China’s Sixth Generation

It is indeed quite a long road since the premiere of RED SHORGUM, Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece that won the Golden Bear in Berlin. Zhang Yimou is part of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, whose other members include notable directors such as Tian Zhuang Zhuang and Chen Kaige. The classification of “generations” of Chinese filmmakers is not really clearcut and is based loosely on the generations of students that graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and the relative age of the directors. So as to the title of this post, the members of the 6th generation of Chinese filmmakers are actually independent, underground filmmakers to start with but is termed 6th generation for convenience of reference.

There are many differences between the 5th and the 6th generation. From the historical point of view, the 5th generation filmmakers went through the hellish experience of the cultural revolution while the 6th generation filmmakers are younger and matured during the post-Mao period. Aesthetically, the works of the 5th generation are beautifully crafted while the works of the 6th generation are very independent spirited and often very raw, depicting the changes that China is going through in its quest to be a first world country.

One of the earliest, if not the earliest, 6th generation work is Zhang Yuan’s BEIJING BASTARDS (1993). The movie depicts the world of sex, drugs and the underground and tells the soul-searching of the lead characters amidst the chaos. The movie was officially banned by the Chinese government but acquired a strong following and was critically acclaimed overseas, fueling the already strong independent spirit of the new generation of filmmakers. Zhang Yuan followed up that movie with some still stronger materials such as a documentary on the Tiananmen Square incident (THE SQUARE, 1994) to the exploring of homosexuality in EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE (1997). After a period of getting his movies banned, he proceeded to make something a little bit more subtle and along came SEVENTEEN YEARS (1999). A superbly crafted movie, it is in effect a subtle criticism of the Chinese political system but narrated through the story of a Chinese family. This movie is followed by GREEN TEA (2003) and LITTLE RED FLOWERS (2006) but many critics begin to feel that Zhang Yuan have lost the independent spirit and the underground fire as promised in BEIJING BASTARDS.

Another 6th generation director of note is Wang Xiaoshuai. A Beijing Film Academy graduate, he found himself unable to make a decent living, let alone make a decent movie. Realising this, he started out shooting on his free time with the help of his friends. He made several films but started to get noticed with his film SO CLOSE TO PARADISE (1994), a movie where the struggling characters got themselves involved with the crime world. That was followed up by BEIJING BICYCLE (2001), a Chinese version of de Sica’s BICYCLE THIEF, sort of and after a couple more projects, was followed up by the internationally acclaimed SHANGHAI DREAMS which tells the story and fate of a girl and her family in the 1980s.

Another 6th generation director of note is Jia Zhangke and although he made only a small handful of films, each one of them have received critical international attention. His short Xiao Shan Going Home which he made while still a student at the Beijing Film Academy has already garnered some attention and when his first feature Xiao Wu (1997) was released, he sprang immediately to the forefront of the 6th generation crop of directors. This is followed up by PLATFORM (2000), UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002), THE WORLD (2004) and STILL LIFE (2006).

After introducing the above three directors, as a conclusion, here is a list of movies that I will recommend if you want to explore more of the 6th generation and beyond Chinese directors:

Li Yang for BLIND MOUNTAIN; BLIND SHAFT.

Zhang Yang for SHOWER; SUNFLOWER; GETTING HOME

Jiang Wen for DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP; THE SUN ALSO RISES

Jia Zhangke for STILL LIFE; THE WORLD; UNKNOWN PLEASURES; PLATFORM; XIAO WU

Wang Xiaoshuai for SHANGHAI DREAMS; BEIJING BICYCLE; SO CLOSE TO PARADISE

Lou Ye for SUZHOU RIVER; PURPLE BUTTERFLY; SUMMER PALACE

Zhang Yuan for BEIJING BASTARDS; SEVENTEEN YEARS; EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE

Ning Ying for ON THE BEAT; FOR FUN; I LOVE BEIJING

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