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Cameras Don’t Lie: City Life in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

City Life in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

Sixth generation film directors show a group of filmmakers who are highly independent and who began their production right after 1989. These movie directors are at times referred to as ‘the urban generation.’ The name urban generation is brought about by their massive concentration on the city culture. Zhang Yuan is mostly recognized as the founder of this generation of filmmakers, as one of his movies that feature the ‘Beijing Bastards’ became the demonstration of the new urban films in the early 1990s. Therefore, the sixth generation films were highly characterized by marginal characters, lifestyles that were extremely secretive, a low financial plan, actors that portrayed a lack of professionalism, and improvised scripts.

Sixth generation films had the tendency of focusing highly on social issues which in turn created a cinema culture which had an atmosphere that was completely different from the national ambitiousness of movie directors of the fifth generation. Drug abuse, deviant youths, homosexuality, and divorce among many others were some of the common themes of the sixth generation. These themes made it difficult to go past censorship which resulted in the films being shown outside of china before they were even available to the public in China itself. It is highly obvious that the sixth generation film directors share a uniform style of representation and they completely differ from their fifth generation peers. A study on several Chinese films can be used to take a look at the sixth generation movies and evaluate their differentiation from the fifth generation films. Some of the differences lie in the style of representing the cinema as well as the thematic concerns that are incorporated in the movies.

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In the Heat of the Sun

In In the Heat of the Sun, which is a 1994 film that was written and directed by Jiang Wen and produced by Guo Youliang, Hsu An-chin, and Po Ki, the language that was initially used was Mandarin language (Lee). Additionally, the film got inspiration from the book “Wild Beast” by Wang Shuo and it stars actors like Geng Le as Liu Yiku, Tao Hong as Yu Beibei, Ning Jing as Mi Lan and Xia Yu as Ma Xiaojun who in the film is nicknamed Monkey. The film is 134 minutes long and was produced in Beijing, China during the time of the Cultural Revolution (Lee).

In the movie, the main theme is youth deviance where a group of teenage boys is free from parent supervision as their military fathers are shipped to fight for Chairman Mao due to the activities of the Cultural Revolution period (Lee). The boys are mischievous and spend their summer doing activities of their choosing. As they are a bit young to be part of the older youths working in the countryside, the boys spend their summer in bike riding, gang fighting, picking girls as well as declaring their masculinity. In the Heat of the Sun is a sixth generation film which presents ideas such as eroticism, youth deviance, as well as violence in the society that it incorporates in itself (Lee). It additionally acts as a major divergence away from the melodramatic ambitiousness of the early 1990s which aimed to represent the past of China as full of sexual repression. Jiang Wen, the director of the film neither uses the platitude nor does he make any appeal to the western audiences but instead he portrays freshness and authenticity which set the film apart (Lee).

In the movie, a scene is shown which involves the transformation of tossing a school bag to an event of stabbing Mi Lan’s boyfriend, which portrays rebelliousness as well as a teenager who is driven by angst (Lee). To show this theme with increased success, the director tends to use the art of surrealism. This vulnerability is again demonstrated in the romantic and innocent demonstration of the beginning of the relationship between Mi Lan and Ma Xiaojun and the poetic scene at the swimming pool which displays Ma Xiaojun trying to make it out of the water but does not in the end. In both scene displays, the film’s audience is presented with a controversy that if history is recorded by people in reconsideration while not being able to recall the past with an aim, can the accounts of history be believable? (Lee) Another controversy includes the question of whether an objective needs to be tried before being revealed to the public. The film gives ‘NO’ as the answer to the questions. This style of cinematic representation places the movie in the category of the sixth generation movies.

Suzhou River

Suzhou River is a Chinese film which was released in 2000 and written and by Lou Ye and produced by Philippe Bober and Nai An. The film is set in contemporary Shanghai in China and stars Zhou Xun as Moudan and Meimei, a wealthy businessman’s daughter and a dive bar performer respectively, and Jia Hongsheng as Mardar, a motorcycle transporter who is hired to take Moudan to places when her father takes a mistress home. Suzhou River tells the love story between Moudan and Mardar that is gone awry. In this narration, the film’s story reveals different lives of four individuals of the marginalized Chinese Society.

Suzhou River involves an unseen videographer opening the movie with a sermon on love and the Suzhou River. The videographer begins the film by giving a romance narration between him and a dive bar performer, Meimei. At another point in the movie, the videographer starts to relate Mardar’s story to that of his and Moudan who years earlier had thrown herself into the Suzhou River after falling in love with Mardar only for him to conspire her kidnapping later. Mardar goes to prison, and after being released, he starts to look for Moudan but meets Meimei instead and mistakes her for Moudan. He later finds Moudan, and they both die at the end of the film. The film is classified as a typical sixth generation film due to its theme and style of presentation.

