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“Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Origins of China’s Fifth Generation Filmmakers brings back memories for me. It tells the true story of how I moved from ignorance to full maturity along with a group of my peers. Everyone faces challenges of some sort in their youth. They become life’s most beautiful memories. That means this is not just a book about film, but also a book about human life. Once youth is over it never returns, and so we treasure it in our hearts. Thank you, Professor Ni Zhen, for writing this inspiring book.”—Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, and Not One Less
The term "Fifth Generation cinema" does not sound strange to anyone anymore, but when the first Fifth Generation Chinese films appeared in the mid-eighties no one had ever heard the phrase before. Then one talented young director after another emerged, accompanied by equally outstanding cinematographers and production designers. They attracted attention as a group. When the public discovered that these filmmakers had all graduated from the same college in the same year, they became even more intrigued, not only with the filmmakers themselves but also with their alma mater. In this way the Beijing Film Academy became the object of considerable curiosity, too.
It is difficult to prove who first coined the term "Fifth Generation." However, with the passing of time and increased use in critical and scholarly articles, it seems Fifth Generation cinema has almost become a synonym for Chinese cinema of the 1980s. At least that is how it looks to people who lack detailed knowledge of Chinese film. Indeed, some of them only began to get interested in Chinese film because of the notion of Fifth Generation cinema.
The two earliest films, One and Eight (1983) and Yellow Earth (1984),communicated powerful national spirit through tragic stories set during bleak but heroic times. The authentic and primordial quality of the characters and settings made Chinese spectators gasp with astonishment. Did our forefathers, our native land, and our original homeland around the Yellow River really look like that? University students adored the films. People in the film world were awestruck. Even their opponents knew the curtain had gone up on an innovative film movement that would rewrite history. The Fifth Generation directors had embarked on a voyage into uncharted waters.
After more than a dozen years of hard work, the Fifth Generation has reached maturity. Their works now have greater character and psychological depth, and the overemphasis on the visual image in their earliest works has been superseded by a smooth and complete command of narrative. They combine well-balanced intelligence with skilled craftsmanship, and their triumphs at numerous international film events in Europe and America have drawn attention to Chinese film and to Asian cinema in general.
In May 1993, Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Chen Kaige has always been drawn to the struggles of individuals with nature and culture, as fate hurls them up and down in the torrent of history. In Farewell, My Concubine he also combined film and Beijing opera. The complex lives and loves of his main characters combined with half a century of the twists and turns of Chinese history to leave his audiences with memories to savor for days afterward. Both Temptress Moon (1995) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1998) can be seen as extensions of this historical discourse.
Zhang Yimou studied cinematography at the Academy and launched his film career as the cinematographer of One and Eight and Yellow Earth. However, he soon proved his directorial abilities with the beautifully designed Red Sorghum (1987). In 1992, he won the Venice Golden Lion award for The Story of Qiu Ju, and To Live received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1994. After that, Shanghai Triad (1995) and Keep Cool (1997) opened up the exploration of different kinds of materials. If Chen Kaige can be said to resemble a deeply thoughtful poet, then Zhang Yimou is even more like an adept professional storyteller. His forte is the weaving of rites and folk customs into legends. European folklorists and anthropologists have even studied his tales as a kind of folk text about the oppression of Chinese women under feudal violence.
These are the reasons why Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou are perceived as the two outstanding representatives of the Fifth Generation. But in fact the Fifth Generation comprises many filmmakers, each with their own style but with a shared aesthetic direction and sense of history. They include skilled and sharp-eyed cinematographers as well as painstaking and creative production and sound designers totally committed to their art. The Fifth Generation directors could work as a team with these old classmates and collaborators because they shared a tacit understanding, and they needed them as surely as one hand needs the other to clap. Without them they would have achieved only half as much, even if they had worked twice as hard.
Some say the Fifth Generation is more a phenomenon than a school of filmmakers because they have embraced such a variety of styles and themes. For example, the director Tian Zhuangzhuang pursued an on-location realist style for a long time. He detailed the lifestyle of the Inner Mongolian steppe in On the Hunting Ground (1984) and told the story of the Tibetan plateau herdsmen in Horse Thief (1986). In 1992, he directed Blue Kite, a film about the many difficult experiences of an ordinary Beijing household during the fifties and sixties. With stirring emotions and a narrative that is plain but strong, it is a portrayal that speaks clearly through its silence and is gentle but deeply meaningful.
