Fifth Generation Filmmakers 第五代导演


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The term Fifth Generation Filmmakers refers to the 1982 class of the Beijing Film Academy, the first group to graduate after the academy's reopening at the end of the Cultural Revoltuion. Their films were the first to break the nationalistic mold of the Soviet-trained Fourth Generation directors and seek other topics for inspiration. Not only were many of these films lacking any praise for Socialism, but a good deal were openly critical of the status quo--an unprecedented stance that caused delays in release of many of the films. Moreover, Fifth Generation directors were the first to receive widespread international recognition and critical acclaim as well as moderate financial success. The 1982 class included such esteemed directors as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang.[1]



This arbitrary grouping by age should perhaps suggest that there be no overwhelming artistic similarities other than those that arise from a common education, and sure enough there are many differences between their films. There are, however, two broad areas in which these directors are similar. Firstly in the sheer diversity of their pictures--it may seem somewhat perverse to call this a similarity, but when one considers how bound to formality Chinese cinema had been in the past, the new experimentalism is, in a way, a trend. Despite an early manifesto by the New Wave group within the Fifth Generation to "break with cultural/socialist realism" and use only "unspoiled actors" rather than stars, this line was not followed for long or by many. Secondly, there seems to be an adoption of various traditional artistic Taoist methods in their films, a current which is of long standing in Chinese film, but these film makers have developed and radicalised it for their own ends. This has lead to the gradual development of a new visual style, which alongside new narrative conventions, give many of the film makers a distinctive hallmark.[2]


Yellow Earth theatrical poster; film directed by Chen Kaige, written by Chen Kaige and Zhang Ziliang, with cinematography by Zhang Yimou, 89 minutes, released 1984.
Yellow Earth theatrical poster; film directed by Chen Kaige, written by Chen Kaige and Zhang Ziliang, with cinematography by Zhang Yimou, 89 minutes, released 1984.

The film which awakened the world to the new cinematic force in China was The Yellow Earth. Released in 1984, the film was directed by Chen Kaige and shot by Zhang Yimou (his recent works include Hero and House of Flying Daggers), the two most renowned filmmakers of their generation. The Yellow Earth, which is set in 1939, centers on the relationship between Gu Qing, a member of the Eighth Route Army, and a peasant family. Gu comes to the village to compile a collection of folk songs, and he meets the young Cuiqiao and her family. She is due to enter into an arranged marriage, which terrifies her. She is inspired by Gu's stories of girls fighting in the army, and asks him whether she can follow him back to Yanan. While Cuiqiao waits for Gu Qing's return from Yanan with official approval, she is married. She decides to try to join an army unit that is camping on the other side of the Yellow River and drowns as she tries to row herself across. Political progress was meant to improve the lives of these peasants, and Cuiqiao's last words before drowning are: "Here to save the people are the Communists." Taken literally, this line is politically correct, as it implies things will get better in the future. But in the context of the movie as a whole, it is a statement of misplaced faith which highlights how ineffective any political party can be against the great and unpredictable power of the yellow land.[3]

Relationship to Video Artists

The famous Fifth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s, the same period as many '85 New Wave artists emerged, including those such as Zhang Peili and Wang Jianwei, who pieneered the use of video as an art medium in the PRC. With such works as Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991) and Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993), these filmmakers reached international audiences and established a model for material success at a time when most avant-garde artists were scratching out a bare existence in places like Yuanmingyuan and the East Village.[4]

Awards & Honors

Originally undistibuted in mainland China, The Yellow Earth was later deemed acceptable after it won the prize for best picture at the Hawaii International Film Festival. This award was the first of many received by Fifth Generation directors. Others include Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prizes, Berlin International Film Festival Gold and Silver bears and Venice Film Festival Gold and Silver Lions.[5]


The Fifth Generation movement effectively ended in 1989, although its major directors continued to produce notable works, such as The Emperor's Shadow (1996) by Zhou Xiaowen. Several of its filmmakers went into self-imposed exile: Wu Tianming moved to the United States (but has since returned), Huang Jianxin left for Australia, while many others went into television-related work.[6]
  4. Richard Vine, New China New Art, New York: Prestel, 2008.
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