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Being as Surrealistic as reality:
Chinese independent cinema after the Fifth Generation
Ou Ning

During all those years when the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers was receiving ever-growing international acclaim and attention, cinema was still considered a privileged thing in China. The general public had very little chance of seeing Hollywood films, let alone cinema classics. Shooting a film remained an unattainable dream for many, while being given an award at an international festival was regarded as something extremely difficult. Therefore, under such particular historical circumstances, films made by the “Fifth Generation” directors have been largely mythologized. I remember when “Farewell, My Concubine” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (1993), the director Chen Kaige was sitting on a deckchair in Palm Beach being interviewed by journalists from all over the world, behind him China’s Five Star flag was flying, and he had a solemn and sublime posture that resembled that of a national hero. However, at a time when large quantities of information circulate rapidly, pirating is flourishing and image-makers are as numerous as ants, the legends and rituals of cinema have completely crumbled. With high flexibility, digital video cameras have become an important means of expression for individuals, and have contributed to the prevalence of independent filmmaking. Furthermore, being given an award at an international festival is no longer a news-breaking story. Although Zhang Yuan, a “Sixth Generation” director, has already won numerous awards abroad, his films haven’t gained much acclaim from China’s genuine cinema amateurs. In a way, this also shows a transformation in the public’s level of watching films: they have even started to question the tastes of international juries.

Apart from filmmaking itself, a rapid growth in audiences, both in quantity and quality, can be considered as the greatest achievement of Chinese cinema at the turn of the century. Under the constraints of the distribution system, many films have no chance of being seen in the cinema. On the other hand, VCD and DVD players are everywhere in China, in both the city and the countryside, and have entered every home. A huge number of film productions are pirated, copied, illegally imported, and thus help fill this market void. Whether it is a cinema classic or a never-heard-of, marginal film, you can get a copy for only 10 RMB. Given the thirst endured for such a long time, Chinese cinema amateurs have enthusiastically devoured large quantities of films in a short span of time. Furthermore, thanks to the Internet, they have also started to develop their own opinions on films, resulting in a considerable amount of amateur film criticism. Some of them have even started making films, and have become dynamic amateur filmmakers. Since 1999, groups of cinema buffs have formed throughout China. These groups regularly organize film screenings at some non-cinematic places (such as bars), exchange ideas and opinions, discuss film projects, and even edit and publish film magazines, and play a tremendously important role in the promotion of cinema in China. In any case, pirated films have contributed to feeding China’s population of film-viewers, constituting a collective growth experience for cinema buffs in China. This is where the surrealism of Chinese historical reality lies.

It is also because of their long-term dependence on pirated films that China’s film buffs and directors generally lack subtle sensitivity towards light and shadow. This has directly influenced the style of most independent films. Other than rebelling against the Fifth Generation cinema’s glamorous aesthetic that was over-allegorical, symbolic and formalized, part of the reason that the language of realism is becoming prevalent among “post-Fifth Generation” directors is because a realist style isn’t highly demanding of light and shadow. The independent directors of the new generation tend to concentrate their efforts on exploring the subject matter and designing the narrative, seeking to represent the reality of China today in a more genuine way, purposely eluding the question of a lack of sophistication in creating images. In the wake of the Fifth Generation directors, Chinese independent cinema sets out to make low flights; instead of taking an overall view from above, it is starting to try to get closer to the soil of reality beneath our own feet.

