FESTIVALS: Generation X-6; Chinese Indies Take to the Streets
by Andy Bailey
Jia Zhangke’s “Platform,”
Photo courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln
(indieWIRE/ 02.23.01) — The eyes of the world watched for years as mainland China’s Fifth Generation film directors, including Western arthouse perennials Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, reaped international acclaim for their lush, polished, agrarian and for the most part historical costume dramas that have epitomized Chinese filmmaking for decades: Pretty pictures, state-funded safe bets, top festival honors. Yimou’s recent memory piece “The Road Home,” depicting the essence of life in the Chinese countryside, claimed a major prize at Sundance last month, as if to confirm that most roads still lead to China’s pastoral, non-privatized sector. But look closer, as they say. Just as every cinematic generation drifts toward complacency, Chinese directors working within the censorius state-run studio system don’t have many other options; the generation that follows pushes the envelope that much further.
China’s renegade, post-Tiananmen Sixth Generation of filmmakers, including ringleaders Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, has shirked the status quo, opting for international co-financing, bare-bone shoots in city streets and cramped tower block apartments with mostly non-professional casts, and alternative channels of distribution. These “illegal” indie productions feel miles away from the expensive, porcelain-coated Gong Li costume operas Western audiences have come to expect from mainland China. Call it a revolution if you dare, but it’s more about resolution — about taking back the cities after the fallout of the Cultural Revolution and depicting the restlessness of modern urban life in China 25 years after Mao‘s demise.
Many of the Sixth Gen films have been banned outright over the past few years, owing to taboo subject matter, including alcoholism, extramarital infidelity, homosexuality and mental illness — any depiction of religion, sexuality or anti-government sentiment is still off limits by the censors. Seventeen of these renegade Sixth Gen works — most of which aren’t recognized in the marketplace by the China Film Corporation — are showcased in two separate New York series this week, The Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s “Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema in Transformation,” running February 23 through March 8 at the Walter Reade Theater; and “Beijing Underground,” at The Screening Room in TriBeCa from March 2 through 8. Many of these films were shot guerrilla-style, in the streets of major cities, using leftover stock from other productions, and then smuggled outside the country for editing and distribution. Most are screening for the first time in the Western world.
The subtlety that marked Fifth Gen films — agrarian, mostly historical dramas cloaked in a cryptic contempt for present-day politics — shifts in the hands of the Sixth Generation toward open hostility for a system that has left the post-Mao citizenry contemptuous, afraid, uncertain and above all restless. If there’s one theme coursing through many of the new generation of Chinese independent films, it’s the notion of being trapped in an intense present. Reluctant to look back, hesitant to look ahead, resolved to dwell in a bleak, quotidian, centralized reality, inside over-compartmentalized cities, the characters in Sixth Gen films differ from the dysfunctional souls of recent American independent film in that they’re starved for capitalism rather than consumed by it — though they’ve learned to air their dirty laundry like the Americans.
Previous Chinese productions were coated in pancake period makeup, decked out in feudal finery — now the blue glow of the television screen coats the faces of characters in Chinese indies. In the new films of the Chinese underground, there are bloodstains on the bedspread, vomit encrusted in the carpet, familes shouting at the dinner table, pickpockets on the municipal bus. As the characters have learned from years of social welfare, some stains just don’t come out.
The most sobering of the Walter Reade screenings is Zhang Yuan‘s “Sons,” a docu-drama about a real-life Beijing family contending with its patriarch’s abrupt, visceral descent into alcoholism and mental illness. The 1996 film opens with a disclaimer that all major characters in the film are portrayed by real people, thereby elevating the production beyond any semblance of social realism — far too convenient a topic for a generation of filmmakers bent on bucking the system through surreptitious means.
“Sons” is also the most visible departure from the previous generation’s provincial predilections — you’d never see someone popping zits in the bathroom mirror in a Fifth Gen picture, much less a son beating his father over the head with a chair — take that China! When dad stumbles drunk into his wife’s dance class, defying her to serve him with divorce papers, it’s the most uncomfortable depiction of alcohol’s destructive force since Gena Rowlands tottered across the front lawn in Cassevetes‘ “A Woman Under the Influence.”
