreates the hustle, the drama, and the music of that iconic Eastern city’s glorious history. The film is a hybrid of documentary and fictional elements that examines the recent transformation of Shanghai with a nostalgic eye for that city’s past. Interviews and cityscapes bring cosmopolitan ghosts to vivid life.

Shelly Kraicer wrote in the Chinese Cinema Digest: “Jia interviews a series of present and former Shanghaiers about their memories of life in the metropolis during its heydays in the 1930s and 1940s, including the sons and daughters of Jazz Age moguls and gangsters, left and right wing politicians, and contemporary investors and writers. He pays particular attention to actors and filmmakers from Shanghai’s fabled movie industries, including the great actress Shangguan Yunzhu (her son is interviewed) and revered director Fei Mu (his daughter and his star actress Wei Wei appear). The appearance in the film of Taiwanese and Hong Kong figures like director Hou Hsiao-hsien and singer/actress Rebecca Pang illustrate how much of Shanghai’s creative spirit migrated to Taipei and Hong Kong after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Interspersed among the interviews are shots of Shanghai today, that speak tellingly, with a beauty and precision unique to Jia’s camera. The film’s political implications lie under the surface.” [Source: Shelly Kraicer, Chinese Cinema Digest]

Jia Zhangke Lashes Out at Censorship

In June 2011, state media quoted director Jia Zhangke saying that he had abandoned a spy film because of limits on freedom of expression, and censorship had stopped him making a film about a man's sex life. "If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes," Jia said. "This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian June 16, 2011]

In remarks made as he addressed a cultural forum in Shanghai Jia said, "The only reason that we cannot make genre movies is the barrier that censorship sets." Jia said he scrapped a film about a man's sex life after an official decided it might break anti-pornography laws. He also abandoned a spy film about the Communist party and Kuomintang due to controls. "If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes," Jia said. "This would betray my original idea and make it difficult to develop the story." He added: "This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety."

Jia Zhangke on Sixth Generation Cinema

Jia has said that he had not heard of the name Sixth Generation until 1992. However, he was aware of the works by directors such as Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Wu Wenguang before that. In 1992, when he was 21 years old, Jia was filled with intense feelings when heard a news article about Wang Xiaoshuai. In the article, Wang was said to have climbed onto a freight train bound for Baoding in Hebei Province to buy cheap black-and-white film stock. Jia was touched by Wang’s resourceful and audacious undertaking and deemed Wang one of China’s free-spirited dreamers who contributed a great deal to keeping the Chinese culture of the 1990s alive. [Source: Isabella Tianzi Cai, Southern Weekly, dgeneratefilms.com, July 2010]

On the Sixth Generation filmmakers Jia said, “During the reform era, many people were marginalized because they lacked power and money. Which of our films told the stories of these people? Which, amongst them, induced society to acknowledge their existence--- helping the weak gain recognition? The Sixth Generation filmmakers’ films did. To me, their films are the gems of the Chinese culture of the 1990s.”

Jia has suggested that only films that present the true stories of China’s reform were able to offer a strong foothold for people living in today’s volatile and materialistic world. He argued that in order to produce this kind of story, filmmakers would need to withstand the pressure of a market economy. He pointed out the irony that today, whenever a new independent film is out, the media like to mention the box office results of similar independent productions in the past. Before the film is even exhibited, they prognosticate its failure.

Jia said, “Like any generation of film directions, we will get old, and we will lose our creativity gradually but surely. The force that drags us down, that instigates us to abandon our true selves, will continue to grow. The fatigue that accompanies old age both physically and mentally will invade us. Even selfishness has an increasing grasp on us. However, for me, when I see those crowded streets, I feel inspired all over again. They remind me why I wanted to make movies in the first place.

