FIFTH GENERATION OF CHINESE 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 and 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 a long time many were banned in China and were seen mostly in pirated form. Many of the filmmaker's early films were financed primarily by Japanese and European backers.
John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”: Best known outside China are Fifth Generation films, which have won major international awards and in some cases have been box-office successes abroad. Much heralded among Fifth Generation directors are the 1982 Beijing Film Academy graduates Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang (b. 1952), and Wu Ziniu and Huang Jianxin (b. 1954), who graduated a year later. In the first decade of their filmmaking (until the mid-1990s), Fifth Generation directors used common themes and styles, which was understandable since they were all born in the early 1950s, experienced similar hardships during the Cultural Revolution, entered the film academy as older students with ample social experiences, and felt an urgency to catch up and fulfill tasks expected of them. All felt a strong sense of history, which was reflected in the films they made. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]
“The Fifth Generation was credited with creating a new film language, the most prominent feature of which was cinematography — use of the visual image to build narrative with unconventional camera movement, vivid contrast between light and dark, unusual framing, and montages. They employed allegory and ritual and emphasized ambiguity in telling stories; generally, they moved away from theatricality and melodrama, preferring a minimalist style of acting. Zhang Yimou, in particular, paid much attention to shot composition and color symbolism, reflecting his early career as cinematographer on both One and Eight and Yellow Earth. In recent years, Zhang Yimou's films have changed considerably, moving to the action-packed martial-arts genre so appealing to Western audiences with Ying xiong (Hero, 2002) and Shi mian mai fu (House of Flying Daggers, 2004). These works have generated much adverse criticism in China, while enjoying huge box-office success both at home and abroad.
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.
Websites: Chinese Film Classics chinesefilmclassics.org ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; 100 Films to Understand China radiichina.com. dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema dgeneratefilms.com; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film imdb.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; 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 Books: “Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation” by Ni Zhen (Duke University Press, 2002);“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) features interviews with director Jia Zhangke 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.
Important Films by Fifth Generation of Chinese Film
John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”:The first of this generation's works was Zhang Junzhao's Yi ge he ba ge (One and Eight, 1983), set in northern China during World War II. Other early Fifth Generation films were also historical, such as Chen Kaige's Huang tu di (Yellow Earth, 1984), about relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and northern Shaanxi peasants in the 1940s, and Zhang Yimou's Hong gao liang (Red Sorghum, 1987), concerning the civil war era and the war of resistance. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]
Wu Ziniu's films often dealt with war, as in Die xue hei gu (Secret decree, 1985), Wan zhong (Evening Bell, 1988) and Nanjing 1937 (Don't Cry, Nanjing, 1995); Huang Jianxin explored political commitment, a prime example being his satire on the Chinese bureaucracy, Hei pao shi jian (The Black Cannon Incident, 1986); and Tian Zhuangzhuang examined themes about marginal cultures of the border areas of Inner Mongolia and Tibet in Lie chang zha sha (On the Hunting Ground, 1984) and Dao ma zei (Horse Thief, 1986).
“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.
Fifth Generation Filmmakers
Poster for Yellow Earth 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.
Xie Fei made "Woman Sesame Oil Maker" (“Women from the Lake of Scented Souls”), which shared the top Golden Bear Award at the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival. He also won recognition for his social commentary films such as “Our Fields” and “The Year of Bad Luck”. He has not a film since 2000 and is a professor at Beijing Film Academy. In 2012, he accused China's censorship rules of "killing artistic exploration" in an open letter to authorities. Xie's last film was 2000's "Song of Tibet". In the early 2010s he was working as artistic consultant on a movie about controversial military leader Lin Biao, who was died in a mysterious 1971 plane crash and was regarded as the No. 2 leader in China behind Mao Zedong. “The film also includes homosexuality as a theme and had difficulty getting government approval. [Source: BBC News, December 17, 2012]
Guan Hu is now a well-known director. Dirt (1994) helped establish his cult status. It is about a young nurse who explores Beijing’s rock underground scene. Xueting Christine Ni wrote: “The rise of China’s indie rock scene was closely associated with post-June 4th political awakening. Dirt by Guan Hu tells the story of a woman having to choose between two partners who represent the stability of her past and the kindred outsider who offers excitement and validation.”