Wu Ziniu is Tian's direct opposite. His cinematic hallmarks are dramatic intensity, violence, and vigor, and his favorite subjects are war, exile, adventure in remote places, and historical incidents. He dwells obsessively on stories that put people in fiery life-and-death situations or where extremes of despair and difficulty torment them. Some people have described Wu Ziniu as a "bloodthirsty director hell-bent on danger and violence." But going by his representative works Evening Bell (1988), Big Mill (1990), and The Last Day of Winter (1986), it is clear that Wu Ziniu's abiding interests are life's vicissitudes and the struggle between love and violence.
Xia Gang's gently humorous character studies, Zhang Jianya's comic panache and urbane temperament, Yin Li's vivid realist studies of the flirtations and affairs of Beijing city folk, and He Qun's sincere and straightforward social issue films all show the range of the Fifth Generation's artistry. Certainly, their work cannot be reduced to one style.
The women directors of the Fifth Generation are not only independent-minded but also distinctively female. They have faced all sorts of difficulties from production problems to censorship, and they have endured the vagaries of the film market. Li Shaohong's Bloody Morning (1992) and A Man at Forty (1993) both won attention at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Her film on the lives of prostitutes, Blush (1995), won the Silver Bear award at the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival. Other films include Hu Mei's Army Nurse (1985) and Far from War (1987) and Peng Xiaolian's Me and My Classmates (1985) and Three Women (1987). All of these works examine in microscopic detail the particular character of women's emotions and psychology, as well as their con.icts with traditional social ideas. The youngest Fifth Generation director and the one with the sharpest talent is Liu Miaomiao. She began directing at age twenty-three and has made six features to date. In 1993, her Innocent Babbler won the President of the Italian Senate's Gold Medal at the Venice International Film Festival. Petite and red-cheeked, seen from afar she looks like a middle school student, and her eyes always shine with sincerity and trust. She comes from the Hui Autonomous Region of Ningxia in northwest China, where the Gobi Desert stretches endlessly before the eye. To take the entrance exam for the Beijing Film Academy, she had to travel by bus for two days and nights before she even made it out of her own province and into Shaanxi Province, where the exam site was located in Xi'an.
* * *
On 28 February 1993, a group of travel-weary filmmakers gathered at Zhuxin Village, a few miles north of Beijing. These were the Academy's graduates of 1982. Coming back as planned to the old home of the Beijing Film Academy in Zhuxin for a tenth-year reunion, the Fifth Generation were returning to their roots.
Beijing in February: there was a chill in the air and a powerful gale was blowing. But the eighty or more former classmates arrived in high spirits from their various homes to board the bus at the designated spot.
"It's been ten whole years since we said goodbye! Ten years ago we were just immature children and now we're going gray already! Ten years and the class of 1982 has already gone into the annals of Chinese cinema history! Ten years from now we should take another day off and meet again."
The invitation to the reunion had clearly asked people not to bring their children, not to invite the press, and not to come in private cars or taxis. This class reunion was to be a genuine return to the old days.
Two large buses took the old classmates through the city and into the northern suburbs. Ten years earlier, how often had the same sort of buses and the same familiar faces traveled from the Academy in the northern outskirts to view movies at the China Film Archive for their studies! Of course, back then there were even more people and it was even more crowded, and the buses were even older and shabbier. No wonder that as soon as their bus turned onto the road to the suburbs, all the songs from the old days started to ring out again. Long-forgotten tunes of yesteryear like "The Heavens are Full of Stars" and "Back from the Shooting Range" wafted out from the bus, echoing along the road.
In what is now a large lecture theater at the Beijing College of Agriculture, the eighty-odd classmates behaved exactly as they had going to class in their student years. Sitting at desks, each wore a white T-shirt with the slogan, "Ten Years-Don't Ask!" How many successes, awards, difficulties, tribulations, injustices, grievances, farewells, and emotional upheavals were covered by this self-mocking phrase? Only the Fifth Generation themselves really knew.
As all sorts of emotions swirled around, Chen Kaige stood up, walked to the lectern, and began to recite:
Cast your minds back then To Zhuxin Village One hundred and fifty-three classmates Carefree youth Boundless arrogance Judging past and present Determined to succeed Eager to compete with our predecessors Ten years have passed We're called the "Fifth Generation" We've won a little fame Now we see each other again There are gray hairs But we haven't lost our ideals When we laugh our faces are still childlike A love of art A sincere life Human nature makes us weep But we stick to the humane path Ten more years Let us continue to lead the way And never break our word!