Documentaries generally constitute the prime choice for amateur directors who start making films, and this is the most productive category in Chinese independent filmmaking today. In addition to the pioneers of documentary filmmaking in the early days, such as Wu Wenguang, who continue making films, a number of new directors have also made remarkable films over the past four or five years. For instance, Ju Anqi’s “There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing” (1999), shot with expired 16mm film and in a 1:1 time ratio, captured direct and spontaneous reactions of people on the streets of Beijing when confronted with simple questions such as “Is the wind strong in Beijing?” This film, which is a test of reality, largely uses the “blank screen” technique, that is to say, no images are shown, but only sounds (all kinds of answers) are heard. When images do appear, the often-visible self-made microphone represents the forceful intrusion of the director’s will into all kinds of public spaces (including public toilets). In the same vein of focusing on public spaces, Jia Zhangke, who has already shot two feature films, takes a completely different approach. “In Public” (2001), shot with DV cameras, represents sudden enlightenment, full of Zen, about the city of Datong. His approach is that of contemplative infiltration, which is also the approach of most documentary filmmakers, except that many of them have gradually moved the focus of their observation from open spaces to closed ones. For instance, Du Haibing’s “Along the Railway” (2001) is about the drifting communities that live along the railway; Yang Tianyi’s “The Old Men” (1999) documents a group of old men who gradually approach the end of their life in day-after-day casual gatherings; Ying Weiwei’s “The Box” (2001) offers a perspective on the daily life of a lesbian couple over seven days; and Wang Fen’s “More than One is Unhappy” (2000) has turned the camera’s lens on her own parents’ failed marriage. The most heart wrenching must be Wang Bing’s monumental nine-hour documentary “Tiexi District” (1999-2003). [fig. 1] [fig. 2] [fig. 3] From a highly personal viewpoint, he witnessed the decline of state-run heavy industries in Shenyang. All of these subjects are part of the “hidden” reality, which is only documented and exposed through the discovery and exploration of the creator’s sensitive eye. Very often, the public tend to be touched by the reality shown in these documentaries, without paying much attention to their technical imperfections, such as insufficient lighting, moving camera, and so on. This kind of tolerance encourages insightful amateur directors to take up the camera more courageously.

Much of what the Fifth Generation directors are criticized for can be summed up as follows: their films are full of easy or empty symbols, are detached from reality, and put too much emphasis on creating visual effects. On the other hand, the Sixth Generation directors go completely the other way. Since Wang Xiaoshuai’s “The Days” (1993), the Sixth Generation’s cinematic style has always taken root in the trivial realities of life. With Jia Zhangke, this style is brought to an even more natural and fluid state. Other than a preference for long shots—the necessary consumption of time used for depicting the boredom of life—Jia Zhangke also excels in using sounds to interpret his impressions of reality. [fig. 1] [fig. 2] [fig. 3]  In “Xiao Wu” (1998), a lot of sound clips such as TV sketches and short plays, street broadcasts of political propaganda, a singing cigarette lighter, or karaoke pop songs, add up in a lively way to form the acoustic reality of an inland town in the nineties. Similarly, in “Platform” (2000), the playing of the hits of the eighties one after another almost allows you to conjure up all of your acoustic memories of that decade. These songs enable the cinema to retrieve lost time and create a tangible texture. In his next film, “Unknown Pleasures” (2002), Jia Zhangke simply used the title of the song by Taiwanese singer Richie Jen for the title of his own film, and had the main male character sing (without music) this song at the end of the film. Ning Ying also used the cinematic soundtrack to represent reality brilliantly has a brillant performance in “I Love Beijing” (2001). She used radio broadcasts in the taxi abundantly. The airwaves emitted beneath the night sky are loaded with urban residents’ desires and anxieties; together with the construction sites of apartment blocks and roads which are highly present throughout the film, they make up the reality of existence of the film’s characters.


If we can say Jia Zhangke is a genius in the depiction of time, then Zhang Ming, who shot his debut film one year before Jia did, can be considered an expert in the arrangement of cinematic spaces. In the film “In Expectation” (1996), with Zhu Wen as the screenplay writer, Zhang Ming unfolds the narrative successively from the viewpoints of three characters (main male and female characters and the police officer), with three similar scenes (a fish waiting to be killed in the bucket) recurring throughout the whole film. Although the main male and female characters already have a sexual relationship, they never appear simultaneously on the screen. Only at the end of the film, under the director’s mise-en-scene, are they shown side by side in the same scene, as if they were finally getting together after many obstacles. However, throughout the whole of his next film, “Weekend Plot” (2001), he often lets the seven main characters appear simultaneously in the same screen space. Although these films were shot six years apart, Zhang Ming’s mise-en-scene has basically remained the same: the relationships between characters and spaces are cleverly and adroitly arranged so as to highlight the film’s psychological reality. The former of the two films is about separation, melancholy, and being “in expectation”, whereas the latter is about tension, remorse, and “loving you until death” (the sentence written on a piece of paper in the film).

In this realist trend of Chinese independent cinema, DV is considered a sharp tool enabling people to attain reality easily and directly. It allows traditional filmmaking to be liberated from the constraints of the industry again, and gives the freedom of filmmaking back to individuals. Because of its characteristics of individualization, it is often described as “the pen of the digital era”, and has attracted a good number of Chinese writers to take part in DV filmmaking, starting a form of “image writing”. Many people were surprised when the writer Zhu Wen won the special jury prize at the Venice Festival with the film shot with DV, “Seafood” (2001), This is a film that totally corresponds to the production standard of the cinema industry, with no traces of a writer being behind it; it can be regarded as being made by a professional film director. After seeing Luis Buñuel’s and Federico Fellini’s films, some people asked: why is there no surrealist cinema in China? However, if they had seen “Seafood”, they would have known that this is the surrealist cinema of China! Xiao Mei, a prostitute, fails to commit suicide, but kills a police officer; she runs away from Beidaihe, and returns to Beijing to continue the same profession. A client at the brothel has squeezed money into the vagina of another prostitute, who is unable to get it out even a couple of days later; Xiao Mei accompanies her to the hospital to get the bill out, only to find out that it is forged. Eventually, they decide to spend the forged bill…Zhu Wen’s narrative accurately touches that incredible surrealistic essence of China’s reality.

Cui Zi’en is an experimental novelist. At the same time, he also makes DV films at the same speed as he writes: a film is generally shot in less than a week, is written and directed by himself, and only costs several thousand RMB, he sometimes even works on a zero budget - the actors are all his friends. Cui is not only highly productive, his films are also extremely provocative, seeking to undermine traditional values and strike the sensibilities of the audience by dealing with marginalized subjects. Shot with a very loose structure and a spontaneous style, his recent film “Feeding Boys, Ayaya” (2003) shows passionate bodies and the life of wild and licentious youth. Cui delivers here an effusive filmed rhetoric of defense for marginal people in China today. In Cui Zi’en’s films, cinema seems to return to its daring and unconstrained childhood: although it is still far from being mature in many aspects, it dares to experiment, to move forward without fear.

The year 2005 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chinese cinema. In 1905, the owner of a photography shop, Ren Qingtai, made China’s first documentary film after the opera of the same title, “Dingjun Mountain” in his shop. In the first twenty years of the 20th century, cinema as a new art form was considered as pure entertainment in China. From the thirties onwards, progressive intellectuals started to use the cinema as a weapon to save the nation and to develop the enlightenment movement, resulting in the first climax in the development of cinema in China. After 1949, mainland Chinese cinema went through a dormant period, and only regained its place on the international film scene with the rise of the Fifth Generation directors. After going through nearly one hundred years of turbulent development, full of ups and downs, and given the fact it is now overloaded with burdens, mainstream cinema in China today is having difficulties regaining its vitality. On the other hand, although independent filmmaking is much more dynamic, and has a certain impact abroad, it is still severely controlled in China, and has very restricted distribution. From 2003 on, both the Chinese film authorities, state-run production studios and independent filmmakers have all started to look for opportunities for dialogue. As a result, independent filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, have finally come “above ground”, and are now allowed to work with state-run studios to make films that can have a public screening in China. At the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Chinese cinema, is China’s independent filmmaking going to enjoy the arrival of spring? Let us look forward to it!