Zhou Xiaowen is a director who has insisted that films should be made sharing both an artistic and commercial purpose. He made Ermo (1994), a highly-acclaimed and paradoxical film that focused on consumerism and how the era of reform encouraged capitalism in rural China. Daniel Weaver wrote: A marvel of satire that nonetheless feels remarkably human at its core. Ermo’s story hits all the notes of 1990s China: accelerating collisions between new and old, the market’s destructive effects on the “traditional” family structure” without leaving the confines of Ermo’s Hebei village, where life strikes a remarkable contrast, goings-on in the nearby town.
Wu Tianming (1939-2014) was an acclaimed Chinese director and former head of the influential Xian Film Studios. Born in the state of Shaanxi and known as the “Godfather of the Fifth Generation,” he began his career at the Xian Film Studio as an actor and graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1976 after his career was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Wu made his directorial debut with “River Without Buoys” (1982). He directed several acclaimed films that had a big impact on Chinese cinema, including “The Old Well” (1986) and “The King of Masks” (1996). Among his other major films were “Life (1984), CEO (2002) and his final feature “Song of the Phoenix” (2013). “The Old Well” starred Zhang Yimou. The Hollywood Reporter described his films as “simple, resilient and full of humanity.”
According to the Hollywood Reporter: “Wu developed an early interest in the theater and worked odd jobs at local playhouses in order to observe the actors at work. By the time he reached his teens, he had shifted interest to motion pictures, crediting Alexander Dovzhenko’s Poem of the Seaas the primary impetus for his filmmaking career. But first, he put in time as a stage actor and became a film player with Xian Film Studios. [Source: Hollywood Reporter, March 4, 2014]
“In the early 1970s, Wu enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy. He was soon hired by Xian Film Studios as an apprentice to Cui Wei, a revered professor. In 1979, Wu co-directed his first film, “Tremors of Life”, which earned awards from China’s Ministry of Culture and paved the way for his second co-helming effort, “Blood Ties” (1981). International attention came upon the release of his solo directorial debut, “River Without Buoys” (1984), a film that explored the effects of the Cultural Revolution on three men traveling together down the Pushui River. After the release of “Old Well”, the village where he shot the film changed its name to Old Well Village to remember him.
“Old Well was based on true stories from the people in this village and it reflected the really poor and difficult living conditions they faced every day,” he recalled in an interview. “They spend five months out of the year walking two miles every day to get water. “I heard a story that a 70-year-old man went to get water on New Year’s Eve and when he finally returned home, he accidentally tripped over at his door. The water splashed all over the floor … he cried his heart out. Hearing those stories broke my heart. These stories were my reasons for making this film.”
“As he was gaining stature as a filmmaker, Wu was offered the position of head of Xian Film Studios in the early 1980s. As the youngest person to head the studio, he fostered a creative environment for “Fifth Generation” directors — the first filmmakers to graduate from the Beijing film school after its reopening at the end of the Cultural Revolution. (China’s directors are grouped into generations depending on which era they emerged.) Under his aegis, such acclaimed motion pictures as Huang Jianxin’s The Black Cannon Incident(1985), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (1986), Chen Kaige’s King of the Children (1987) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) were produced.
“These students mentored by Wu went on to create such global critical and commercial hits as Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, House of Flying Daggers and Hero, among others.
Female director Li Shaohong directed “Bloody Morning” and “The Unpuzzled 40 Age”. In 1994 she directed “Red Powder”, which was a big success in box office. Sun Zhou, another director, made “Heart Perfume” in 1991 and “Pretty Mom” in 2000, portraying the public's daily life and indicating traditional spirits. “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. Her film "Simple Life" has a;so been acclaimed.
John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”: “The trend toward commercialized film has left women filmmakers uncomfortable, as many have been shy about seeking funding from entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, as they have since the 1980s, they continue to direct movies about women from a female perspective, avoiding completely the stereotype of wretched, weak women dependent upon men to solve their problems. Notable in recent years have been Li Hong's Ban ni gao fei (Tutor, 1999) and Hei bai she ying shi sha ren shi jian (Murder in Black and White, 2001), Emily Tang's Dong ci bian wei (Conjugation, 2002), and Ma Xiaoying's Shi jie shang zui teng wo de na ge ren zou le (Gone Is the One Who Held Me Dearest in the World, 2002). [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]
“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.
Zhang Yimou is China’s best known and arguably most talented film director. His fondness for exploring Chinese history and its affect on its people have made him a darling of international film critics but often gotten him into trouble at home. His films have won many awards.