Speaking of “the Sixth Generation: I Don’t Believe That You Can Predict Our Ending,” Jia Zhangke said. “I am not sure how one would define “the Sixth Generation.” In terms of age, I am seven years younger than Zhang Yuan, who directed “Mama”, and I am half a year older than Lu Chuan, who is believed to belong to “the Seventh Generation.” I made Xiao Wu when I was 28. From 1998 onwards people have thought of me as from “the Sixth Generation.” [Source: dGenerate Films, translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai]

“All along I have believed that there is no difference between desperately asserting oneself as belonging to a generation and desperately denying that fact. The reason that a film director does not want to categorize him or herself is either because that he or she wants to emphasize his or her uniqueness or that he or she wants to avoid having anything to do with the negative impressions of his or her generation. For example, whenever we speak of “the Sixth Generation,” one of the first things that come to our mind is that they have notoriously bad box office returns. For me, this is fine. If people want to think of me as such, then so be it.”

“Like the group of people who left state enterprises to do private businesses, many of the independent filmmakers who turned their backs to institutionalized practices became acutely aware of their right for self-expression. Their works testified the credos of the independent film movement by introducing new angles of speech-making that necessarily expanded the freedom for expression and the freedom that people had in society in general. Therefore, I have always regarded the independent film movement as my first lesson on democracy.” [Source: dGenerate Films, translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai]

“During the reform era, many people were marginalized because they lacked power and money. Which of our films told the stories of these people? Which, amongst them, induced society to acknowledge their existence---helping the weak gain recognition “The Sixth Generation directors” films did. To me, their films are the gems of Chinese culture of the 1990s. It seems to us that films like this are not profitable, but why can’t we help the public accept them? The current situation is not the result of our market economy. It is caused by the shunning of these films from the public for the past decade or so. If not for the control over ideology for the past decade, our films would have amassed their audiences, and behind our backs a large supportive community would have formed. Additionally, it would not have happened that when we were finally able to market our films, Hollywood enthusiasts were all that there were. Many directors feel powerless, but the persevering and ill-timed ones amongst them are the true heroes who continue the tradition of China’s film art.”

“Being a cinematic movement, “the Sixth Generation” has started to branch out today. Different directors have taken on different career paths. For one short phase of our film career though, each one of us presented the problems that we discovered in our daily lives, and we exposed our weaknesses in using the film medium. However, it is reassuring to me that most of us chose to film reality using a realist approach. The films that were produced complemented and resonated with one another, sketching out the revolution that took place in China’s film art, leaving behind a trace that would have otherwise lost in a consumer society. This trace is also a scar, leaving a pain behind, in history and in us.”

Jia Zhangke’s Sixth Generation Cinema and the Art Film Marketplace

“I cannot forget the day in 2003 in Beijing Film Academy where it was announced that the majority of “Sixth Generation” directors who had been banned from making films previously could make films again. A government official added that, although the government lifted the ban, we should realize that our works would soon go underground in the market economy. During the six years after the incident, I experienced the tyranny of the market. However, that does not mean that I became antagonistic towards the market, because a market economy is part of the dream of freedom. We do not want to complain about anything. We know that there are insidious deals made behind the scenes with people with power, but we embrace the market, and we are prepared to devote ourselves to this cause till our last breath and penny.” [Source: dGenerate Films, translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai]

“What is most ironic is that every time we sell a film, the media are extremely sensitive to our box office history, and they like to sentence our films to death before the films even hit the screen. Art films need a relatively long period of time for the market to warm up to them. For a month or two after their releases they can still be in the fermentation stage. When the media prognosticate that these films would have disastrous box office returns, directors will be hit hard and victimized. Since there is not even a three-day period to get warmed up, potential viewers will walk. Nobody wants to watch dead corpses whereas everybody wants to see miracles.”

“We have survived in the battlefield of the market economy. I am willing to belong to the imperishable ‘sixth Generation.” Although this movement has drawn to an end already, there is still a long way for each of our careers. After the French New Wave, Truffaut became a great commercial director, with an outstanding box office record; Godard became an auteur; but most New Wave directors fell somewhere in between. Personal failures and successes cannot speak for a generation. Conversely, the negations of one’s generation cannot be used to speak against him or her. Doing so would be outdated.”

“No matter what happens, we will always be loyal to cinema. If you are willing to accept culture as an integral part of film, I will say to you, for the past dozen years or so, all the best films that have tried to embrace culture are made by the Sixth Generation filmmakers. It would be hard to imagine that without their seminal works how we would extend our culture into the future or what we could offer to the world as ours. Because of them, China’s film culture is still alive and breathing.”

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, IMDB, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011


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