“Sons” is about how toxic behavior courses down from one generation to the next, though its disheartening implications hardly seem reserved for four family members playing themselves. “I’ve lost at least ten years of my life with you!” snaps fed-up wife Fu Derong to her zonked out husband, echoing an entire generation’s urge for China to snap out of its cultural hangover.
Yuan, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy who’s gone on to produce and direct MTV programs, contributes two previous films to the Beijing Underground series, including 1992’s “Beijing Bastards,” a chronicle of a rock band’s rise and fall during the early years of Deng Xiaoping‘s liberalizations. There’s also 1997’s “East Palace, West Palace,” a gay-themed chamber piece about a public sex cruiser under interrogation by an abusive police officer — yet another symbol of the establishment oppression of “unhealthy” lifestyles, which the new wave captures here with unflinching authenticity.
Sixth Gen golden boy Jia Zhangke‘s festival fave “Platform” — an “official” studio film co-financed with funds from Hong Kong, Japan and France — typifies the aims and frustrations of this new wave of filmmakers, who wouldn’t mind working inside the CNC if only the censors weren’t so austere. Spanning an epoch-shifting decade, from 1979 to 1989, “Platform” is a dense 198-minute glimpse into the frustrations of an itinerant provincial theatrical troupe who reinvents itself as break-dancing punk musicians after the propaganda operas that supported it through the Cultural Revolution fail to keep the troupe financially solvent. A Maoist echo that cedes to an MTV fever dream of capitalist utopia, Zhangke’s sprawling second feature sums up Sixth Gen’s not exactly subtle plea for privatization. Its running time is frustrating but necessary — and now is probably the last time audiences can catch “Platform” in its entirety before a streamlined 150-minute cut is released theatrically later this year.
Zhangke’s other film in the Urban Generation series is an “illegal” film — 1997’s “Xiao Wu” — a mesmerizing, highly influential and gleefully popular piece of social realism about a provincial pickpocket contending with solitude that plays like some peculiar hybrid of Bresson and “Taxi Driver.” Peppered with a non-professional cast, it’s a nihilistic provincial-set film that’s certainly unlike any of its Fifth Gen predecessors — its loveable failure-prone protagonist winds up chained to a pole, one more blatant symbolic implication that leaves nothing to the imagination.
“Mr . Zhao,” a 1998 drama about the perils of marital infidelity, also screening in the Walter Reade series, is the feature debut by Lu Yue, long considered one of mainland China’s finest Fifth Gen cinematographers. His credits include recent efforts by Zhang Yimou as well as Joan Chen‘s directorial debut “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.” Produced outside the industry, by a leftist company in Hong Kong, “Mr. Zhao” depicts a married Shanghai professor who brazenly takes a younger mistress while his simpering wife pleads “even if there’s no love left, we’re still a family.” Daring in its Cassavetes-like frankness, this issues-laden kitchen sink drama has pissed the hell out of the CNC while snapping up the Golden Leopard at Locarno.
Difficult, gritty pictures, risky ventures, top festival honors — the pendulum swings toward a radicalized, rebellious system of filmmaking where international fanfare for Chinese films keeps pouring in despite the state’s effort to suppress them. Wang Xiaoshuai‘s indie “Beijing Bicycle” nabbed a top prize last week at the Berlin Film Festival, and Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film previous to its premiere, suggesting legitimacy for such films is on the rise. Two of Wang’s previous films, “Days” and “Frozen,” shot under a pseudonym, will screen in the Beijing Underground series, followed by the U.S. premiere of Xiaoshuai’s latest feature “So Close to Paradise” on March 9 at The Screening Room. For a complete listing of all screenings in the Urban Generation and Beijing Underground series, visit the Film Society website www.filmlinc.com.