Forget the pugilistic antics of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the protracted historical sweep of The Last Emperor—Contemporary Chinese film represents far more than these staid stereotypes. As demonstrated by the Harvard Film Archive’s Annual Chinese Film Festival, China is in the midst of a renaissance in filmmaking. In his opening remarks for the festival, Archive curator Bruce Jenkins drew a parallel in his opening remarks between the impending change in China’s political leadership and the shift in the leadership of the vanguard of modern Chinese film.
In his remarks, Jenkins addressed the stately, poetic cinematography of the historically-minded “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers (including directors such as Zhang Yimou) and their current overshadowment from the more experimental and impetuous stylistics of the “Sixth Generation,” the proponents of which have been graduating from the Beijing Film Archive (BFA) since the mid 1990s.
Dr. Hal Weaver, curator and co-organizer of The ChinaFilm Project, said the festival was only one component within the project’s broader aim of promoting mutual appreciation and respect, as well as improved economic relations, between the United States and China through film and other moving images.
This year’s festival was a particularly momentous event. While speaking in Beijing last spring at an American Studies workshop on “The Hollywood Dream Factory and American Realities,” Weaver paid a visit to the BFA to discuss the possibility of collaborating on The ChinaFilm Project. This discussion resulted in the arrival of a BFA delegation at Harvard two weeks ago to participate in a forum and associated workshops at the Harvard Film Archive on Nov. 22. Such workshops included Chinese cinema scholars from Harvard, as well as from Yale, Brown, Tufts, Northeastern and more. The program of Nov. 22 was particularly noteworthy: it was one of the largest congregations of BFA alumni and faculty ever to assemble in the United States, and for the first time outside of China, early student works by Fifth Generation filmmakers Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Han Gang were screened for audiences.
At one of the festival’s panels, Zhang Huijun, the president of the BFA, as well as the deans of the departments of literature, direction, sound, art and design explained the divergence between subject matter and aesthetics for the Fifth and Sixth Generations. Because the former endured the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution (two of the deans were themselves exiled for a time in Inner Mongolia and forced to perform menial labor), his films invariably focus on the prevalent socio-economic problems of the day, with a sympathetic bias towards the experience of minority nationalities. On the other hand, having grown up amid rapid economic progress and material comfort in burgeoning regional cities, the Sixth Generation filmmakers concern themselves mainly with the onslaught of information technology and the social dislocation of the nouveau riche. Economic growth has also produced the financial support necessary for the stunning stylistic effects each director now deploys with ease.
In addition, the newly revamped curriculum at the BFA has played a seminal role in shaping the current, nascent generation of filmmakers. Through generous government subsidies, programs modeled closely after methods drawn from European and American film studies departments extensively expose students to foreign films and film history. Whether they be from the canonical European classics dating from the 1890s, Chinese film from the 1930s or contemporary Korean and Japanese work, all ensure that graduates of the academy leave with a keen competitive edge in the international market and go on to create important, original work informed by a firm sense of history and tradition.
Discipline is high up on the president’s agenda as well. One of the most contested changes that Zhang instituted in1992 was a 20-day military training stint, mandatory for all first-year students and designed to instill in them the rigor and perseverance Zhang believed they needed for an indispensable filmmaking enterprise. In the second year, students are dispatched to farms and factories throughout the country for a “rural experience.”
The featured films during the week-long festival displayed a remarkable variety of emotional and stylistic registers. The opening film, Dazzling, at which both the director Li Xin and producer Sara Chen were present, is a racy, disjointed pastiche in riotous color, set against a pulsating techno soundtrack, with palpable influences as various as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and magic realism. According to the director, a member of the up-and-coming Sixth Generation, “In their films, the technique compensates for the lack of compelling, or serious, subject matter.” In fact, technique actually enacts the content and is the perfect vehicle for conveying the heady, mercurial restlessness of youth. Dazzling is staunchly modern in its aesthetic, repeatedly suggesting the co-mingling of fiction and reality. The protagonist and narrator, a cinema usher with impaired vision, says at one point, “Maybe my mood is influencing your story.”
At the other end of the spectrum was the brooding, unsettling realism of Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, a tale of doubled romances which eventually intersect and is startlingly reminiscent of the French New Wave in its visceral vision and edgy production. The work nonetheless captures the raw beauty of Shanghai: its sordid, lurid nightlife, its dissolute youth, its sprawling chaos.
Given such promising talent and the huge potential markets for Chinese cinema with China’s entry into the World Trade Organzation, Weaver is hopeful, yet cautious in his prognosis for the future. He warns of the subordination of the creative to the commercial, a phenomenon which is reciprocally evident in China itself, where theaters play only major action films and American blockbusters. One wonders if American audiences will take to the budding Chinese independents, or whether the industry will become Hollywood-ized by the importunate mainstream demands of its consumers.