In its style, the film uses an anonymous videographer who seems inexperienced in film production. When making the movie, the videographer is seen to move the camera in a way that suggests that he does not have the experience required in making films. He makes camera movements that are quite jerky and unstable, and the filmed content portrays the unprofessionalism of the film. Additionally, the job of the videographer, as well as the narrator, seems to be recording every person, at any place and for whatever time the subjects need to be filmed. The inexperience, therefore, makes him a voyeur as each individual that he catches on camera eventually becomes a character in the movie. Narration in the film as well is quite confusing as Mardar and Moudan’s love tale does not seem much of narration but an imagination of the narrator. It, however, goes on until at a point where the anonymous narrator is switched to Mardar (Linder).

Suzhou River’s theme can be said to concerned with some societal issues such as love, money betrayal as well as sexual immorality. The film portrays an aspect of perverse behaviors when the narrator seems to look at different aspects of people’s lives, both public and private from his camera location. He goes ahead to spy on the lives of everyone else in the city even when they are in the safety of their rooms which portrays the element of perversion in the subject society. He additionally uses the aspect of voyeurism to track all realities in the film without having to leave out any given particulars of the entire world (Linder).

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An aspect of betrayal and love for money is portrayed in the film in the scene where Mardar chooses to become part of Moudan’s kidnapping plan for ransom. By doing this, Mardar betrayed Moudan as she took them for being in love with each other. In another scenario, Lao B betrays Xiao Ho whom they had initially teamed up to facilitate Moudan’s kidnapping by killing her when they get the money which they had targeted. Moudan’s father is used to demonstrate the element of sexual immorality in the society when he is featured to bring mistresses to his home and send Moudan away on such occasions. It also portrays the aspect of irresponsible parenting. These themes that are presented in the movie clearly place it in the sixth generation films as it goes against all odds and the fifth generation principles of film-making to portray the aspects of social disorientation and immorality in the featured society (Linder).

A touch of Sin

A touch of Sin is another sixth generation contemporary Chinese film that is written and directed by Jia Zhangke and which was released in 2013 (Bradshaw). The film stars Jiang Wu as Dahai, Zhao Tao as a receptionist at a massage parlor and Wang Baoqiang. In the movie, an exploration of societal aspects such as violence, corruption, and abuse of power is portrayed. Its Chinese title can be directly translated from Chinese to “Heavenly fate” or to “fated doom” (Bradshaw). The film revolves around four events faced by different people in the modern China. Subjects to the events in different Chinese provinces and are faced with situations of cruelty and unfairness and are therefore forced to resolve to vengeance and violence (Bradshaw).

A miner, Dahai, who is angry and disappointed at the rising levels of corruption in the village he lives, chooses to take justice on his hands. Dahai makes efforts in fighting many injustices in his village like in the case of the mine owner failing to respect the agreement made with his workers to share the mine profits with them (Bradshaw). Dahai, therefore, chooses to justify the situation and confronts the mine owner with a gun. Tao, on the other hand, is a receptionist at a massage parlor where she is mistaken for a hooker. At a point, she is beaten up with money so that she could forcefully get into a different job of being a hooker. She finally gets fed up and holds a knife to her customer ready to stab him (Bradshaw).

In another story in the film, a migrant and a scooter riding criminal looks for ways in which he can possess a firearm. His family member whom he travels to the countryside to support is, however, feeling embarrassed by him. A young man in another film story finds a job in a luxurious cathouse and seems to run from one job to another looking for better-working conditions but is only faced with degrading treatment (Linder). Taking a look at the film, it presents the theme of poor working conditions, economic inequality in the society, corruption, as well as violence and vengeance. A touch of Sin can, therefore, be described as a sixth generation film according to its idea presentation and theme coverage (Linder).

Making a comparison between the fifth and sixth generation films, it is clear that the sixth generation films are more exclusive in addressing societal issues than the fifth generation movies. Taking a look at the films that are classified as fifth generation, it’s demonstrated that these films do not leave out details when aiming at presenting a problem in the society. A look at Chinese films further differentiates the two movie generations as well as the film directors. In the fifth generation, directors had a more candid way of presenting their arguments while the sixth and present day directors tend to exploit all the opportunities that are available to enable them present societal pressing ideas. Film themes as well transform from epic tailored by government interests to the presentation those that involve the society and not in the interest of any authority.