The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — the mass social-political movement that sought to affirm "Mao Zedong thought" and purge capitalist, traditional and "cosmopolitan" elements from Mainland Chinese society — looms as large in Chinese memory as the traumatic experience of the war years. Launched in 1966, the Cultural Revolution paralyzed cultural and intellectual life and violently uprooted society in both the cities and the countryside, as swarms of militant young Red Guards attacked or publicly humiliated their "backwards" elders and destroyed artifacts of China's historical and religious heritage, while the military, the factories and even the Communist Party itself were subjected to systematic purges. As with all the other arts, cinema was profoundly affected by the ravages of the Cultural Revolution: film production was stopped altogether for a time, and only gradually re-emerged with an exclusive output of ideologically orthodox model operas.
As the Mainland finally emerged from the shadow of this cataclysmic event a decade later, the Chinese filmmakers who became known as the Fourth Generation — a pre-Cultural Revolution cohort many of whom had themselves been denounced, "re-educated" and forced to endure the ridicule of the young militants for their commitment to cultural life — sought for ways to express the ordeal that had been visited upon the country. The result was the so-called "scar films," simple, affecting dramas that employ intimate and small-scale narratives focusing on individual tragedies as microcosmic representations of massive societal trauma. This style of storytelling would prove remarkably influential even beyond the context of the Cultural Revolution; perhaps the most surprising echo of the Fourth Generation's work would come in the mid-1990s during the Mainland's race toward capitalism, when filmmakers like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai produced quiet, observant and obliquely political critiques of their own, vastly different society.
Some of the Fourth Generation's most notable figures, such as Xie Fei (Black Snow) and Wu Tianming (The Old Well), served as mentors to the far more celebrated group of Mainland directors whose work closely followed their own. The filmmakers who became known as the Fifth Generation were children during (and sometimes participants in) the Cultural Revolution, and became the first students admitted to the Beijing Film Academy following its end. Marked by radical aesthetic experimentation, boldly emotive performances, and complex and critical thinking about the events leading up to and following 1949, such celebrated films as Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth, Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum and Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief came to represent a definitive break with preceding Mainland cinema. The films' dazzling play with colour and striking, often symbolic use of landscape — drawing explicit inspiration from ancient scroll paintings, though such Golden Age films as Spring Silkworms had already established a cinematic precedent — endowed them with an epic dimension that brought Chinese cinema to the forefront of the international art-house circuit. Yet while the Fifth Generation is largely identified with the sweeping historical dramas of Chen and Zhang, several other brilliant filmmakers from that same cohort have explored other dramatic, thematic and generic territory, from jaundiced, distinctly anti-heroic war films (Zhang Zunzhao's One and Eight) to dark social satires (Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident) to modernist murder mysteries (Li Shaohong's Bloody Morning).
As these radical changes in cinematic culture took place on the Mainland, much was changing in the other regions as well. The Hong Kong New Wave challenged the predictable, studio-bound commercial Hong Kong film industry with a combination of boundary-pushing content, local specificity and outré stylization that both alienated and galvanized local audiences. No less than their peers on the Mainland, the New Wave filmmakers were greatly affected by the Cultural Revolution and its echoes in Hong Kong, evinced in their work by an atmosphere of wary paranoia and a dark expectation of violence and cruelty. Ann Hui, after infusing genre cinema with complex metacinematic experimentation and pointed political themes in The Spooky Bunch, shifted seamlessly to tough-minded realist drama with Boat People, which is often cited as the greatest Hong Kong film of all time. Following a Japanese photographer as he confronts the brutality of everyday life in postwar Vietnam, the film serves as an allegory for the powerless rage felt by Chinese filmmakers of all regions in the face of the upheavals they helplessly witnessed in their youth. Meanwhile, the unstoppably prolific producer-director Tsui Hark — who shook the local film scene to its core with the anarchic, cynical and politically charged Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind — became Hong Kong cinema's most successful and ceaselessly creative genre revisionist/extremist, merging the opera and martial-arts genres in the wildly successful Peking Opera Blues and resuscitating classic period martial-arts cinema with the Once Upon a Time in China series (the first two parts of which screen in our Chinese genre cinema programme on August 4).
In Taiwan, the gradual easing of strict Guomindang censorship allowed for the emergence of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, two of the greatest auteurs in contemporary cinema. Though the contrast in their styles is pronounced, the work of both filmmakers is palpably haunted by the violent political cultures, both on and off the island, that characterized the sixties and seventies. They also were (and shared) close friends and collaborators: Hou starred in Yang's Taipei Story, while Hou's frequent screenwriter Wu Nien-jen — whose masterful directorial outing A Borrowed Life also screens in this series — would play the lead in Yang's last film Yi Yi.
Hou first came to international prominence with a series of semi-autobiographical dramas such as The Time to Live and the Time to Die and Dust in the Wind (which screens for free in connection with our panel discussion devoted to Hou). These films developed a new kind of cinematic grammar — characterized by spare dialogue, long, lingering shots, extraordinarily precise compositions and a remarkable use of deep focus — that would become vastly influential on art cinema worldwide, particularly after the international success of Hou's ambitious historical drama A City of Sadness, which elevated his unique artistry to a new level and stands as one of the milestones of the last half-century of world cinema. The Western-oriented, more conspicuously cosmopolitan Yang showcased a consciously and aggressively modernist style in The Terrorizers, his lacerating portrait of contemporary Taipei, and made his masterpiece with the novelistic epic A Brighter Summer Day, a portrait of wayward youth that is at once highly personal and emblematic of the larger cultural and historical currents informing the cinema of the time.
Though markedly different in many ways, the roughly simultaneous cinematic renaissances that occurred in Hong Kong and Taiwan share some powerful links with the emergence of the Fourth and Fifth Generation filmmakers on the Mainland. Whether through intimate character study (The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls), flamboyant spectacle (Farewell My Concubine), art-house rigour (A City of Sadness) or displaced allegory (Boat People), the weight of history is keenly felt in the films that emerged from all these assorted New Waves. Furthermore, continuing a pattern that can be seen throughout the history of Chinese cinema in all three regions, it is notable how these new cinematic movements have foregrounded female characters, as well as the actresses who play them. The changing role of women has always been a barometer of wider changes in Chinese society (or any society), and Chinese cinema has been remarkably forthright in speaking to this fact. Beyond this, the New Waves introduced a trio of actresses — Gong Li (from the Mainland), Brigitte Lin (a native of Taiwan) and the Hong Kong-born Maggie Cheung (soon to be a fixture of the Hong Kong Second Wave) — who would capture the imagination of audiences much as the great Ruan Lingyu did in her day. Ferocious, fearless and astoundingly versatile, these women helped bring Chinese cinema to both new heights of achievement and new levels of international recognition and success.
— Noah Cowan