Ashes of Time

New films from Hong Kong and mainland China stoke the fires of discontent

China's so-called Fifth Generation--Chen, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang--was forged by historical circumstance: All three filmmakers were "sent down" for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution and later studied together at the Beijing Film Academy. They were united also by their continuing unstable relationship with China's political establishment. Yet, at least during the past decade, the government has dealt with these directors less as dissidents than as wayward children--complete with the political equivalent of sending them to their rooms (i.e., refusing to let them screen at international film festivals). In fact, the marketplace has proven a far more efficient censor than the government. After years of blistering (and banned) social criticism, Chen and his fellows have begun to attract--and, some argue, actively court--foreign audiences by turning to lush period melodramas (Farewell My Concubine et al.) that seem increasingly irrelevant to China's present.

As the Fifth Generation introduces Chinese cinema to the world, though, a new generation of post-Tiananmen filmmakers has emerged in China's teeming capital. This group--rather uncreatively labeled the Sixth Generation--includes Wang Xiaushuai, Jia Zhangke (whose 1997 film, Xiao Wu, screens 5:00 p.m. Saturday, March 24), and Zhang Yuan. In contrast to gorgeous historical soap operas like Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, their work is urban in subject, flamboyantly subversive in tone, and realist in style. If the defining image of the Fifth Generation was the rural landscape of Chen's Yellow Earth--in which a soldier, reduced to the size of an ant, searches China's wasteland for lost folk history--the seminal image of the new generation might be a tank rolling over a teenager.

The aforementioned Postman (7:00 p.m. Saturday, March 24 and 9:00 p.m. Friday, April 6) is a good example of the Sixth Generation's emerging modernist sensibility. Though it is only He's second feature--his first, 1993's Red Beads, was directed pseudonymously--he is a permanent fixture of China's independent cinema (He has, over the course of his career, worked with Chen, Zhang Yimou, and Tian). The visual texture of Postman does owe a great deal to the formal technique of the Fifth Generation. But He is also closely attuned to the air of modern Beijing: The city's literal atmosphere, a thick cloud bank of pollution, gives the light a peculiar, diffuse quality, as though everything were buried beneath a stratum of yellow dust. He lets his camera roam through this wasteland, with its broad streets and featureless apartment buildings, observing the city's stagnation with almost clinical detachment. Humans are never the focus of his compositions; instead, his camera lingers in empty rooms after the inhabitants have exited. Seen through He's unflinching lens, the city becomes a graveyard for the living.

Dead letter office: He Jianjun's Postman sends a dispatch from China's urban wasteland
Dead letter office: He Jianjun's Postman sends a dispatch from China's urban wasteland

Postman's subject also reflects urban alienation: A young, Bartleby-like postal worker begins reading people's mail and infiltrating their troubled lives. What begins as curiosity--a human gesture in a world indifferent to human feeling--turns into something more enigmatic. The postman becomes the embodiment of the filmmaker, picking through life's ash heap for material. One scene in particular seems to capture He's drift. The protagonist's sister, with whom he is sharing an apartment (and possibly a bed), recalls a childhood episode during which the two of them sneaked into a farmer's orchard to steal peaches. The farmer, she tells him, later had his orchard appropriated by the government, and he ended up destitute, telling fortunes on the street. In He's China, such is the bitter fruit of human labor. Later the theme is echoed in an intercepted suicide note: "There's too many of us. The world doesn't need us."

Postman has been banned, of course. (Any film dealing with contemporary China is declared subversive almost as a matter of course.) Censorship notwithstanding, however, independent filmmakers like He seem to be thriving. They operate at the periphery of Chinese society, shooting without permits or official sanction and smuggling their prints out of the country for postproduction. There's a devil-may-care spirit among this new breed of auteur that the Fifth Generation, who always had the weight of history on its shoulders, never shared.

Consider the youthful esprit of In the Heat of the Sun (7:00 p.m. Thursday, March 22 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29), directed by young Beijing auteur Jiang Wen and based on a bildungsroman by expatriate author Wang Shuo. Set during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang's film bears some resemblance to the sweeping historical fictions of the Fifth Generation--most particularly Tian's The Blue Kite. Yet where that film subordinated the personal to the political, Jiang dispenses with politics almost altogether. Here the Cultural Revolution is less a collective trauma than a colorful backdrop to a summery Proustian idyll. Gossamer sunlight washes every frame as the film's narrator, an innocent-faced rapscallion called Monkey, causes mischief with his friends and pursues his Odette, an older girl from the neighborhood.

Though political upheaval is the film's context, it is no more central to the story than the furniture. Indeed, In the Heat of the Sun is less about the sweep of history than the texture of memory. It's also a celebration of cinema's power to hold time still: In the film's climactic moment, the story stops and actually begins to run in reverse, suggesting an infinitude of possible futures. "I can't tell what's real from what's remembered," the narrator explains. "Change has wiped out my memories." Jiang, who was still in diapers when the Cultural Revolution began, suggests that, at least in the realm of the cinema, what's imagined and what's remembered are often the same.


Asian Media Access's sixth annual Chinese Film Showcase runs through April 7 at Metropolitan State University; (612) 376-7715;

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