Extrapolating from the sample on view in American art houses, it’s easy to surmise that mainland Chinese cinema has been in decline for the better part of a decade, with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou’s respective drifts toward plush historical soaps and mawkish peasant paeans. In reality—and as verified by the Walter Reade’s 11-film series—China’s independent film scene is quite likely the most robust and restless in the world right now, notwithstanding the nightmare obstacle course that awaits any director who wriggles past the strictures of the Film Bureau. (Unsanctioned projects can entail any number of inconveniences, from print smuggling and overseas postproduction to blacklists, visa problems, and public apologies.)
Broadly speaking, the distinctions between the so-called Fifth and Sixth Generations can be reduced to simple dichotomies: historical/contemporary, rural/urban, allegorical/experiential, sociological/personal, readily exoticized/starkly depressive. It’s no surprise that the post-Tiananmen wave can be loosely defined by modernist anomie—this is, after all, the generation that came of age in the ’80s, when Maoist rhetoric was ceding to economic liberalization as well as an influx of Western cultural product, including decades’ worth of previously banned art films.
Platform, a New York Film Festival entry last fall, is, in a sense, the emblematic film of the current movement. Jia Zhangke’s context-providing ’80s chronicle maps an epochal period of sociocultural transition as experienced by the members of a small-town performance troupe (the Peasant Culture Group, later reinvented as the spandexed, perm-sporting All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band). Using concentrated master-shot tableaux, Jia fashions a patient, astringent epic, a film whose subject, it turns out, is nothing less daunting (or abstract) than the implacable passage of time.
Like Platform, Jia’s first feature, 1997’s Xiao Wu (playing this weekend), is set in the director’s hometown of Fenyang and shot by the accomplished Hong Kong cinematographer Yu Lik Wai. The film functions equally as a microscopic character study of the pickpocket title character and as a macroeconomic portrait of provincial China’s deepening free-trade scars. Wang Hongwei, who leads the cast of nonpros (and also stars in Platform), has a distinctively quirky, sympathetic presence, somewhere between sullen and sheepish. Despite an ongoing clampdown on petty crime, Xiao Wu continues to ply his light-fingered craft, shunning the respectability of the black market (“I’m an artisan,” he deadpans). Neither romantic nor didactic, the film is a devastating accumulation of muted letdowns and humiliations: A former cohort, now a cigarette-smuggling “model entrepreneur,” rejects Xiao Wu’s wedding gift. A fling with a karaoke-lounge hostess fizzles out unceremoniously. A visit home ends in an abrupt banishment.
Jia laces his grungy realism with a wryly understated sense of the absurd (there’s a lovely moment of inspired silliness involving a lighter that plays “Für Elise”) and playfully foreshadows one of Platform‘s most resounding themes: popular music’s dual role as memory repository and escape hatch. The protagonist’s métier is probably no coincidence—Jia stages and observes his downward spiral with near-Bressonian lucidity.
Censors used to disdain the “primitive” China on view in Fifth Generation dramas. From their perspective, the younger set’s reliably unpicturesque depictions can hardly be considered an improvement. The abiding mood in these films is characterized by some uneasy combination of corrosive stasis and disruptive change. Zhang Ming’s Rainclouds Over Wushan (1996) is set in a town on the Yangtze about to be washed away by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The first act establishes the stultifying dullness of a river signalman’s life, the second introduces a widowed hotel desk clerk, the third brings them together—he’s accused of raping her by her jealous employer. Zhang’s film strips out backstory, muffles motivation, and elides the central encounter altogether; beneath the enigmatic Euro-artiness, it’s an evocative piece of minimalist storytelling, grounded throughout in a concrete observational style.
Ning Ying’s ironic quasi policier, On the Beat (1995), and He Jianjun’s somber meditation on alienation, privacy, and God complexes, Postman (1995), both feature bungling, meddlesome public officials. Using real-life cops as actors, Ning’s straight-faced farce documents the inane day-to-day operations of a Beijing precinct (mainly, impounding illegal pets) and ends up with a gently mocking portrait of bureaucratic tail-chasing (often literal). In He’s film, a diffident young mail carrier intercepts letters and intervenes in the unfolding dramas of the many troubled individuals on his route. Despite a flavorfully queasy atmosphere, Postman falters when it strives for social critique or emotional engagement; there‘s a programmatic laziness in the way it plows through its checklist of automatic censor provocations (prostitution, homosexuality, drug use, AIDS, incest).
No showcase of independent Chinese film would be complete without an entry by the PRC’s most famous outlaw director, Zhang Yuan, whose résumé consisted entirely of domestically banned movies until he deigned to undertake a pair of state-approved projects in ’99 (the documentary Crazy English! and the weepie Seventeen Years). Sons (1996) observes at close range the torment of a middle-aged drunk, his nagging, long-suffering wife, and their two sons, both delinquent drifters and budding alcoholics. In a pivotal gimmick designed to add a certain Mohsen Makhmalbaf-meets-Jerry Springer piquancy, all four play themselves (and in fact live downstairs from the filmmaker, as Zhang himself reveals in voice-over). This hybrid of docu-and psychodrama wobbles ostentatiously between exploitation and sympathy, voyeurism and catharsis. In the end, it’s curiously content to frame its messy, subtextually rich raw material with the most simplistic of diagnoses.
A more sardonic analysis of domestic discord, Mr. Zhao (1998) opens with a Shanghai factory worker catching her husband—the title character—with his lover. Two protracted, momentous scenes follow: First Zhao’s wife tearfully confronts him about the affair; then his mistress breaks the news that she’s pregnant. These two-hander sequences are thrillingly elastic and spontaneous, tearing through a range of emotions with remarkable fluidity. The partly improvised directorial debut of cinematographer Lu Yue (an erstwhile Zhang Yimou collaborator) flags somewhat as it picks up the pieces from its brilliant, explosive opening third, but what the remainder lacks in formal elegance, it makes up for with psychological acuity.
The brazenly style-driven Lunar Eclipse (1999) unavoidably evokes the mainland’s most glamorous pop export to date, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River. Wang Quanan’s debut feature is another slick, slippery loop-the-loop narrative haunted by female doppelgängers (Vertigo must be a staple at the Beijing Film Academy). Undernourished scenario notwithstanding, it manages to work up an impressive head of steam simply via chronology-upsetting fillips and oddball noir variations.
A useful supplement to the Walter Reade’s “Urban Generation” series, the Screening Room’s “Beijing Underground” program offers six early examples of independent Chinese film, two apiece from three of the most fest-lauded Sixth Generation directors. He Jianjun’s Postman screens along with his first film, the expressionist fever dream Red Beads (1993). Wang Xiaoshuai (whose new Berlin entry, Beijing Bicycle, has just been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics) had to take a pseudonymous credit (“Wu Ming,” or “no name”) for his ethnographic tour of Beijing bohemia, Frozen (1996), in which a performance artist stages his own suicide. Wang’s first feature, The Days (1993), is the best film here—a nouvelle-vague-inflected anatomy of an entropic romance between two struggling painters. Zhang Yuan’s chamber piece East Palace West Palace recounts the sexually loaded mind games that transpire between a young gay writer and his policeman captor over the course of a night. His most notorious film is paired with his most iconic, Beijing Bastards (1993)—a showcase for pop star Cui Jian and a rough-hewn, free-form sketch of boozing, brawling, and rock-and-rolling commonly billed as China’s first underground movie.