Zhang has been nominated for best foreign film Oscars three times (for “Ju Dou’ in 1990, “Raise the Red Lantern” in 1991 and “Hero” in 2003) and won a Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 for “To Live.” The film critic Kathy Schultz Huffhines wrote: “No other current director is capable of the bold, robust, intoxicating, frightening personal stamp Zhang Yimou puts on every frame. Give him the weeds that would be anyone else’s sow’s ear and he’ll turn them into a silk purse.” His films feature “brilliant colors, deeply felt vision of the shifting forces or life and death.”
Director Steven Spielberg wrote in Time, “For the past two decades he has inspired the world’s fascination with China through his cinematic vision. Not since the great British director Michael Powell has a director used color so effectively.” At the heart of his work “was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the desire for inner peace? whether the films were “about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty.” On his Olympics extravaganza Spielberg said, “In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened and entertained us all. In doing so, Zhang secured himself a place in world history.”
Zhang was once considered the bad boy of Chinese film but now often works with the blessing of the government. He and Gong Li collaborated on a number of films and were lovers until she left him for a Singapore businessman. See Gong Li.
Tian Zhuangzhuang is probably the the third best-known fifth-generation director after Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. “Lan Fengzheng” (“The Blue Kite”, 1993) is his most most famous film. A frank account of the Mao Years and the Cultural Revolution, was banned for ten years after completion because of it depiction of discontent under the Communist government during the 1950s and 1960s. “The Blue Kite” was a prize winner at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
The Blue Kite is considered a masterpiece of Chinese film. Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA wrote: : One of the most sensitive and probing cinematic meditations on the early years of the PRC from 1949 to 1966, chronicling a political maelstrom through the eyes of a child. Features some of the most extraordinary on-screen performances from Li Xuejian, Lu Liping, Pu Cunxin, and Guo Baochang.
Tian Zhuangzhuang was punished for Blue Kite by being banned from directing films for 5 years. At the same time charming and chilling, the film follows the childhood of Tietou as he grows up with his mother, through three political movements: the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957), the Great Leap Forward (1959-1960), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Each movement brings a new father figure into their lives — and takes him away. The official line is that the Cultural Revolution was an aberration in China’s otherwise glorious socialist history. Blue Kite suggests otherwise. It is, of course, banned in China.
“The Horse Thief” is regarded by many as another 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.
Jiang Wen first became known to Western audiences through his leading role in Zhang Yimou's 1987 film “Red Sorghum”. He later directed some films and is now regarded as one of China’s most celebrated directors. “In the Heat of the Sun” (1994) was Jiang Wen's directorial debut. It is about the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of a young boy. The movie goes back and forth between an adult’s memories of his childhood, showing the seeming lawlessness among children of the Cultural Revolution while asking questions about collective memory. Michael Berry wrote for RADII: In Jiang Wen’s explosive debut film, the actor-turned-director demonstrates an alternative view on the Cultural Revolution when adolescent kids could run wild and create their own reality. With a confident and sophisticated employment of visual language brimming with metaphor, In the Heat of the Sun stands as a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese cinema.
Jiang Wen's 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” as 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.
According to Deustsche Welle: “His non-conformist style makes Jiang Wen an icon in the Chinese film industry. Starting as an actor in critically acclaimed movies such as “Red Sorghum”, he then found his own path as a director. His directorial debut was a semi-autobiographical film “In the Heat of the Sun” (1994). Its 17-year-old lead, Xia Yu, won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival. After his second movie “Devils on the Doorstep”, a black comedy set during the Japanese occupation in China, Jiang Wen was banned from making films for seven years.[Source:Deustsche Welle, February 13, 2015]
“Jiang reemerged as a director with “The Sun Also Rises” (2007) and then directed the highest grossing domestic film in China — “Let the Bullets Fly” (2010). The film’s loose sequel, “Gone With the Bullets” (2014) was nominated for a Golden Bear award in Berlin in 2015. Unlike the first one which was a critical and commercial success, his follow-up film is quite controversial. In Jiang’s own words, “the opinions are extremely polarized”. The Beijing gala premiere of the 3-D gangster film, “Gone With the Bullets,” was abruptly called off in December 2014 due to last-minute issues with censors. Some movie fans believe that censorship made the movie hard to follow.
