China Goes to the Movies

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I never expected to attend the Beijing Film Academy. My father was a director, and as a child I used to go on the set to watch him. But I actually thought it was pretty boring: it just seemed like a lot of people shouting. I wanted to grow up to be a scholar instead and study classical Chinese literature, living my life behind a desk. I didn't think I would be very good at working with people, or that I would ever understand how to make people happy. To be a filmmaker you have to be able do that. When the Cultural Revolution ended, I wanted to go to Peking University. The problem was, like many other people of my age, I wasn't able to finish middle school. Most schools were closed when I was between the ages of 12 and 17. A friend suggested that I try to get into the Beijing Film Academy. The exam was less academic; he was sure I could pass. The first time I took the test, I failed. It was extremely disappointing, because I desperately wanted to attend. (A professor later told me they thought I had answered the questions with a know-it-all-attitude because of my father.) Miraculously, they decided that year, 1978, to accept more than the usual number of applicants to the directing department. I was allowed to take the exam a second time and passed. I was very proud to get in. Three thousand people had applied, and only 28 were accepted. Many talented individuals didn't get to go. We were all very lucky. The school was in Changping county on the outskirts of Beijing. Because colleges had been closed for so long, our professors had not taught in 10 years. They told us that all they could do was show us films. So we often boarded a bus to the Beijing Film Archive and watched movies. It was great! We saw lots of American and Russian films. It seemed like one long party. We had the freedom to see whatever we wanted, say whatever we wanted and dream about what we wanted to do in the future. We knew nothing about films. All we had was passion, and we became passionate about filmmaking. None of us liked Hollywood products. We all preferred thoughtful European films and art-house movies to the big moneymakers. The filmmakers of the Fifth Generation, as we were later called, were unique because we had all endured the hardships of the Cultural Revolution. I, for one, had something I really wanted to tell people, a message. Each of us was determined to tell people the truth. And we refused to compromise for the sake of political ideology. Making propaganda films was out of the question. My generation of film directors chose to fight to do what we wanted to do, instead of what others told us. We didn't want to make the same mistakes that directors of my father's generation had. When I graduated in 1982, I went to the Beijing Film Studio. I had access to two scripts. One was Yellow Earth, a story about a wandering communist soldier who travels to a farming village in northwestern China to learn folk songs as part of a propaganda effort to mobilize peasants against the Japanese. At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to turn it into a movie, but I did want to see the sites described in the script. So four of us, including cameraman Zhang Yimou, spent a month traipsing through northern China. We had to walk for part of the trip because we didn't have a car or a jeep. I was stunned when I saw the Yellow River, in Shaanxi, for the first time. At that moment I knew that I had to make the film. Because the directors of the Beijing Film Studio were not yet retired, there was no chance for someone as young as myself, who wasn't interested in creating propaganda, to get permission to make a film. We decided to apply to a smaller organization, Guangxi Film Studios in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province. The people who ran the studio weren't sure whether or not they liked the script for Yellow Earth. But after four hours of trying to convince them that it would work, we got the project--and the financing. Filming took about two-and-a-half months. Our budget was only $50,000. It wasn't much money but at the time it seemed like a lot. After the film was done we realized we had made something special, that we had departed from typical storytelling form. A leading official in the Beijing Film Bureau said initially that he would never sit in a dark room just to watch a film like that. We went to his office, without an appointment, and argued with him. He said we clearly didn't know what we wanted to say in the film and that it didn't make any sense. But two months later the film received good reviews at the Hong Kong Film Festival; later it won the best picture award at the Hawaii International Film Festival. When Zhang Yimou and I returned from Hawaii--my first trip to the United States--the Chinese censors said the film was O.K. because overseas audiences liked it. It was not until the 1980s that the West discovered the kinds of films we were making. Most of these movies display an intense and beautiful visual style, and a plain and simple form of narration. The spirit was cultural humanism. We were all influenced by our experiences during the Cultural Revolution. It's ironic that Yellow Earth is still making money today. (Of course, the budget was so low, it was not difficult to turn a profit.) But back then we weren't even thinking about money. It was financed by the state-run Guangxi Film Studios! Even though the Fifth Generation was one of the first groups of Chinese directors discovered by the West, it was far from the first to make impressive contributions. Soon after the motion picture industry was introduced in the 1920s, China experienced a golden age. Films made by top directors found favor in the eyes of the city's petty bourgeoise. The distinctive style of realism reflected in the films came even earlier than that of Italian neorealism. In the 1950s, some new films, which had remarkable narrative techniques, still managed to emerge, though their subjects were highly politicized. These new films were dually influenced by both Hollywood and the Soviet Union. During the Cultural Revolution, China made almost no feature films except those based on Peking Opera or ballets known as revolutionary model operas. It's funny that the characters in these films were divided into heroes and enemies in the same way they are today in Hollywood. This might be the reason why Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's wife, began making the so-called revolutionary models. She was, to some extent, influenced by Hollywood while working as an actress in Shanghai in the 1930s. In Jiang Qing's day, film was the most important means of entertainment for the Chinese. The state provided funds for making films, and they could be viewed cheaply. Twenty years ago, a movie with several hundred million viewers was nothing extraordinary. This phenomenon has helped create the false impression among China's censors that the ideological inclination of a film will affect social stability and that strict controls should be applied. I also think that it's largely because of their similarity to the revolutionary films of the past that commercial Hollywood films have been able to thrive in the Chinese market during the past decade. People like to see stories that feel familiar. Chinese films now are no longer influenced by the ideals of European humanism. It has been a long time since I've visited the Beijing Film Academy. I am afraid that the whole school has become commercialized. It seems that people go there now only because it has become so prestigious, not because they genuinely want to learn how to make films. Students want to make money off the school's credentials, and the school wants to make money off its students. The academy has produced great talent: people like Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Wang Xiaoshuai. But these days most graduates don't even go into the film industry. Instead, they make commercials or television shows. Of course, they all say they will make their fortune first and then return to their passion. But most never go back. The new generation of directors is capable of doing excellent work, but their situation is tougher than ours was. They face not one but two obstacles: avoiding censorship and finding financing. The free market is still underdeveloped, so it's tough to persuade people to invest in artistic projects. I hope one day to raise money to help the new generation produce films, so they don't have to go to the state-run bureaus. It bothers me that even today artists have to go underground to create films and that their work often cannot be shown in China. Forced to find other ways to make their films, many just give up. Chen Kaige is the director of such films as Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin