By Victoria Lee Baruffolo
Cinema in China is considered high art as opposed to a form of entertainment. As David A. Cook says, Chinese cinema is “taught and understood as another form of literature”. Throughout the history of Chinese cinema, the aesthetics, plots, cinematography, editing and staging have changed. In this article, I hope to introduce you to four of the most influential Chinese directors.
Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema
The terms “Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema” and “Fifth Generation Filmmaker” technically refer to films produced by fifth generation filmmakers who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. However, these terms are much more complex and have a deeper meaning.
In a nutshell, Fifth Generation films were radically different from films previously screened and produced in China. The films dared to be different through experimentation, vivid visual expression, creative freedom, with allegories and metaphors highlighting aspects of society.
During the 1950s to early 1960s, a state-sanctioned social realism film tradition developed in China. Films promoting communist values mostly focused on peasant or soldier protagonists, or on depictions of wars heroically won by Chinese communist forces.
It is important to note that Zhang Yimou and Chen Gaige had both been sent to participate in forced labor under the ‘Down to the Countryside’ initiative. Both directors lived in relative poverty during this time and learned the hardships of life – aspects that both directors chose to reflect on in their films.
As the fifth-generation filmmakers were the first to attend the Beijing Film Academy after it reopened in 1978, many of the films they studied had all been banned before, fostering a sense of amateur cinema that is very much present in films. works by Zhang Yimou and Chen Gaige.
Wong Kar Wai
“IIn my logic, there is a story.– Wong Kar Wai
Renowned for his atmospheric films about memory, desire and the passage of time, this Hong Kong director has an unusual approach to filmmaking – starting production without a script.
Wong’s thrilling approach to production creates intriguing storylines that allow the visuals and audio to thrive. Stemming from his aversion to writing and finding it “boring” to film from a finished script, Wong relies heavily on instinct and improvisation instead of ready-made ideas to give life to his films. During the production, he wrote while “being inspired by the music, the setting, the working conditions and the actors”.
Wong’s visual style, often described as beautiful and unique, is key to his work. Stephen Schneider defined it as “a masterful use of light and color [rendering] each frame a work of art. Wong uses bright, saturated colors and faded camerawork alongside staged printing. This latter technique alters film rates, liquefying harsh blocks of primary colors into iridescent streaks of light. The use of off-center framing, slow motion, obscuring faces, elliptical editing, and filming in darkness or rain are all hallmarks of Wong’s aesthetic. With all visual techniques combined, Stephen Teohas described Wong’s films as “a cornucopia overflowing with multiple stories, streams of expression, meanings and identities: a kaleidoscope of colors and identities” .
Wong’s use of pop songs and music is another of his trademarks. The director attaches great importance to this element, which Biancorosso described as “the essence” of Wong’s films. Julian Stringer said the music “proved crucial to the emotional and cognitive appeal” of Wong’s films.
“People in misery are the most important thing in art” – Zhang Yimou
Known for his films that explore sexual repression and political oppression, this internationally acclaimed fifth-generation filmmaker has been one of China’s preeminent directors for more than two decades. Directing his first film as a director for red sorghum in 1986, Zhang continued his directing career, winning numerous awards and accolades. Zhang was also appointed director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which received considerable international acclaim.
Zhang’s storytelling style is dominated by the use of color and visual representations of her actresses. While the portrayal of his actresses is part of a complex array of generation and gender dating back to early 20th century debates over Chinese modernity, his use of color has become one of the core aspects of his films. Although Zhang uses a wide spectrum of colors, he greatly preferred red in his early days. In an attempt to break away from solely producing visually vibrant red films, a new aesthetic concept, “the aesthetics of Yin and Yang”, was proposed by Zhang.
Zhang also has a unique choice of music which he employs in his films. Including folk songs and Peking opera, Zhang can brilliantly choose traditional songs and sounds that add a touch of traditional charm while portraying the characters’ emotions.
“I’ve always wanted to teach people through film, to give them a big message. But now what I feel like I want to do is dream more through film, hoping that film itself- maybe even can say more than me. – Chen Kaige
Esteemed for his realistic, compassionate, sensitive and unwavering vision of the life and hopes of the Chinese people, his mastery of the formulation of visual metaphors, throbbing cinematic language and audio streams, Chen is one of the most philosophical artists to achieve international fame and one of the main directors of Chinese cinema.
Chen’s visual style is dominated by beautiful landscape photos of China and realistic depictions of rural life. Chen portrays the complexity of human beings in his films by analyzing the impact of history and tradition. His ability to masterfully produce films that reflect China’s history and culture is grounded in his solid understanding of Chinese culture and art. Throughout Chen’s films, he expresses the pursuit of humanity and aesthetics, using various filmmaking techniques.
Born in 1952, Chen’s life was greatly affected by the Cultural Revolution. His father, having been a filmmaker himself, was exposed by his son (Chen), who was only a teenager at the time. Chen’s films set in this era are marked by bold portrayals and a distinct, often critical voice.
Chen’s Chinese historical drama film, Farewell my Concubine, is currently the only Chinese-language film to have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
“If you look at ancient Chinese culture and its representations, the relationship between people and nature was very different. It was almost as if the feelings were always attached to a certain landscape.–Jia Zhangke
Renowned for his interest in daily life and the experiences of the Chinese, Jia Zhangke reflects the realism of an era through his films. He received the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his 2006 film, Still life.
Jia’s cinematic aesthetic differs significantly from that of the fifth generation. Instead of pursuing magnificent metaphors, Jia focuses on restoring the phenomena of life by capturing the unseen state, psychology, emotion, and society of people’s lives in a marginalized state. Through Jia’s films, an inner truth is felt. A kind of humanistic emotional care and affirmation of little people thrives, presented visually through whitewashed cinematic shots of houses, streets, clothes and pop songs. The beauty of Jia’s work lies in its ability to authentically filter the living conditions of its protagonists.
Jia deciphers the animated world and its struggles to find humanity’s hidden light. Interestingly, watching Jia’s films, it’s clear that humans have made the greatest contributions to society and yet unfortunately have suffered the most. The social and moral alienation in the process of modernization is portrayed imaginatively and realistically in Jia’s work.
The narrative ethics of Jia’s films are far more complex than simplified, single-valued sociological judgments about the world. Instead, Jia explores the vague, ambiguous, complex and ambiguous realms of existence where another reality is hidden. This potential existence and reality rarely enters the public consciousness, magnifying individual experience and the public’s spiritual journey through cracks ignored or abandoned by the mainstream.
This article is part of a series on Chinese Film Week, which was founded to spread cultural awareness and celebrate Chinese culture through film. Check CFW’s social media pages for more information on the film festival in March!
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