Art Q&A > Film
Advanced Search
E-Mail This Article Print Friendly Format
Chen Kaige -- Star of Chinese Fifth-Generation Cinema Directors

Chinese fifth-generation directors were graduates from the Beijing Film Academy in the 1980s. In early youth they had been thrown into the social havoc of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, and many of them had either worked in the countryside or served as soldiers. After China's reform and opening-up, they received professional training and began their career with creative passion. With a keen sense of new concepts and new artistic means, they tried to pursue a fresh angle in each film. In their exploration of the history of national culture and psychological structure, they managed to create something new and original in their subject matters, story accounts, characters, camera use, and treatment of shots. Their films are subjective, symbolic and meaningful. Chinese fifth-generation directors, though small in number, have had a great influence on Chinese films.

Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Wu Ziniu, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Huang Jianxin are the main representatives of this generation.

Chen Kaige (1952- ) graduated from the directing department of the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. Since 1984 he has directed films including Yellow Earth, The Big Parade, The King of Children, Life on a String, The King Parts with his Favorite, and Shadow of a Flower. Many of these films were sent to be shown at major international film festivals, and some won prizes at the Cannes International Film Festival. Chen's achievements resulted from his highly developed humanism and his concern for ordinary people and their living conditions. He excels in analyzing the influence and restrictions that history and traditions exert on people's minds and in depicting complicated feelings. He lashes out at the weakness of human nature, unreasonable and inhumane. He expresses a yearning for more harmonious and reasonable living conditions. With a profound cultural background and solid art skills, Chen Kaige employs various techniques in his films to convey his humanism and pursuit of aesthetics. He has developed his own style: heavy, trenchant, gentle, and vehement.    

Yellow Earth, directed by Chen Kaige, is about the trip made by Gu Qing, a literary worker of the Eighth Route Army, from Yan'an to a mountainous area to collect materials for literary creation. Gu Qing stays with a poor peasant family. Cuiqiao, the daughter of the family, is engaged with a man much older than her and uses the engagement gifts of the bridegroom-to-be for her mother's funeral and her younger brother's means of livelihood. The arrival of Gu Qing and the new life she learns from Gu makes her decide to cherish a new dream. At the end, Cuiqiao runs away from her husband's house, crosses the Yellow River, and joins the Eighth Route Army.

The success of Yellow Earth lies in that the director used the story only as an outer covering in his endeavor to express his sentiments for the land and the people through his description of the scenes that surpass the limit of the times. For instance, scenes of the boundless yellow earth; the mighty, spectacular Yellow River; and the folk custom and habits, such as the procession to greet the bride, the 150-person waist-drum beating parade, and the people kneeling in the burning sun to beg the god of heaven for rain are closely related to the portrayal of the characters and form an important part of the film.

In addition, the film is unique in its cinematography, use of colors, and conception, and it has a profound meaning. The film achieves unity of the land, the folk custom, and the characters and unity of narration, implication, sentimental expression, and philosophy. It shows the time-honored, simple, and profound local custom and habits on the highland in Shaanxi Province as well as the consideration of the film creators for the national characteristics and their pondering over the fate of the peasants. In 1985, the film won the Best Cinematographic Prize at the Fifth Golden Rooster Awards and the Silver Leopard and five other prizes at the 38th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.

Chen's 1992 work, Farewell to My Concubine, marked a clear turning point in his career, away from pure art and toward commercial success. He cast international art star Gong Li and Hong Kong pop sensation Leslie Cheung in leading roles; although the film does pack an enormous emotional punch, it bears little of the stylistic invention of his previous films. In Chen's adaptation of the Lilian Lee novel, Cheng Dieyi (acted by Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (acted by Zhang Fengyi) grow up enduring the harsh training of the Peking Opera Academy, where instructors regularly beat the children as a means of instilling in them the discipline needed to master the complex physical and vocal technique. As the two boys mature, they develop complementary talents: Dieyi, with his fine, delicate features, assumes the female roles while the burly Xiaolou plays masculine warlords. Their dramatic identities become real for Dieyi when he falls in love with Xiaolou; the resolutely heterosexual Xiaolou, however, marries a courtesan, Juxian (acted by Gong Li), creating a dangerous, jealousy-filled romantic triangle. Spanning 50 years from the early part of the 20th century to the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Kaige's passionate, exquisitely shot film captures the vast historical scope of a changing world (and the mesmerizing pageantry of the opera) while also providing the intimate and touching details of a unique, tender, heartrending love story.

The film eventually won a joint Palme d'Or with The Piano at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination, and it proved a commercial success, raking in millions of dollars in the US alone. Chen made Temptress Moon in 1996, which again starred Leslie Cheung and Gong Li. However, the film received lukewarm reviews and disappointing box office. Chen Kaige's film The Emperor and The Assassin (1999) was screened at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.

All rights reserved. Reproduction of text for non-commercial purposes is permitted provided that both the source and author are acknowledged and a notifying email is sent to us.