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Chinese Fifth Generation: New Wave and Art Cinema Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2020


For a significant time in the 20th century, the cinematography of continental China was associated with communist propaganda. However, as the cultural revolution came to an end, the new generation of filmmakers appeared. 1982 became a watershed year in the Chinese cinema industry. That was a year when the young and ambitious graduates of Beijing Film Academy declared that they wanted to create new films that would be free of ideologies. Critics entitled this group of cinema rebels ‘the Fifth Generation,’ and it was this generation that began to make the films that attracted both the domestic and the international audiences.

The most famous representatives of the Chinese Fifth Generation are Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Zhang Junzhao. Although it may seem that their works differ from each other, they all have similar features, i.e., they are all inspired not just by the Chinese traditions but by the western filmmaking values as well. These filmmakers were the first ones who enriched the Chinese cinema with the new visual images and united the elements of the traditional art with the western classical manner of film narration.

The works of the Fifth G directors are commonly associated with the New Wave. Chinese New Wave is frequently defined as ‘a political effort to disengage the orthodox social discourse embodied by the state, in general, and the status quo of filmmaking, in particular’ (Zhu 2003, p.47). The Fifth G films depart from the Chinese visual arts and the fashion of film narration that prevailed in the domestic market before, yet it is possible to say that the movie discourse of that period is restricted merely to some stylistic features of New Wave cinema in its original sense because the degree to which the Fifth G directors implement the principles of art movie filmmaking, which normally present in the American and the European New Wave and modernist cinema, significantly vary. To understand the extent to which the terms ‘New Wave’ and ‘art cinema’ are compatible in the Chinese Fifth G movies, we will evaluate these concepts separately and analyze the most prominent works of that period.

Western and Chinese New Wave

Initially, the term ‘New Wave’ was applied to the French cinema that appeared in the 1950s-1960s and ‘showed a marked difference in style and content to the mainstream’ (Wham 2014, p. 1). New Wave movies always addressed contemporary issues and demonstrated the absurd in the life of the young generations. It is possible to say that New Wave cinema was inspired by the social shifts and changes – the movement in filmmaking developed as a response to social changes and particular circumstances which stimulated creativity and innovation.

The Chinese New Wave also designates the difference between generations. The emergence of the Fifth G movie directors became possible only after the end of the cultural revolution and, consequently, the cessation of the communist propaganda. With the opening of China to the world in the 1980s, the Maoist utopia receded into the background and freed the space for new ideas inspired by Western knowledge and technologies. The major distinction of the Chinese New Wave from other New Wave movements is its reliance on the traditional western cinema narrative (that was not typical for other schools of New Wave in cinema).

In general, New Wave implies the integration of art cinema principles and the consequent deviation from the classical Hollywood standards. It means that new wave movies will always resist the traditional Hollywood notions of narrative (e.g., linear story progression, clear beginnings, and endings, etc.) in one way or another (Wilson 2014, p. 59), and will mostly resist its standards of production. For instance, the majority of the French New Wave movies were low-budget and, to a high degree, the production strategy was interrelated with the methods and techniques used by the directors and the narrative structure in general (Wham 2014). While we may see the clear distinctions between the western New Wave and traditional forms of movie production, the Chinese New Wave has an uncertain position. The Fifth G directors collaborated with the overseas investors, and their works were meant to serve a dual purpose, i.e., their movies targeted the international art house market and the domestic mainstream market (Zhu & Rosen 2010, p. 160). It is also observed that the filmmakers widely implemented the classical Hollywood standards and values of narration, aspects of acting, editing, etc. (Zhu & Rosen 2010). The conformity with the Hollywood filmmaking norms was not known before in China. Therefore, in the context of the domestic market, the Fifth G movies were innovative, yet the compliance with classical norms makes the major distinction of the Chinese New Wave from the western New Wave movements.

Another distinctive feature of the Fifth Generation from the Western New Wave is the interest towards the national past. When depicting the stories of the ordinary people’s struggles, the directors integrated the traditional aesthetics into their works which affined them with the classical Chinese discourse. The abundance of the national themes and criticism of the country’s past may be considered one of the major features of the Chinese Fifth Generation. For instance, ‘Yellow Earth’ (1984) by Chen Kaige, depicts the story of a young man who arrives at a village to promote Communist ideas. He finds accommodation in a poor family’s house and participates in the everyday peasants’ activities and talks with them about the benefits which Communism may bring to them. He is represented as a symbol of a bright future, while the father, the head of the family, is shown as a unit of an old feudal world. The father decides to give his daughter to a man whom she never saw before, and even the young communist, who believes in the liberation of women by his ideology, cannot save her from the marriage. Another important character, a dumb brother of the girl, may be regarded as a symbol of a growing generation that does not need any obsolete rules and codes of an old archaic rural society or the principles of a new Communist world. The review of the semantic contents makes it clear that the Fifth G directors did not attempt to fulfill the roles of missionaries, prophets, or teachers like the authors in previous generations. By revealing the flaws of the past and evaluating the cultural roots, they tried to comprehend and form a new national identity.

Nevertheless, the Fifth G directors implemented art cinema filmmaking elements in a varying degree. For instance, in Kaige’s movie, the dialogues and cinematic movement are reduced to a minimum. The picture captures many still views of nature and rural lifestyles, and the visual blocks are used to restrict the motion in many parts of the cinema. According to Zhu (2003), cinematographic immobility in the movie is motivated by both realism and symbolism (p. 58). Kaige perfectly depicts the naturalism of the yellow plateau and, at the same time, he creates a powerful symbol of unchangeability and deadweight through these visual effects.

