Apr 27–May 14, 2006

Celluloid Revolutions

Film series


A century of Chinese film: from the silent-film classics of the 1930s to the ‘New Wave’ that appeared after the Cultural Revolution and the recent productions shown at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

Guests: Dai Jinhua, film theorist and advisor on the film selection / Liu Jiayin, film-maker / Ou Ning, curator and film-maker / Wang Bing, film-maker / Wu Wenguang, film-maker / Nathalie Bao-Götsch, sinologist, Trigon-Film / Ulrich Gregor, festival-maker / Katharina Schneider, film-maker.

Between epic cinema and realism – twenty years of film in China

When the feature film Yellow Earth won the top prize at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1985, drawing tumultuous applause, neither director Chen Kaige nor cameraman Zhang Yimou could have imagined that their work would one day be considered a milestone in modern Chinese cinema. They and a few others (chosen from among several thousand applicants) were awarded study places at the Beijing Film Academy when it reopened its doors in 1978 after being closed for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. They completed their studies in the early 1980s as members of the “Fifth Generation” of film-makers in the People’s Republic of China. They inherited the rich legacy left by several generations of directors who had written some eighty years of Chinese film history. Chen Kaige and Zhan Yimou filmed their first works during a relatively liberal phase of economic and cultural development in China. Their expressive visual language and critical perspective on Chinese culture and history were to have a dramatic impact on Chinese cinema.

Their successors, representatives of the so-called “Sixth Generation”, started working under completely different conditions. These students were completing their studies around the time the student unrest was suppressed in June 1989. Given the conditions then prevailing, the Film Academy graduates felt that they had no chance of realising their own cinematic ideas in the state-owned film studios. Consequently, they made their films outside the state production and distribution channels in order to avoid censorship. This meant, however, that their films were also illegal and could not be shown in public. Directors such as Zhan Yuan situated their stories in modern urban settings (städtische Moderne), focusing on social issues, which they tried to present as authentically as possible. It was around the same time that documentary film-makers such as Wu Wenguang and Wang Bing made their impressive works, capturing on film the momentous social and economic upheavals taking place in China.

In the mid-1990s, following the unrest at Tiananmen Square, the government’s efforts to intensify the economic reform process started to affect the film industry too. The studios could no longer rely exclusively on state funds and had to look for independent investors. At the same time, the government allowed the founding of private production companies and legalised new forms of investment. At the turn of the millennium, some of the censorship laws were relaxed too. Although these measures must probably be judged positively in principle, their effect has been to compel most film-makers to perform a totally impossible balancing act between economic considerations and political dictates. Meanwhile, the new market mechanisms and the opening up of the country – albeit to a limited degree - to foreign films are placing great pressure on Chinese film-makers to produce commercially successful films. The continued existence of unpredictable censorship laws and the absence of a completely free film market have lead to the widespread circulation of illegally copied and extremely cheap DVDs – with a disastrous effect on cinema attendance. And unlike the past, when the ideological guidelines of the censors were quite distinct, it is now increasingly difficult to fathom the criteria upon which their decisions are based. Yet despite all these challenges, the great opportunities open to film-makers and producers, the endless number of creative young artists willing to experiment, and the unbroken interest in China are all reason enough to hope that Chinese cinema will remain successful in the future too. The pioneers of the Fifth Generation, who have meanwhile turned to more popular and commercially rewarding genres, are now hitting the headlines with internationally financed large-scale productions that include stars from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. However, it is the films made by authors from the Film Academy, as well as by renowned camera-people, autodidacts and representatives of China’s ethnic minorities that are currently causing a stir at the international film festivals.

The customary procedure in the People’s Republic of classifying film-makers by generations, which has also been adopted by film critics in the West, is now a thing of the past. It is, incidentally, firmly rejected by Chinese directors, who want to see their films judged by their individual merits. The development and works of the young directors are too different to be categorised in such a way. In the West, there is, fortunately, less of a tendency nowadays to judge Chinese films by how “subversive” they are, or how critical they are of the government. Maybe the time has arrived when – in China as in the West – a Chinese film can be regarded simply as the individual expression of an artistic vision.

(Nathalie Bao-Götsch, trigon-film, Ennetbaden, Switzerland)