First shots of China's new wave

Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy
June 18, 2004

Ni Zhen taught film theory at the Beijing Film Academy, where, between 1980 and 2000, he instructed those students who would become the directors of the "Fifth Generation", responsible for the post-Mao renaissance of Chinese cinema.

This graduating class, the fifth since the foundation of the academy, was more than usually talented. In addition, it had survived the destructive Cultural Revolution. Ni writes of "the stark look, powerful emotions... and deep reflection that characterise early Fifth-Generation cinema", and there is little doubt that this new personal honesty was in part a response to this revolution, which, Ni writes, "turned a nation of 1 billion people into fanatical lemmings".

Every member of this graduating class was affected. Chen Kaige, who was to become one of the most famous, remembered that, as a child of 14, he rushed up with the others who attacked his father. He later always wondered why he had done this. Ni offers several speculations: "Was it because he was afraid of death? Yes, but there was something more terrifying. Having been driven out from but wanting to rejoin the masses who had collectively taken leave of their senses, he hurt his own gentle and dutiful father in order to be acknowledged as one of the group."

Chen, the future director of Yellow Earth and Farewell, My Concubine , forged from his experiences the strong personal style that has become synonmous with members of the Fifth Generation. The same might be said of Zhang Yimou, director of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern , the screenplay of which was written by Ni.

Other directors in this generation of film-makers, though perhaps not so famous internationally, were equally important. Among them was Tian Zhuangzhuang, director of On the Hunting Ground, Horse Thief and Blue Kite .

Of him, Ni writes: "His eye for subject matter, his on-location style, and his preference for contemporary themes... might well have lit the way for the Fifth Generation film style." The author contrasts the personal honesty and frank idealism of these directors with contemporary conditions. "Today, society has become completely enveloped in a commercial atmosphere and students view study and work as ways to get rich."

While this is doubtless true, such weighted contrasts tend to make the time of the Fifth Generation into some kind of cinematic golden age and to render the labours of the directors as somehow heroic. This is perhaps fitting in a book seeking to memorialise the very real success of students of the film academy, but the celebratory triumphalism of the author's style detracts from his message. A change in admissions systems was "like a clap of springtime thunder awakening great hope". Later "every student's heart was beating with hopes and dreams for the blossoming of Chinese cinema", and in the group "no one would let the others down, and through fire or flood they would tackle the hurdles together".

Perhaps such a cliched style sounds more convincing in Chinese but here, seriously and ably translated, it lends a partisan tone and - for this Western reader, at any rate - a seeming lack of verisimilitude. Zhang at a photo exhibition resolved to be a director "as he stood among the endless flow of visitors and closed his lips tightly". Unless Ni actually observed this, we have here mere rhetoric.

But if the book is less than a stylistic success, it is at the same time a rich compendium of information to be found nowhere else. It is not often that one has such access to successful film directors during their school days. And it is rare indeed that one is given such important documents as Zhang's notes on the visual style of Yellow Earth .

The book - an indispensable guide for the Western student of contemporary Chinese cinema - also includes character lists for Chinese names and film titles, as well as full notes and index.

Donald Richie has published widely on Japan, especially its arts.

Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation

Author - Ni Zhen
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 234
Price - £41.95 and £14.95
ISBN - 0 8223 2956 5 and 2970 0

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