The superposition of visual silent blocks makes a powerful effect as well. Due to them, ‘Yellow Earth’ obtains the quality of ambiguity which was not present in the cinema created by the previous generations. Such visual and narrative elements made the Fifth G movies outstand among the classical realist forms of the Chinese film. And, as a type of non-classical movie narrative, ‘Yellow Earth’ and other similar works, may fall under the category of art cinema.

The Principles of Art Cinema Filmmaking

According to Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson (1985), ‘the art film plays among several tendencies: deviation from classical norms, adherence to art-cinema norms, creation of innovative intrinsic norms, and the greater or lesser foregrounding of deviations from those intrinsic norms’ (213). Although the differences between the classical narration and the art film narration are somewhat vague, one can find them in the specific causation elements. For instance, in classical movies, ‘narrative form motivates cinematic representation,’ i.e., the action develops through clearly defined, objective-oriented characters (Bordwell 2002, 717). At the same time, in art cinema, cause-and-effect relationships between narration elements and cinematic representation are ambiguous and less fixed. However, this type of works is also constructed according to the norms of realism – the locations in the movies are real (e.g., the village located on the plateau), similarly to the problems discussed there (e.g., subordinate roles and objectification of women in ‘Yellow Earth’). Nevertheless, a significant degree of ambiguity may be found in the representation of characters: the inconsistency of their motivations and reasons for actions, the lack of clear desires, etc. (Bordwell 2002).

‘On the Hunting Ground’ (1984) and ‘Horse Thief’ (1986) by Tian Zhuangzhuang may serve as good examples illustrating the narration ambiguity associated with art cinema. The plots in the pictures are reduced to an extreme point where the movies obtain the documentary quality. The director tried to create a complete picture of life in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Again, like in ‘Yellow Earth,’ the movies transfer realism through the captured locations and motion of the camera following the traveling of Mongolian and Tibetan nomads. Zhuangzhuang depicted a lot of ethnic rituals that have not particular relation to the plot itself but rather have a purely symbolic meaning. For instance, the ethnographic elements such as religious and ethnic rituals prevail in both the movies over the dramatic ones (Zhu 2003). As a result, the plots are very fragmented and are characterized by a high level of ambiguity; they can be interpreted in many ways.

In terms of narration, the western New Wave filmmakers often employed non-linear plot progression. The audience understands the story based on particular hints while the overall picture may remain unclear until the middle or the end of a film. Frequently, the plot is arranged in non-chronic order, we may see flashbacks and other techniques like in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ (1959), where the opening scene is the flashback to another scene in the middle of the film, or in ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961), where the time moves in the loops and the situations continuously repeat. Comparing to the European New Wave, the Chinese Fifth Generation cinema has more clarity and consistency. For instance, ‘One and Eight’ (1984) by Zhang Jun Zhao is one of the closest to the classical narration causality. When telling the story of a wrongly accused communist, Zhao does not try to break away from the classical storytelling principles but makes the emphasis on the realistic portrayal of the Communist army. The realism in depiction stimulates the audience to reflect on moral values. Based on this example, although there is a share of experimentation in the Fifth G movies, there is no radical break from the classical filmmaking styles. Zhu (2003) notes that the Chinese Fifth Generation directors did not try to draw attention to own interventions or own presence in the films, like in French New Wave and American modernist cinema, but rather made an attempt to return to the humanist tradition of the early Chinese filmmaking (p. 63).


The analysis of the movies and the review of the literature reveal that there is a significant distinction between the Chinese New Wave and the European New Wave, and while in the western tradition, New Wave and art cinema may be regarded as synonymous concepts, these terms are not completely compatible in China. While art cinema implies the deviation from the classical Hollywood fashion of filmmaking in terms of psychological causality, commitment to both objective and subjective credibility, uncertainty in characters’ goals and desires, etc., the Fifth G directors, on the contrary, preferred to comply with the principles of traditional western movie production and mainly employed the classical narration standards.

In the works analyzed in the paper, we cannot find the illusion/reality dichotomy associated with art cinema; the filmmakers do not depict the subjective realities of their characters. However, the directors widely used the principle of documentary realism as a means for the creation of psychological subjectivity in their works. These films have a loose and accidental narrative structure that resembles real life. Still, the Chinese Fifth G movies lack many other qualities associated with the European modernist, art cinema movements including the integration of authorship into the film, irony, self-reflexivity, high level of semantic ambiguity, etc. Based on this, in the case of China, the term ‘New Wave’ implies the difference between the generations and innovation in the context of the domestic market without the extensive use of the expressive means commonly associated with art cinema.

Reference List

Bordwell, D, 2002, ‘The art cinema as a mode of film practice’, in Flower C, (ed), The European cinema reader, pp. 94-102, Routledge, New York.

Bordwell, D, Staiger, J, & Thompson, K, 1985, The classical Hollywood cinema: film style and mode of production to 1960, Routledge, New York.

Wham, J, 2014, The Hong Kong New Wave, Arts Online. Web.

Wilson, F, 2014, New Taiwanese cinema in focus: moving within and beyond the frame, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Zhu, Y, & Rosen, S, 2010, Art, politics, and commerce in Chinese cinema, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.

Zhu, Y, 2003, Chinese cinema during the era of reform: the ingenuity of the system, Praeger, Westport.

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