By "gentlemen's agreement," no one was allowed to talk about films or their work today. They were only to exchange stories about their joys and sorrows, the vicissitudes of the years, their families and children, and their marriages and divorces. There was also the matter of going overseas. Of the original 153 classmates, fully one third were abroad. Peng Xiaolian was toughing it out in New York, looking for funding for her films. Chen Misha and Sun Li were in California. Deng Wei was in England, busy shooting portraits of celebrities. And there were more.
Someone stood up and read aloud from a letter from Australia: "I've been here eight years now. The class of 1982 is becoming more and more famous, and Westerners speak of it as though telling a legend. I don't dare admit I was a member of that group. I cannot be with you today because my visa did not come through in time. But when you all get together, please don't forget to order one of the best dishes for me."
Like a legend, a legend about Chinese film. But where should the first page begin?
* * *
Zhuxin Village, Beijing, 1978.
It was the second year after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Beijing Film Academy announced that it would enroll undergraduate students for university level courses in all disciplines for the first time since 1965. The minute this was announced, the news raced across the country and the applications poured in. The Academy had intended to take a total of approximately one hundred students into the five departments-Directing, Acting, Cinematography, Production Design, and Sound-with about fifteen to twenty students in each. But so many people were taking the entrance exam that the quota had to be increased. Almost ten thousand people applied for the Acting Department alone. At the examination site in the city, a dense throng spilled out of the yard and even over the sidewalks outside. Xie Yuan was there, the future star of King of the Children (1987) and I Love You No Matter What. Zhang Fengyi, who would star in Rickshaw Boy (1982) and Farewell, My Concubine, also stood in line, along with Shen Danping, who would take the female lead in The Corner Forgotten by Love (1981) and the Sino-Japanese coproduction An Unfinished Chess Game (1982).
It was a thousand-to-one shot, or at least a several hundred-to-one shot. With such bad odds, why were so many eager young people determined to have a go at it? Surely there were other more practical career options they could try in their efforts to get ahead? In order to answer these questions we must go back to the decade before 1978 and start our story there.
The Cultural Revolution began in 1966. It pitched China into a frenzied and irrational political movement. Like the girl in the fairy story who dances madly when she puts on a pair of enchanted slippers and cannot stop no matter what, the Cultural Revolution turned a nation of one billion people into fanatical lemmings. Over a ten-year period, it destroyed China's educational hopes and dreams. Starting in 1968, middle school graduates from across the country were mobilized and sent to rural areas in the movement to send educated youth "up into the mountains and down to the countryside." In practice, it turned them into an agricultural labor force among the farmers in the countryside and in the production brigades in the borderlands. Between 1968 and 1978 as many as twenty million young people underwent this experience. They were sent north to the provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning in the far northeast, to Inner Mongolia, to Xinjiang in Central Asia, and to the poor provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. And they were sent south to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in the southwest, Jiangxi in the southeast, Guangdong in the south, and to Hainan Island off the southern coast. They joined village and production brigade farms there and toiled at heavy physical labor. When they left the cities, most were seventeen- or eighteen-year-old youths, but the youngest included fourteen-year-old children. When they returned, many were already over thirty, their faces deeply etched with lines and wrinkles.
Deng Xian became a writer after seven years of extraordinary experiences in a construction brigade in Yunnan Province. In 1993 he published a reportage novel called Dreams of China's Educated Youth. This book details with unimpeachable research, documentation, and statistics the true history of the educated youth movement and the high price they paid. Many people buried their youth forever in the frozen plains of northern China and in the red earth country of the south. This is why Fifth Generation cinema has gone back to represent these basic origins again and again in films such as Our Fields (1983) and King of the Children.
When the system of admission to universities and vocational colleges by selection on the basis of merit determined by examination was restored on 20 October 1977, it was like a clap of springtime thunder wakening great hope in the many educated youths still in the countryside. For them, it was an opportunity worth the risk of losing everything. The new regulation finally did away with the "admission by recommendation" system, which was used during the Cultural Revolution, and restored the fair competition of selection on the basis of merit.
Excerpted from Memoirs from the Beijing-CL by Zhen Ni Copyright © 2003 by Zhen Ni. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface to the English Edition|
|Ch. 2||Noses to the Grindstone||51|
|Ch. 3||First Steps||113|
|Character List for Chinese Names||201|
|Chinese Film Title List||207|