Crouching China, Hidden Agenda

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Dutiful rebellion: A scene from "Frozen"

I sing and sing and still can't sing away the pain of this city,
But the pain makes me believe in the good times to come.
I've a smile on my lips, like everyone else just living on this earth.
I'm ready for it: the truth, the lies, the garbage — it's all got to come out.
Suddenly there's a Mass Movement in front of my eyes, Changing my life like a revolution.
— final song from Zhang Yuan's "Beijing Bastards," 1993

To announce two new series of Mainland movies playing in New York City, we say, "The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!" And you say, "Aren't they here already? Haven't they pretty much taken over?"

You have a point — several, in fact. Jackie Chan and Jet Li have become authentic Hollywood action stars. John Woo directed "Mission Impossible: 2," the second highest grossing film of 2000. The Mandarin-language "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the all-time top moneymaker for foreign-language films. It's earned $84 million at the North American box office, 10 Oscar nominations and enough Zeitgeist spritz to secure, for director Ang Lee, one of the highest accolades in pop culture: a jokey mention on last week's episode of "The Simpsons."

Yes, but there are many Chinas, and as many separate, disparate film tendencies. Mainland Chinese cinema first seduced the West in the early '90s with ripe artworks by Zhang Yimou ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern") and Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine," "Temptress Moon"). These gorgeous melodramas reminded viewers that movies could be a banquet for the eyes as well as the emotions; they evinced a lover's knowledge of international film style while residing in Oriental exoticism. Giving sizzle to this sweet-and-sour cinema was Gong Li, the star of Zhang's and Chen's best-known films, and a statuesque beauty whose defiant sensuousness roiled under her tight silk dresses. As one close watcher of Mainland movies noted at the time, "Chinese films might not have become an international phenomenon if Gong Li had been flat-chested."

Zhang and Chen, along with Tian Zhuanzhuang ("The Blue Kite") and Li Shaohong ("Blush") were members of China's so-called Fifth Generation — graduates of the first class of the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution. The Fifth Generation was a convenient label, like the French New Wave 30 years before, though its members didn't have much more in common than a diploma. "I didn't know who the first four generations were," Zhang once said, adding, by way of explanation, "The Chinese like everything to have a number."

Inevitably, the next group of directors — most of them Academy-trained, and entering the film force around 1993 — was called the Sixth Generation. Interestingly, they produced works in response, even opposition, to the movies that had made China famous. To simplify just a tad, we'll say that the Fifth Generation made pretty films set in the rural past, and the Sixth Generation makes gritty films set in the urban present. The emperors and concubines have been replaced by grungy malcontents, spitting out obscenities in sync-sound and grooving to hard rock; Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" roars in Wang Xiaoshuai's "The Days" (1993), home-grown punk in Zhang Yuan's "Beijing Bastards." A night at the Peking Opera gives way to an all-nighter in the Beijing mosh pit.

Now New York movie lovers can get a double dose of Sixth Generation grit. The Screening Room has a six-film series, Beijing Underground, spotlighting seminal titles from 1993 to 1997, among them "Beijing Bastards," "The Days" and He Jianjun's 1995 "Postman." The Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center offers 11 films of slightly later vintage, including three from last year. Both series run through March 8. If you want to know what's going on in the Mystic East besides swordfights and Hollywood exile, here are some films worth a subway ride, or maybe a plane trip. You enter a theater, and suddenly there's a Mass Movement in front of your eyes.

Karaoke Girl (coquettishly): Am I beautiful?
Street Thief (blankly): Very ordinary.
Karaoke Girl (suddenly interested): Actually I find you quite attractive.
Street Thief (blankly): Very ordinary.
— from Jia Zhangke's "Xiao Wu," 1997

Sixth Generation films are all about ordinariness of heroes, villains and ladies of the evening. There's not much facial or verbal inflection, and few dramatic gestures, unless someone is smoking (and in Chinese films, everybody smokes, all the time, bless 'em). All these movies drop one big hint: In a totalitarian society, where anyone may be a government snitch, it is best to keep one's feelings unknowable, one's agenda hidden. So the reserve of these characters, actors and films is not necessarily the sullenness of European art films. It could be self-protective wariness. To speak up, to shout or plead, is to be noticed; to be noticed is to risk being denounced. Best to blend into the scenery, to seem a gray person in a gray nation. Chameleons survive, and no one thinks to ask what a chameleon is thinking. These films have the shroud of autobiography around them — for, like their protagonists, Sixth Generation filmmakers don't scream; they show you what they see. The screaming is up to you.

For all their social urgency, these films are rarely zippy. They echo the more dyspeptic European and American art films: minute observations of quiet people in repressed distress. Long pauses punctuate short speeches. You could recite a list of the Chinese dynasties of the past 1,500 years between each speech. (Quickly: Siu, Tang, Five Dynasties, Ten Kingdoms, Song, Liao, Western Xia, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing.) The camera is often static, as in Jia Zhangke's new, widely praised "Platform," or it will glumly follow a character as he trudges from kitchen to bathroom. Even those characters who chose to act, like the rockers in "Beijing Bastards," the pickpocket of "Xiao Wu" and the suicidal performance artist in "Frozen" do so as an almost dutiful act of rebellion — an anarchist punching in at his job of outraging the Man.

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