Huang Jianxin began as one of the most interesting and subversive of the Fifth Generation directors. Later he switched state approved “Main Melody” productions, such as “Beginning of the Great Revival”, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Huang Jianxin began directing films on Chinese urban life: focusing his cameras squarely on the everyday reality of contemporary Chinese city life. His representative films are “Stand Straight and Don't Fall” and “Back to Back, Face to Face” . [Source: chinaculture.org, January 18, 2004]
Dislocation (1986) is regarded as one Huang Jianxin’s best films. Xueting Christine Ni wrote in RADII: Dislocation “tells the story of a scientist who, so bored with the academic protocol of endless meetings, creates a perfect android replicant of himself to attend the functions that he feels rob him of his time. Unfortunately, the android develops so quickly in its artificial intelligence that it tries to replace its creator.” Xueting Christine Ni said: “The Black Cannon Incident” (1985) and “Dislocation” (1986), also one of the first Chinese science fiction films), [give] an insight into the impact of the modernization and Westernization of China in the 1980s. Urban films of this time are frequently overlooked by Western media.
“Back to Back, Face to Face” (Huang Jianxin, Yang Yazhou, 1994) takes aim at petty bureaucracy and is about disappointments, ambition and the pressures of work life and familial life in tandem. Phoebe Long, a screenwriter, wrote: The excellent work of fifth-generation director Huang Jianxin truly reflects Chinese officialdom — [the way the film depicts] bureaucratic systems, human relations, society, and the world is bleak. Among the many films exploring the dynamic changes brought about by China’s rapid development, this film presents a quiet satire. The film places a mirror to the Culture Bureau of a small town that’s trapped in some kind of old stereotype of the past, incompatible with this world world where everything is being renewed.
Chen Kaige Chen Kaige is another acclaimed Chinese director. Like Zhang he grew up during the Cultural Revolution and endured harassment, humiliation and hardship as well as dishing out some 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.
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." He was born in Beijing, China into a family of Changle, Fuzhou origin, and grew up with fellow Fifth Generation alumnus Tian Zhuangzhuang as a childhood friend. His father Chen Huai'ai was a well-known director in his own right. His mother Liu Yanchi was a senior screenwriter. [Source: Wikipedia]
During the Cultural Revolution, when he was a teenager, Chen joined the Red Guards. Like many other Red Guards, Chen denounced his own father, a decision he eventually learned to regret. This period of his life has had a profound influence of his work, mostly notably in the depictions of the Cultural Revolution in “Farewell My Concubine” and in the father-son relationship in “Together”. In 1969, Chen became a sent-down youth in Xishuangbanna Agricultural Reclamation Bureau near the Laos border in Yunnan province. He spent much of his time there cutting bamboo. He later joined the People's Liberation Army and was stationed near the Laotian border. In 1975, Chen was discharged from the army and returned to Beijing, where he worked as a worker in Beijing Film Printing Factory. Chen in 1978 joined the Beijing Film Academy, where he graduated in 1982 as part of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers.
In recent years Kaige was involved in the patriotic blockbusters “My People, My Country” (2019) and “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (2021) as well other commercial and more personal projects such as “Caught in the Web” (2012), a fictional treatment of the human flesh search engine, “Monk Comes Down the Mountain” (2015), “Legend of the Demon Cat” (2017) and “Flowers Bloom in the Ashes” (2020).
Chen Kaige's Early Acclaimed Films
“Yellow Earth” (1984) was Chen’s directorial debut. Some say it as the first classic film by the Fifth Generation directors. “King of Children” (1987) was about a school teacher sent to the countryside to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution. “Temptress Moon” (1996), 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."
“Yellow Earth” is 89 minutes long. According to Australian National University:“In 1939, Gu Qing, a propaganda cadre in the Eighth Route Army, came to a poor village on the Yellow Earth Plateau to collect folk songs. There he meets Cui Qiao, a young girl due to enter an arranged marriage. Gu’s tales of an equal Communist society inspire Cui, who asks him to take her to Yan’an to join the army. Gu promises to return to fetch her after getting permission from the Army. But when he fails to return, Cui decides to cross the Yellow River to seek out the army herself. Marking the emergence of the Chinese New Wave in 1985, Yellow Earth is emblematic of the passions and discontents of China’s 1980s. Its bold and elegiac cinematography, set in China’s sparse and harsh hinterland, its reinvigoration of the Plateau’s rich musical traditions, and its mournful political critique of the Party’s unfulfilled promises, has made it a masterpiece of contemporary cinema.
