Mainland Chinese Cinema—The Rebirth of Chinese Cinema (1980-2000)

October 17, 2013

After the Cultural Revolution had practically shut down the Chinese film industry, Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) efforts to reform China (改革開放) revitalized the system. In order to legitimize his policies, Deng also encouraged open criticism of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and filmmakers, writers, and other artists whose careers had been stalled for a decade were happy to oblige, creating what is commonly referred to as “scar literature.”

Chen Kaige’s debut, Yellow Earth (黄土地) Source:

Then in the 1980s, a new generation of Chinese filmmakers emerged, who built on the increased political ambiguity of their predecessors while also breaking with the dominant style of Socialist Realism. To distinguish these two groups of directors—those whose careers had been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, and those who had begun afterwards—it became common to discuss Chinese directors in terms of “generations” of graduates from the Beijing Film Academy. Thus, the elder group became known as the “Fourth Generation” and the younger as the “Fifth Generation” (filmmakers who worked in the 20s, 30s-40s, and 50s were belatedly named as the first three generations, respectively).

The Fifth Generation would come to be some of the most significant directors in Chinese history, as talent like Chen Kaige (陈凯歌) and Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) brought mainland Chinese cinema to international audiences. Chen Kaige’s debut, Yellow Earth (黄土地), on which Zhang Yimou also served as cinematographer, was released in 1984 to both great acclaim and controversy, and would become one of the most influential Chinese films. The plot focuses on a Communist officer traveling between villages during WWII, collecting folk songs and rewriting the lyrics to fit Communist ideology. In Shaanxi (陕西) province, he stays with a poor family whose daughter, Cuiqiao, is being forced to marry a much older man, and who becomes inspired by the promises of Communism. The film is most notable for its beautiful imagery—filled with deep yellows of the titular landscape and reds—as well as for its reliance on images rather than dialogue to tell the story. It also approaches the role of the Communism in China’s history with unprecedented ambiguity; the officer tries to discourage Cuiqiao from leaving rather than helping her because he is afraid of upsetting the village, for example. All of these elements, along with an interest in rural, local cultures shared by the contemporary “root-seeking” (寻根) movement of literature, are hallmarks of the Fifth Generation, and Yellow Earth established the movement as one of the most vital in world cinema.

Chen made several more films in the 1980s and 90s, but in 1993 his film Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬) became the first and so-far only Chinese-language film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A sensitive look into the personal and political trials of a traditional Beijing opera (京剧) troupe during China’s turbulent 20th century, the film’s beautiful cinematography, costumes, and period detail made it a benchmark film in Chinese cinema. It is available from Cheng and Tsui in a special instructional version that includes both the full film and special scenes selected for language practice, as part of the series Watching the Movie and Learning Chinese.

Meanwhile, Zhang Yimou moved from cinematography to directing, and began a career that would make him into the most internationally recognized Chinese filmmaker. Teaming up with actress Gong Li, Zhang Yimou’s films in the 90s painted a vivid picture of twentieth-century China undergoing rapid social changes.  His Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂), like Yellow Earth, uses gorgeous colors—here, predominantly red—to show the oppressive impact polygamous marriage had on Chinese women. As its setting, the film makes wonderful use of a 1920s siheyuan (四合院), a traditional Chinese courtyard house. Other films touched on the Cultural Revolution, 1930s Shanghai (Shanghai Triad, 摇啊摇), and even contemporary urban China (Keep Cool,  有话好好说).

Raise the Red Lantern poster

In the 2000s, Zhang ventured into popular wuxia (武俠), or martial arts, films with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and in 2008 he choreographed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. More recently, in 2009 he directed A Simple Noodle Story (三枪拍案惊奇), an adaptation of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple from 1984 set in ancient China, and 2011’s The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) (see movie trailer here), a film about the Nanjing massacre starring Christian Bale. Yet despite being an internationally acclaimed director, even Zhang Yimou has been unable to avoid censorship.  His award-winning film, To Live, continues to be banned in mainland China. You can learn more about Zhang Yimou in Cheng and Tsui’s advanced multimedia Chinese course, China Scene .

The Fifth Generation brought worldwide attention to Chinese cinema and broke from the constraints of the Socialist Realist style, but their success also pigeonholed Chinese cinema for over a decade. Despite their increasing diversity, many Chinese films have yet to find success in the West, and the most popular remain the wuxia epics, kung fu films, and the colorful political allegories first popularized by the Fifth Generation. In our next blog post, we’ll talk about some of the ways today’s Chinese cinema is challenging  these models, and what it might look like in the future.