Best known outside China are Fifth Generation films, which have won major international awards and in some cases have been box-office successes abroad. Much heralded among Fifth Generation directors are the 1982 Beijing Film Academy graduates Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang (b. 1952), and Wu Ziniu and Huang Jianxin (b. 1954), who graduated a year later.

In the first decade of their filmmaking (until the mid-1990s), Fifth Generation directors used common themes and styles, which was understandable since they were all born in the early 1950s, experienced similar

Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1991).
hardships during the Cultural Revolution, entered the film academy as older students with ample social experiences, and felt an urgency to catch up and fulfill tasks expected of them. All felt a strong sense of history, which was reflected in the films they made. The first of this generation's works was Zhang Junzhao's Yi ge he ba ge ( One and Eight , 1983), set in northern China during World War II. Other early Fifth Generation films were also historical, such as Chen Kaige's Huang tu di ( Yellow Earth , 1984), about relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and northern Shaanxi peasants in the 1940s, and Zhang Yimou's Hong gao liang ( Red Sorghum , 1987), concerning the civil war era and the war of resistance. Wu Ziniu's films often dealt with war, as in Die xue hei gu (Secret decree, 1985), Wan zhong ( Evening Bell , 1988) and Nanjing 1937 ( Don't Cry, Nanjing , 1995); Huang Jianxin explored political commitment, a prime example being his satire on the Chinese bureaucracy, Hei pao shi jian ( The Black Cannon Incident , 1986); and Tian Zhuangzhuang examined themes about marginal cultures of the border areas of Inner Mongolia and Tibet in Lie chang zha sha ( On the Hunting Ground , 1984) and Dao ma zei ( Horse Thief , 1986).

The Fifth Generation was credited with creating a new film language, the most prominent feature of which was cinematography—use of the visual image to build narrative with unconventional camera movement, vivid contrast between light and dark, unusual framing, and montages. They employed allegory and ritual and emphasized ambiguity in telling stories; generally, they moved away from theatricality and melodrama, preferring a minimalist style of acting. Zhang Yimou, in particular, paid much attention to shot composition and color symbolism, reflecting his early career as cinematographer on both One and Eight and Yellow Earth . In recent years, Zhang Yimou's films have changed considerably, moving to the action-packed martial-arts genre so appealing to Western audiences with Ying xiong ( Hero , 2002) and Shi mian mai fu ( House of Flying Daggers , 2004). These works have generated much adverse criticism in China, while enjoying huge box-office success both at home and abroad.

b. Xi'an, Shaanxi, China, 14 November 1951

Zhang Yimou is a director, screenwriter, producer, actor, and cinematographer who, along with Chen Kaige, took China's cinema to an esteemed international level. A graduate of Beijing Film Academy, Zhang began his career as a cinematographer, drawing attention for his work on Yi ge he ba ge ( One and Eight , 1984). He also was cinematographer for Huang tu di ( Yellow Earth , 1984), which is regarded as the signature work of China's "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers. He also won three best actor awards from various groups for his role in Lao jing ( Old Well , 1987).

Zhang's directing started with Hong gao liang ( Red Sorghum , 1987), and by 2004 he had completed at least fifteen other movies, a number of which have been released abroad to critical acclaim. Ying xiong ( Hero , 2002) and Shi mian mai fu ( House of Flying Daggers , 2004) were nominated for Academy Awards ® for best foreign-language film.

Zhang's films are distinguished by rich cinematography and an emphasis on imagery and metaphors to convey messages, and until recently, they have featured dark, mournful, folkloric stories of rural life. They often deal with the perseverance of Chinese commoners, whether it is the family in Huo zhe ( To Live , 1994) trying to survive the unpredictable reality of the 1940s to 1980s; the wife in Qiu Ju da guan si ( Qiu Ju Goes to Court , 1992), who repeatedly goes back to court to seek justice for her abused husband; Wei Minzhi in Yi ge dou bu neng shao ( Not One Less , 1999), who doggedly fulfills her assignment to keep a class of students together; or the mother in Wo de fu qin mu qin ( The Road Home , 1999), who stubbornly insists that her deceased husband be returned home against formidable odds to be given a traditional burial. Color also plays a key role in Zhang's films: in Da hong deng long gao gao gua ( Raise the Red Lantern , 1991), the dominance of the wedding color red, which represents which wife is chosen for the conjugal bed; the bright colored cloth hanging in the dye house in Ju Dou (1990), which contrasts with the dull unhappiness of the young, unfaithful wife; and the colorful countryside in The Road Home , which hints at the happiness of the parents when they were young and in love.

Zhang changed his style on occasion, becoming a master of the happy-sad ending, as in Xingfu shiguang ( Happy Time , 2001) and The Road Home , and later, moving to the action-filled, martial-arts genre with peculiar twists that differed from the traditional Hong Kong kung fu films. Critics in China have panned his latest works, writing that they have illogical plots and weak characters and were designed specifically for North American audiences. Hero broke box-office records in China for domestic movies, and House of Flying Daggers was a financial success in both China and the United States.


Hong gao liang ( Red Sorghum , 1987), Ju Dou (1990), Da hong deng long gao gao gua ( Raise the Red Lantern , 1991), Qiu Ju da guan si ( Qiu Ju Goes to Court , 1992), Huo zhe ( To Live , 1994), Yi ge dou bu neng shao ( Not One Less , 1999), Wo de fu qin mu qin ( The Road Home , 1999), Xingfu shiguang ( Happy Time , 2001), Ying xiong ( Hero , 2002), Shi mian mai fu ( House of Flying Daggers , 2004)


Gateward, Frances, ed. Zhang Yimou: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Ni Zhen. Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

John A. Lent

Xu Ying

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