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.
Chen Kaige's Later Films
Chen Kaige followed following “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.
Beijing-born Feng Xiaogang is 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, a crown he has continued to wear with blockbusters made in the 2000s and 2010s. Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky starred in his 2001 film “Big Shot's Funeral”. In China, his popular early 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 Xiaogang isn’t really a Fifth Generation director. He didn’t have particularly hard time during the Cultural Revolution, didn’t attend the Beijing Film Academy and didn’t make Cultural-Revolution-themed films in the 1980s. He is slightly younger than Zhang Zimou, Chen Kaige and other Fifth Generation directors but came of age and produced films at roughly the same time. Feng is well known in China as a highly successful commercial filmmaker whose films do consistently well at the box office. He is also a politician and was a member of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese people's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in 2017
The son of a college professor and a factory nurse, Feng joined the Beijing Military Region Art Troupe as a stage designer after high school. He began his cinema career as an art designer in the Beijing Television Art Center in 1985. Later, he moved on to write screenplays. During this period, he worked closely with director Zheng Xiaolong and writer Wang Shuo. It has been said Feng got tired of battling government censors and switched to making entertaining films in his desire to get rich
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.
In June 2010, 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 said 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 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.” [Source: Ben Child, The Guardian, June 16, 2010]
Feng Xiaogang Films
Feng Xiaogang has been synonymous with the hesuipian, or New Year’s celebration film, offering both lighthearted comedic fare like “If You Are the One” for family viewing, and intense, dramatic blockbusters like “Aftershock. [Source: Austin Ramzy, Time magazine, January 17, 2013]
Feng rose to fame as the master of the New Year comedy. In recent years he has made big budget epics about the Chinese Civil War and the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. 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.
“The Dream Factory” (directed by Feng Xiaogang, 1997) is regarded as the first big holiday season breakout hit. It was released during the Chinese New Year holiday season and did quite well as the box office, showing the way for making money during the holidays. Focusing on a literal “dream factory,” the movie is full of oddball encounters, and was an early sign of Feng Xiaogang’s commercial crossover ability. Feng is now one of China’s biggest blockbuster directors. Screenwriter Phoebe Long, said: Initiating the concept of the “Chinese New Year film,” its one-liners have been widely adopted by everyday folks. It represents the majority of Chinese people’s taste in film.
Edmund Lee wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The trajectory of Feng Xiaogang’s film career looks to have come full circle. Following acclaim for his early satires “Big Shot’s Funeral” (2001) and “Cell Phone” (2003), the Chinese director had spent almost a decade making mega-blockbusters before he changed tack again with 2013’s “Personal Tailor”, a parody of China’s new fixation with materialism. It’s a testament to his increasing clout that Feng has followed that up with “I Am Not Madame Bovary, arguably” his most adventurous film yet — both aesthetically and politically. The provocation hasn’t gone unnoticed: although it has won prizes at the Toronto and San Sebastián festivals in September, the tragicomedy’s mainland release was abruptly postponed for weeks due to censorship issues. A Kafkaesque tale about the Chinese bureaucracy’s indifference to the people’s legal rights, it finds Fan Bingbing in top form as Li Xuelian, a provincial woman who is swindled by her ex-husband and shunned by the courts. Li’s case is complicated in that the couple have faked their divorce to secure a new home, but the man ends up marrying another woman and even sullies Li’s name with claims of infidelity.[Source: Edmund Lee, South China Morning Post, November 21, 2016]
Feng Xiaogang Extravaganza
Feng Xiaogang chose the beautiful coastal area of Beibuwan, Guangxi Province as the stage for his mega-outdoor gala. Following in the footsteps of Zhang Yimou's Impression series, Feng's “Menghuan Beibuwan” (Dreamy Beibuwan), dubbed as a historical adventure, opened in October 2010. The show 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]
Menghua Beibuwan was set among the outdoor landscape of Beibuwan and recreated the ancient Maritime Silk Road and the voyage of navigator Zheng He to the Western Ocean (now called the Indian Ocean). A stage was built in the sea of Beibuwan, said to 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."
“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 was 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. A spokesman for the show said: “There are technical challenges ahead, like how to make the stage strong enough for a storm, but we will solve them."
Image Sources: YouTube, IMDb Movie posters, Wikipedia
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 December 2021