In the lead-up to the new millennium, a series of sexy, exciting and formally daring new films built on the New Waves' innovations and sparked a renewed global interest in Chinese cinema.
As the millennium approached, Chinese society once again found itself facing profound changes. The Mainland was surging towards global economic pre-eminence. Hong Kong, after over a century as a British colony, was united once again with the Mainland as a Special Administrative Region, while maintaining its special cultural characteristics. In Taiwan, the reinstitution of democratic debate following decades of authoritarian Guomindang rule became a tug of war between those who wanted a future separate from the Mainland and those seeking greater integration. After the terror and violence that had dominated the Chinese experience of the twentieth century, that century's end felt comparatively optimistic, yet also strangely uncertain — creating a kind of apprehensive malaise that would be both reflected in and expressed by an increasingly more diffuse Chinese cinema. As overt political, cultural and generational conflict appeared to recede, the collective consciousness that had bound the previous Generations and New Waves together began to disperse, allowing for more distinctly individualistic, stylistically eclectic and globally-oriented filmmakers to come to the fore.
This lack of cohesion is particularly pronounced on the Mainland, where the filmmakers who comprise the co-called Sixth Generation — Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke chief among them — go to great lengths to deny any shared approach to cinema. Yet especially in their early years, there are distinct group characteristics that link these exceptional artists, despite their disparities in age, style and sensibility. For one, they were the first generation of Mainland filmmakers to be exposed (as students) to the entirety of their own nation's film history, and also the first to have relatively unrestricted access to Hollywood films and European art cinema. One can also discern a cluster of common influences in their work: their preoccupation with urban life has much in common with the Hong Kong New Wave; their predilection for exquisite compositions and gentle pacing owes much to Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien; while their small-scale, delicately wrought narratives of ordinary people buffeted by vast social change rhyme with the Fourth Generation "scar" films and reject the largesse (some would say excess) of the flamboyant Fifth Generation epics.
In Hong Kong, the Second Wave that appeared at the end of the 1980s took the opposite approach to the Sixth Generation's carefully studied minimalism, one that contrasted as well with the work of the earlier New Wave. Led by Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan, the Second Wavers created impossibly lush, superbly stylized films that diverged from both the low-key realism of Ann Hui and the genre-based wildness of Tsui Hark and John Woo. Following in the modernist footsteps of Edward Yang, the Second Wavers took film itself as a primary subject: self-consciously invoking the history of cinema in virtually every frame of their films, they presented it as a kind of prism through which to view contemporary society during a moment of transformation that was comparably gentler, but no less profound, than the major upheavals that came before.
The heavy weight of history so often evident in Chinese cinema becomes a luxurious, even decadent fascination with the past in the work of the Second Wave. Kwan especially ties together many themes of this programme with Center Stage (a.k.a. Actress), his meta-modernist biopic of Ruan Lingyu, which uses the great star's tragically short life as a means to examine the rise and fall of Golden Age Shanghai cinema, and contrast that era's otherworldly glamour with a considerably more quotidian present. Wong Kar-wai as well evokes the timeless elegance of the Shanghai 1930s, blended with the Hong Kong commercial melodramas of the fifties, in his sinfully gorgeous masterwork In the Mood for Love. Enormously influential, the Second Wave not only produced some of the region's (and the world's) most famous actors — notably Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and the late Anita Mui — but also introduced a powerful new art-film aesthetic to international cinema, one that seemed to speak to the anxiety, velocity and instability of contemporary urban existence. Wong's Chungking Express in particular — in its bold experimentation with editing and framing, fragmentary narrative construction, and woozily beautiful camerawork by Christopher Doyle Du Ke Feng — has been singled out by critics and academics as an encapsulation of the "postmodern" in both its style and subject.
With its love-hungry policemen mopily making their rounds through the urban jungle of Hong Kong, Chungking also signalled another important trend. In much of recent Chinese cinema, a certain kind of character emerges: a young man (usually), self-aware, detached, often cynical, and, above all, a creature of the city. Aimless youth had of course been a presence in Chinese cinema for decades, from the charming, streetwise coterie of young men, poor as dirt and devoted to living culturally rich lives, in the thirties screwball melodrama Crossroads, to Tsui Hark's urban terrorists in Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind to Hou Hsiao-hsien's ambling underachievers and Edward Yang's no-future street hoodlums in The Terrorizers and A Brighter Summer Day. But whereas these figures were usually sociologically placed, symptoms or exemplars of contemporary alienation or disaffection, this new breed of drifter has more in common with the nineteenth-century flâneur that Walter Benjamin famously found in the work of Baudelaire: an urban wanderer both dazzled by the society of the spectacle (whether capitalist or socialist) that surrounds him while also seeing through it.
This neo-flâneur figure has become a virtual trademark of Taiwan's most important and exciting new filmmaker to emerge at the turn of the century, Tsai Ming-liang. In his second film Vive L'Amour, in which Tsai's onscreen alter ego Lee Kang-sheng plays a suicidal businessman who hides out in an empty apartment used by a beautiful young realtor for her assignations, Tsai established his distinctively elliptical style, marked by minimal dialogue, a reliance on temps mort and a deadpan sense of humour. Both strangely otherworldly and remarkably insightful in their oblique social criticism, Tsai's absurdist reveries transpose the breathless speed of Wong's money-fuelled Hong Kong to Taipei and slows it down to a mesmerizing crawl.
Where Wong's lovelorn romantics and Tsai's opaquely yearning drifters speak eloquently to the psychological, social, sexual and spiritual dislocations of millennial capitalism, the wandering protagonists in the films of many Mainland directors evince a comparable rootlessness. The flâneur can be seen in the bohemian artists of Wang Xiaoshuai's The Days, the travelling players of Jia Zhangke's Platform, and even in the bumbling rural cop of Lu Chuan's debut feature The Missing Gun — which, in a sign of the Mainland's re-engagement with the West, absorbed that marginal figure back into mainstream cinema and asserted an edgy new style that paralleled the technical flash and dazzle of Hollywood. Yet even as Lu established himself as a leading figure in Mainland cinema's ongoing commercial renaissance, he demonstrated with his second film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol — a gritty survival epic that brilliantly questions and repositions the Fifth Generation's veneration of landscape — that complex dialogue with the past, combined with an ambitious attempt to remake cinematic language, that has been the hallmark of this extraordinary century of Chinese cinema.
— Noah Cowan