The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

Zhang Zhen (ed.),
The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4074-4
US$26.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

If we know anything at all about China right now, it is that it is the site of ferocious processes of change. One of the things that makes contemporary Chinese cinema so vital is the way that it responds to that change. Scholarship has to run pretty fast to keep up with the rich diversity of this filmmaking, and so this anthology is particularly welcome. It constitutes an important addition to our sense of the conditions under which contemporary filmmaking is emerging in China. My only fear is that – like the laptop I’m about to buy – it’s inevitably out of date by the time I lay hands on it.

Zhang Zhen, a U.S.-based academic who recently published a major book on the pre-war Shanghai film industry, has brought together this collection of essays around a 2001 screening season she curated. Many of the contributors will be familiar names to western students of Chinese cinemas: Zhang Yingjin, Chris Berry, Sheldon Lu, Yomi Braester, Bérénice Reynaud. Their ability to draw directly on Chinese-language reference material is a particular strength of the anthology.

The Cultural Revolution not only made filmmaking difficult, it made the country’s films very hard to see, and so broad international interest in Chinese cinema coalesced around the Fifth Generation after the breakthrough films of the early 1980s. However we’re a long way now from Yellow Earth (China 1984) and the Fifth Generation designation has largely atrophied into the brand-name spectacles of The Promise (China/Hong Kong/Japan/South Korea 2005) and The Curse of the Golden Flower (Hong Kong/China 2006) – films whose major interest is not on the screen, but rather in what they represent about the possibilities for an internationally commercial Chinese cinema.

The Fifth Generation label crystallized a way of periodizing and promoting Chinese cinema for international consumption. What came after has always been a bit murky, and there is considerable disagreement even among the contributors to this book on how to periodise it. Some filmmakers whose work rose to prominence in the post-Tiananmen period – names such as Zhang Yuan and Wang Xiaoshuai – were quickly grouped together as a Sixth Generation in the way that Gen X demands a Gen Y, but I’m not sure the label ever took. Other designations have included the Newborn Generation, and now we have the Urban Generation. Where some of the contributors see a break between the Sixth and Urban Generations, others see them as a continuous grouping, whose distinctiveness comes from their contrast to the Fifth Generation.

A consensus view here is that Fifth Generation directors, for all their protestations of historical revisionism, came through a traditional industrial system, graduating from the elite Beijing Film Academy and working for state studios. Their achievement was to de-centre socialist realism through the use of allegorical narratives set in a rural past. Urban Generation directors, on the other hand, inhabit a much more disparate landscape. They gain their loose unity by moving outside the state system as it fragments in the face of postsocialist reforms. Their settings are resolutely urban and contemporary, and their themes generally involve the exploration the costs of the transition to a market economy in postsocialist China.

The anthology is divided into three parts with the first section outlining aspects of the political economy of Chinese cinema as it headed into the new century. The other two sections are readings of genres, directors and individual films, recruiting them to the interpretive strategies favoured by the authors. While these latter two sections provide useful introductions to directors such as Ning Ying and Zhang Yuan, the first section, entitled ‘Ideology, Film Practice and the Market’ will engage most of my attention here. The essays in this section foreground the conditions of production which set out the material field of options which have been crucially influential for recent films. The broad distinction between state-sanctioned and underground film has clearly become inadequate to the task of explaining the controlled diversity which we have seen in Chinese cinema as more players have entered the production, distribution and exhibition sectors.

In her Introduction, Zhang announces that the book is “directly concerned with the radical contemporaneity and formal innovation of this emergent cinema” (p. 8). In a very general sense, this contemporaneity stems from the policies of zhuanxing, or economic transformation in China. More proximate to the film industry have been reforms such as those of 1993 which refashioned the relations between production, distribution and exhibition. Zhang Yingjin, in his chapter, discusses the ways in which Chinese film production can be seen as having evolved into four broad streams in response to these industrial changes: the ‘leitmotif’ film whose role is to validate state ideology, the entertainment cinema, the art cinema, and a loosely defined ‘underground’ film scene. He sets up an interesting framework of forces which, pragmatically, has brought these different strands into some form of convergence, producing a tendency towards co-option for filmmakers who began from a position which emphasized their opposition to prevailing social forces.

The best example of this might be Jia Zhangke who has emerged as the most internationally recognized of the Urban Generation. Jason McGrath’s chapter combines detailed textual analyses of Jia’s films while showing that stylistic choices such as the increasing use of detached long takes are not simply thematically motivated but also position the films in relation to international market opportunities and trends.

Chris Berry’s chapter on non-fiction similarly seizes on this connection between social and industrial transformations and formal innovation. He points out that the defining characteristics of the increasingly important Chinese documentary movement are the inter-relations between its origin in the events of 1989, its emphasis on urban life, its abandonment of scripted lecture formats in favour of direct cinema influences, and its movement into the independent production sector, a possibility linked to the increased outlets for television and video material.

The embrace of the new can be a cruel thing. The pace of change in Chinese cinema means that 2001 cut-off point of many of the essays (a few essays as well as the filmographies have been updated to around 2004) leave the reader hungry for updates. Within the past couple of years Jia Zhangke’s award-winning Still Life(China/Hong Kong 2006), Ning Ying’s Perpetual Motion (China 2005), Zhang Yuan’s Little Red Flowers(China/Italy 2006) and Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams (China 2005) – to name only a handful of titles which spring to mind immediately – have provided fresh insights into the work of directors discussed here. They also represent important movements in the politics of Chinese production and distribution, charting the constantly changing paths open to filmmakers. This anthology eloquently maps out the beginning of a pathway for many of these filmmakers. Having moved out of established institutions, this generation now faces the prospect of being re-absorbed in various ways. Their movement beyond the simple positions of oppositionality much loved by western critics might be the beginning point for the next anthology.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, Australia.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →