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Chinese filmmakers overcome a wall of opposition.

Names such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou are not household words in this country, but their movies are beginning to be. They are members of a generation of young, groundbreaking Chinese filmmakers who have won awards internationally but suffered repression and censorship in their own country.

If your idea of a night at the movies includes an occasional trip to the local art theater (a place where comfortable seating is often sacrificed for interesting plots), you've probably noticed a recent invasion of strikingly excellent Chinese films. I don't mean Chinese American hits such as Amy Tan's sentimental crossover success "The Joy Luck Club" - which seems to have been targeted at the same audience as "Steel Magnolias" - or even Ang Lee's refreshingly creative films "The Wedding Banquet" and last year's "Eat Drink Man Woman," both of which deserve to be seen again and again.

I'm referring instead to a fresh crop of movies put out by China's Fifth Generation - members of the fifth graduating class of the reopened Beijing Film Academy who are currently producing works that redefine Chinese cinema. Any list of the best of these filmmakers would include Tian Zhuangzhuang ("The Horse Thief" and "The Blue Kite"), Chen Kaige("The Yellow Earth" and "Farewell My Concubine"), and, of course, the prolific Zhang Yimou ("Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "The Story of Qui Ju," and "To Live").

Not only have these Fifth Generation directors and their films been getting a lot of attention from art-theater audiences around the country, but they've also been winning accolades from critics, prizes from the major film festivals at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and a series of Oscar nominations for best foreign film. In fact these new directors have created such an impressive body of work that critic Richard Grenier noted in Commentary (April 1994) that "China has now completely usurped the place of Japan as the most prestigious filmmaker in the Far East."

In general Fifth Generation filmmakers receive praise not only for their visually sumptuous cinematography but also for the filmmakers' fresh - even daring - narrative styles. Shot through with compassion for the humanity of their characters and unencumbered by heavy-handed ideology, the movies tell powerfully original stories about people struggling with all sorts of domestic and structural oppression.

Unfortunately this same daring style has cost these filmmakers some very unwelcome attention at home. In the post-Tiananmen Square era, their willingness to take on some of China's most sacred myths about family traditions and recent political history have cost them dearly. In response to movies questioning the human impact and harm of both ancient traditions and modern structures, official government censors have made Fifth Generation filmmakers something of a pet project. In the last few years Zhang, Chen, and Tian have suffered more than a few indignities.

Censors and the Chinese Film Bureau have, on occasion, demanded written apologies and retractions for various films, canceled the filmmakers' visas and travel permits, cut off funding for future projects, attempted to withdraw Oscar nominations, and banned the release of Fifth Generation films in China. So while these filmmakers have become celebrities abroad, with their work drawing both critical reviews and large crowds, the notoriety they have achieved with their own government has kept most of their recent films out of Chinese theaters.

And why have these directors gotten so much - and indeed such intense - attention? What is there about their movies that seems so important and provokes both critical acclaim and official reprobation? To answer these questions, and indeed to explain why I would pretty heartily recommend viewing or renting a couple of these films, it might be helpful to take a brief look at four of the best of these movies.

Although it's an admittedly arbitrary choice, we'll start with a rough sketch of Zhang's two Oscar nominees, "Ju Dou" (1990) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991), and then take a peek at classmate Chen's prizewinning "Farewell My Concubine" (1993), and, finally, Zhang's most recent film, "To Live" (1995).

Zhang's "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern" are both based on contemporary Chinese novels set in the precommunist 1920s. On the surface these films deal with the historical oppression of middle-class women under traditional Chinese patriarchy, though many reviewers suspect that Zhang also intends a criticism of the present government's incestuous gerontocracy and its stranglehold on the Chinese people. The fact that both of these films have been banned by the Chinese Film Bureau would indicate that official censors share these suspicions.

In each film China's leading actress, Gong Li, portrays a young woman forced by family and failing financial circumstances to enter into a loveless marriage with an older, wealthier man. Once inside their new master's household these women struggle to preserve their power and identity, but an encroaching web of intrigue, brutality, and ritual strangles and eventually destroys them.

Sold into marriage, the young woman Ju Dou becomes the third wife of a cruel and impotent widower, Jinshan, the owner of a small dye factory who has beaten his two previous spouses to death for the crime of failing to provide him with a male heir. With an artist's eye, Zhang the cinematographer uses the lush colors and ancient machinery of the dye factory to communicate Ju Dou's sense of desperate entrapment in a life where her days are spent in endless toil and her nights are passed absorbing the same futile beatings that killed her predecessors.

Ju Dou is able to fashion a temporary reprieve from her fate and even to find some real joy when she and the old man's nephew, Tian-quing, form an alliance and then a passionate affair that ultimately produces the son her husband so desperately covets. But the lovers' joy is tempered and eventually destroyed as the aging Jinshan discovers their ruse and, when he is unable to harm them directly, succeeds in turning Ju Dou's young son against his real parents. With a tragic inevitability this leads to a murderous conflagration that engulfs and destroys the whole family.

In "Raise the Red Lantern" Songlian is a beautiful young collegian sold into concubinage by her widowed stepmother. As the film opens, she enters the household of her wealthy master as the "Fourth Mistress," joining her three older "sisters" in a highly ritualized family where these women are forced to compete against each other for their husband's affections and sexual attention.

In this particular household the only power available to the wives comes from becoming their husband's favorite concubine or bearing him a male heir. A woman who fails to do this soon finds herself disdained by the other wives and disregarded by the servants. At the heart of this ritualized competition are the title's red lanterns, ceremonial lamps that were used to announce the master's sexual visits.

Each day after the main meal, servants place the lanterns before the door of the selected wife, and while the other wives disappear shamefaced into their doorways, she receives a ritual foot massage to prepare her for her husband's visit that evening.

As the story progresses, Songlian, who is initially humiliated by her status as a concubine and repulsed by the household's courtyard intrigues, soon finds that the cost of withdrawing from this sport is too high. Stung by the betrayal and deceptions of her maid and sisters, she bitterly takes up the competition, parroting the cruelty and dishonesty she sees around her.

But Songlian is ultimately unsuited to such vicious and dangerous intrigue, and as her own plans collapse and backfire, she finds herself in a deepening cycle of emotional and physical violence. Within the short span of a year this vibrant and intelligent girl is shattered, a spent shell wandering the inner courtyard as her master's servants welcome the entourage of a fifth mistress.

In Chen's "Farewell My Concubine" and Zhang's "To Live," the scope of the filmmakers' stories has shifted, moving from small intimate portraits of domestic patriarchal oppression in the precommunist '20s to epic landscapes addressing the flow and impact of modern Chinese political history.

The implied criticisms of official doctrine and authoritarian structures found in the first two films are given explicit voice as Chen and Zhang trace the lives of ordinary people struggling to survive China's successive political and cultural revolutions. It is no wonder that these films, like Tian's "The Blue Kite," should have received such negative attention from official censors.

"Farewell My Concubine" follows the story of two Chinese performers from their tortured childhood in an actor's school to their old age a decade after the Cultural Revolution. Barely more than an infant, the young Douzi (played by Leslie Cheung) is abandoned by his prostitute mother and left to grow up in an acting school reminiscent of the worst Dickensian orphanage.

Here he finds aching loneliness, savage cruelty, and one protective friend - the blustering but well-meaning Shitou (Zhang Fengyi). The bond between these friends sustains them through humiliation and sufferings at the school, forging a personal and professional partnership that leads ultimately to operatic stardom.

Though the young actors find fame and solace in the intricate rituals of Chinese opera, offering exquisite performances of their favorite tale of a broken general and his faithful concubine, they do not fare nearly so well in the real world. There, political and personal forces make routine havoc of their lives. The successive rise and fall of the warlords, the Japanese invaders, and the nationalist government, followed by Mao Tse-tung's victory and the subsequent Cultural Revolution, create a dangerous political roller coaster where even the most innocent act may be counted later as a betrayal of the state.

Meanwhile the actors' emotional lives are also a mess. The homosexual Douzi is obsessed with Shitou, who has wed an ex-prostitute named Juxian (Gong Li), and the ensuing triangle is full of anguish, intrigue, and recrimination. At the height of the Cultural Revolution these political and personal troubles seem to conspire against the aging actors, undoing their friendship and art in tragic fashion.

Finally, Zhang's "To Live" follows the story of a Beijing couple, Fugui (played by Ge You) and his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li), as they struggle to survive three decades of political upheavals and turmoil. In the late '40s, with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist government and the ancien regime collapsing in the background, the wealthy young Fugui is an inveterate gambler and irresponsible spouse who fritters away the family fortune.

Abandoned by his wife for such irresponsibility, Fugui the pauper becomes an itinerant puppeteer who is eventually drafted by the nationalist forces, captured by the communists, and finally released as a true revolutionary for his service entertaining Mao's troops. Back home the rehabilitated Fugui reunites with Jaizhen and their two children, and the young family seeks their way in the new and ever-changing People's Republic.

It is a trying process, attempting to be loyal to the changing face of Chinese history and at the same time to stay out of harm's way. Through a mixture of courage and equanimity, Fugui and Jiazhen ultimately survive, enduring even the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. But this survival is at a great cost. Over the years they watch as friends and acquaintances die or disappear, sacrificed to China's political and ideological currents. And in the end they are forced to pay the ultimate price, losing both their children to government errors or follies.

Aside from the sheer beauty and originality of these films, there are three good reasons to recommend them. First, they are willing to take a long, hard look at human suffering, offering us stories that face deep human sorrow without being tempted to either maudlin sentimentality or reactive violence. Second, in their attempt to move beyond the formulaic stories preferred by government censors, these filmmakers have created films that confront the ambiguity and complexity of human experience, works of real art and not crude ideology.

And third, all of these films pay close attention to persons and to the impact oppressive structures of every sort have on these ordinary people. In this way the movies of the Fifth Generation reflect a preferential option for people over systems or doctrines, and particularly for people in the margins.

Unlike both the traditional communist Chinese cinema against which they are rebelling and most of the American films that play in octiplexes, the movies of Zhang, Chen, and Tian offer a compassionate but unblinking view of human suffering. Their movies do not retreat from human sorrow, nor do they glamorize or romanticize it. Fifth Generation filmmakers do not use human suffering as a justification for reactive violence, nor do they teach violence as a solution to human suffering.

In fact, violence in these films is not salvific, but rather an oppressor's tool or a shortsighted reaction leading only to more suffering. Nor is suffering sentimentalized in these films, transformed into something sweet and weepy-eyed, with a happy ending attached. Instead, human sorrow and suffering are faced straight on in these movies, and that might be a very good thing indeed.

As a result we are forced to recognize that human suffering is part of life, a part that must be faced and that cannot be avoided through violence or happy endings. That is a hard lesson in the U.S., where the immense popularity of violence and happy endings in our fiction, cinema, and politics indicates what a cultural taboo human sorrow has become. As more than one critic has pointed out, in American culture human suffering has become a moral evil to be avoided at all cost.

But such a deep fear of sorrow and suffering is pathological, and it threatens our ability to face our own suffering or that of others. Such a terror of suffering ultimately renders us incapable of growth or compassion. One only has to wonder what a Christianity that was terrified of human suffering would have been like. Fifth Generation films offer a welcome antidote to our own intolerance of human sorrow.

Another great strength of these filmmakers is their willingness to tell stories that acknowledge the full complexity and ambiguity of human experience, refusing either to preach at their audiences or to offer simplistic answers or doctrines. Having come of age in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, these directors rebel against every sort of heavy-handed ideology or dogmatic fundamentalism and prefer to let their stories tell themselves with a startling candor and freedom, willing to ask critical and dangerous questions of official myths.

At a time when more Americans seem to be looking for leaders and programs offering simple answers to life's complex and intriguing questions, and when there seems to be a growing flock of religious and political movements offering the solution to life's problems wrapped up in a neat ten-point plan, these films are a refreshing reminder of real adult life.

With a deft hand Zhang and Chen show why the simplicity of fundamentalism appeals to people struggling with crisis and change, but they also reveal the tortuous and destructive impact of such black-and-white thinking, particularly on those who do not fit in. These movies are a tonic reminding us that life is not in fact as simple as it seems to Forrest Gump or to any of the leading presidential candidates.

Finally, I like these films because they are first and foremost about persons, and they pay attention to the impact our customs and structures have on real people. Both "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern" show us what happens to real human beings as a result of unquestioned - and unjust - customs and rituals. Patriarchy is given a face in the same way that novels from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Beloved gave slavery a face.

At the same time "Farewell My Concubine" and "To Live" show the impact that careless and unjust social doctrines and systems have on the people who live under them. As a result of this perspective, these movies are replete with compassion for those who struggle with oppression of every type. They have - to borrow a phrase from Catholic social teaching - a "preferential option for the poor."

In an age when many of the heroes in American movies are concerned with "making it" or getting rich, this perspective makes a welcome antidote indeed. In a time when so many of our politicians seem hell-bent on social reforms that leave our poor, hungry, and homeless out in the cold, these films seem like they ought to be required viewing.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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