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The Revolution of the Chinese 5th Generation Film Directors Essay

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The Chinese 5th generation film directors are said to be responsible for the “renaissance of Chinese cinema.” As the fifth graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy entering the cinematic scene in the early 1980s, around half a decade following the conclusion of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, these young directors had been thoroughly influenced by the actions of the Chinese government, having lived the longest parts of their lives through the Revolution. The Revolution had been destructive to the Chinese peoples as a whole.

Thus, Ni Zhen (2002), the author of Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation, writes about “the stark look, powerful emotions, national anxiety, and deep reflection that characterize early Fifth-Generation cinema.”

After all, the Cultural Revolution had been spearheaded by the Chinese dictator, Mao. The actions of the government during Mao’s era were appalling enough for the 5th generation film directors of China to respond to the Revolution after its conclusion.

The Revolution had “turned a nation of one billion people into fanatical lemmings,” writes Zhen. Thus, the 5th generation film directors found themselves responsible for stopping another Revolution by exposing the ills and shames of the Cultural Revolution experienced by the Chinese people through bad politics.

A common subject of the 5th generation films is the Cultural Revolution, of course, and the way it shaped Chinese life. A number of the 5th generation film directors had to quit school during the Revolution. They were forced by the political situation to either join the army or go to the countryside where they were required to serve communist ideals. Fabien Zeising explains the significance of the time in the lives of the 5th generation film directors: “In this period of their  life they found out about the contradictions between ideology and reality. In this period they lost their enthusiasm and ideals.” Zeising further explains the youth of Zhang Yimou, one of the most acclaimed film directors of his generation:

Zhang was raised in a provincial town up in Shaanxi, in the North of China. He grew up  “in the shadow of political stigma that surrounded his father” who was largely unemployed  because of having been an major in the KMT Nationalist army with whom the Communists  waged a protracted war. In a Guardian interview with Lynn Pan Zhang Yimou remembers  that no matter how well-behaved he was at school, how excellent his grades (he came top in  class every year), he could never join the Youth League, the stepping stone to the Communist  Party. “I grew up introverted, withdrawn, reluctant to reveal my innermost thoughts.”

The most famous 5th generation graduate of the Beijing Film Academy was Chen Kaige, however, the director of Yellow Earth as well as Farewell, My Concubine. The man recalled often that he had attacked his own father at the age of fourteen during a mass rally of denunciation. Zhen explores Kaige’s action thus: “Was it because he was afraid of death? Yes, but there was something more terrifying. Having been driven out from but wanting to rejoin the masses who had collectively taken leave of their senses, he hurt his own gentle and dutiful father in order to be acknowledged as one of the group.”

The political situation was undoubtedly chaotic, and Kaige had to choose between the political party that his friends belonged to, and the opposition that his father had shown to the party. Kaige’s friends belonged to the Red Guard of Mao. As matter of fact, the same friends of the director were responsible for plundering young Kaige’s house as well as burning his family books. The director stated in an interview later on: “My best friends in the class, we played together, and then, the next day, they were totally different, they just ignored me. That’s why I decided to denounce my father when my classmates asked me to. It was the turning point of my life. I wanted to show my loyalty… That’s why I did not believe in the revolution” (Zeising).

The actions of the Chinese government had broken families. Some of the 5th generation film directors that exposed the corruption of the political system through their films were banned in the country. Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Kaige were three such directors.

Their films, To Live, The Blue Kite, and Farewell, My Concubine were all banned in China because they realistically portrayed the negative effects of the socialist upheaval in the ordinary lives of individuals as well as families. All three films explored the hardships suffered by families in the face of political and social pressures. Even so, To Live delivered the message that although bad actions of the government could tear families apart, it is possible for people to stay united no matter how government attempts to reshape society with radical principles (Cangialosi, 2005).

Given that the political influences of the Chinese government were the most important of influences in China at the time that the 5th generation filmmakers were growing up, these influences were apparent in the films that they made. It is, therefore, impossible to separate the remembrance of the Cultural Revolution from the films of the 5th generation directors of China.


Cangialosi, Jason. (2005). Personal Revolutions from China’s 5th Generation Filmmakers.
Associated Content. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from http://www.associatedcontent.com/movies/.

Zeising, Fabien. Films of 5th Generation Chinese Film-Maker. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from

Zhen, Ni. (2002). Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth
Generation. (trans. Chris Berry). Durham: Duke University Press.

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