When you think about Chinese cinema, you might think of American co-productions like The Farewell or Abominable. Or maybe your first thought is about documentaries like One Child Nation or Last Train Home. Perhaps you turn to Hong Kong-based Kung Fu and daydream about Ip Man, or Drunken Master. While the offering of international films has truly expanded in the past two decades — thanks internet! — our current cinematic exchange with China wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was only in 1982 that the first waves of cultural exchange began to creep across the Pacific.

First: A Quick History Lesson

Film was introduced to China at the very end of the 19th century by Louis Lumiére, one of the leading pioneers of film. The Difficult Couple, released in 1913, was the first all-Chinese production, but it paved the way for the industry to flourish. Like the U.S., Chinese film saw a very fruitful period in the 1930’s and 40’s — but when the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, took power in 1949, the country entered into an extremely frenetic period. Communism was a boon and a hinderance for filmmaking. The Communist party sent filmmakers to Moscow to learn their craft, giving them a foundation off of which to develop the Beijing Film Academy. They created mobile projection units to take films to even the most remote corners of China, and they encouraged cinema to address and examine the art and lives of the country’s ethnic minorities. But this dedication to film quickly faded, and it wasn’t long before the Cultural Revolution swept across the country, taking with it historic films and many filmmakers, artists and cultural touchpoints.

In 1976, Mao Zedong died, leaving successor Hua Guofeng to lead the country in his stead. But Hua wasn’t to remain in power for long, quickly losing power to the significantly more liberal Deng Xiaoping in 1978 at the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China — a move that led to the end of the Cultural Revolution and beginning of the Opening of China.

Introducing: The Fifth Generation

The Fifth Generation was the first group of filmmakers to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy since the Cultural Revolution. Seen as the fifth filmmaking movement in China, this generation kicked off a cinema revolution — both inside and outside of China.

The work created by these filmmakers cast a lens into a land that had long been a mystery to the public. With films like Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum and One and Eight, audiences in the East and West were introduced to the stories of ordinary peoples’ lives, often taking place in the rural regions of China. These films are rich with symbolism, metaphor and complexity, utilizing sweeping panoramas, saturated colors and deeply emotive performances.

Hidden in those rich plots and settings were often subversive stories of untold psychological depths. Communism is the governing body of China to this day, and the Fifth Generation’s exploration of the cracks in communist policy resulted in films being re-shot, censored or even banned. But in the best works, the director’s intentions are still clear, the film carrying out their understanding of the country and its politics to the public.

Many of the Fifth Generation filmmakers are still alive and creating work today. Here are five, along with suggested viewing for each:

Chen Kaige
One of the leading directors of the Fifth Generation, Chen Kaige has made a wealth of amazing films over the years. Like many of the people on this list, Chen’s life was heavily affected by the Cultural Revolution — a teenager at the time, he denounced his own father, who was also a filmmaker. This has led to a distinct, often critical voice in his work, as well as many bold depictions of the era. Though he has served as a lecturer at NYU, and is a green-card carrier in the US, the majority of Chen’s films have been filmed in his home country.

What To Watch: Farewell My Concubine and Yellow Earth
Though Chen has made many great films since Farewell My Concubine in 1993, this is probably his best, most revered film. Clocking in at just under three hours long, it undertakes the daunting task of encapsulating a modern history of China — through the eyes of two orphans who are raised together to become Opera stars in Beijing. If this description sounds unbelievable, that’s because the film is incredibly ambitious. But Chen’s ambition paid dividends — Farewell my Concubine is, to date, the only Chinese language film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It is available on DVD on Amazon.

Harder to find is Chen’s premiere work, Yellow Earth, from 1984. A film that perfectly encapsulates the sensibilities of the Fifth Generation, it tells the tale of a young woman discovering the promise of communism on its surface. But underneath this veneer, Yellow Earth is a story of poverty, hardship and sorrow. Another filmmaker on this list, Zhang Yimou, served as the film’s cinematographer, bringing to it a vibrant and unique style that elevates the film from a simple folk tale. While this film is, unfortunately, not yet available on mass-market DVD, it is available as a VHS on Amazon.

Zhang Yimou
While Zhang may have gotten his start working with Chen Kaige, he has gone on to become a popular filmmaker in his own right. But Zhang’s popularity extends beyond box office numbers; the director was often the subject of Chinese tabloids throughout the 90s. Not only did they report on his estrangement with Chen — who once declaimed “He’s a F#$@! Cameraman!” — but also on his relationship with Li Gong, the leading lady in eight of his films. As the man who can be said to have invented the “look” of the Fifth Generation, it’s no surprise that he’s so popular.

What To Watch: Curse of the Golden Flower and Red Sorghum
Zhang is probably best known in the U.S. for his decadent martial arts trio from the early 2000’s: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. The last of these, Curse of the Golden Flower, is one of his most recent collaborations with Li Gong. It tells a twisty tale of a Royal Family beset by duplicity and disloyalty. Zhang’s trademark vision shines through so brightly here, with lush scene setting, dynamic coloring, and careful editing. Curse of the Golden Flower is available on Amazon Prime.

But as a filmmaker, Zhang has been creating movies long before the millennium. His debut from 1987, Red Sorghum, also features Li in her first filmed performance as Jiu’er. Told by an off-camera narrator, the story follows Jiu’er, the narrator’s grandmother, as she is sold off in marriage to a local distiller. When the man dies, it falls to Jiu’er to manage the distillery and its workers. This film features perhaps one of the most pat communist messages featured on this list — communicating that hard work is the key to freedom and happiness — but darn if it doesn’t look great doing so. Red Sorghum is available on Amazon Prime through Filmbox Live.

Tian Zhuangzhuang stands before an audience. He bows his head, and grins a little, his hand on his chin.
Photo Courtesy of Bryan Chan

Tian Zhuangzhuang
Tian Zhuangzhuang may be lesser known then Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou, but he’s no less vital to the Fifth Generation film scene. Zhuangzhuang comes from a film family: his mother, Yu Lan, was an actress from China’s Second Golden Age of cinema, and his father, Tian Feng, an actor from the country's Leftist Movement in cinema. Though his career as a director may seem inevitable from his parentage, Tian’s interest in art actually began with photography, before moving into cinematography. His first role in film was actually as an assistant cinematographer for Beijing Agricultural Film Studio, making nature documentaries.

What To Watch: The Horse Thief and The Blue Kite
Tian’s background in nature documentaries comes into play with his fifth film, The Horse Thief, which sets the tale of a man struggling to support his family, against the stunning scenic views of Mongolia. The story touches upon the familiar Fifth Generation topics of poverty, hunger, and the the common man, but it’s worth noting that Tian has said he made The Horse Thief for the 21st century — despite having filmed it in 1986. You can find the DVD on Amazon. (Disclaimer: the film includes some scenes of culturally-based animal slaughter.)

Much like Farewell My Concubine, Tian’s 1993 film, The Blue Kite, takes on the many political upheavals of China throughout the rise and growth of Communism. The Blue Kite uses a mother and son as the framing device for this epic tale, following them as they struggle to navigate reeducation, malnutrition, estrangement, and work camps. While Farewell My Concubine went on to international acclaim, The Blue Kite was banned in mainland China, and saw Tian banned from filmmaking for ten years. The DVD for The Blue Kite is available on Amazon.

Huang Jianxin
An honorary member of the Fifth Generation, Huang Jianxin is the only person on this list to not have graduated the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. While he may have graduated shortly after the others on this list, Huang’s principles do reflect that of the movement — although that’s where the commonalities end. Huang’s early films differ greatly from the best known works of the Fifth Generation, as he often chose to employ satire and irony, rather than sincerity and realism, to communicate his social and political critiques.

What To Watch: The Black Cannon Incident
It’s Huang’s careful combination of satire, irony and sarcasm that make his first film, The Black Cannon Incident, so enjoyable to watch. The story follows Zhao Shuxin, a German interpreter at a mining company and chess enthusiast. When one of his chess pieces goes missing, Zhao’s attempt to secure it leads to an terminal case of bureaucratic confusion and paranoia, threatening his life and the mine in the process. Clearly, it’s not a stretch to see this as a critique of the danger communism presents to individual thinking and value. Along with its layered story, The Black Cannon Incident also has exciting and impressive production design choices to recommend it. You can get it as a DVD on Amazon.

Recent years have seen a significant shift in Huang’s films, and his three most recent films are big-budget historical dramas that chart the founding of modern day China: Mao Zedong 1949, Beginning of the Great Revival and Founding of a Republic. Great Revival and Republic were both funded by the Chinese state, and — in a twist of irony only Huang could think of — are often reviewed by the West as propaganda.

Peng Xiaolian smiles at the camera, leaning agains a graffiti covered wall. She wears a white boatneck sweater, a simple watch, and her arms are crossed.

The Women of The Fifth Generation
While there were a number of women in the Fifth Generation, the unfortunate truth is that these women’s films have largely been lost to the West, overlooked in favor of their male contemporaries. These women include: Shaohong Li, director of thrillers like The Case of the Silver Snake and Bloody Morning, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale for her historic drama Blush; Miaomiao Liu, director of Women on The Long March, one of the first Chinese films about female soldiers, who later secured a nomination for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for her direction of Chatterbox; and Peng Xiaolian, director of sociological looks at women in China, like Women’s Story and Shanghai Women. While many of their films are not available for purchase or viewing, it would be unwise to not mention them, in the event that their films eventually get the recognition they deserve.

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