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The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society in Transformation

This survey of contemporary Chinese cinema offers a comprehensive assessment of post-1989 films by the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, as well as works by an even younger wave of makers. Like the society it aims to reflect and engage, contemporary Chinese cinema has undergone a tremendous transformation in recent years. While political pressures, financial difficulties, and competition from Hollywood have seriously impeded the development of state-sponsored, mainstream Chinese cinema, younger filmmakers have quietly begun to make films that are attracting increasing critical attention at home and abroad. More than sixty such young directors are working "outside" the state-owned studio system in various ways, making films with explosive creative energy—an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of cinema in the People’s Republic of China.

This emergent cinema departs significantly from its predecessors in its politics, values, and artistic sensibility. Taking leave of the melodrama of Chinese history and politics—a central preoccupation of socialist-era cinema—these newcomers, the "Urban Generation," train their cameras squarely on the everyday reality of contemporary Chinese city life. The subject matter and stylistic orientations of these films are intimately intertwined with the rapid modernization and social dislocation occurring in urban China today. Films such as Postman, Xiao Wu, and So Close to Paradise provide microscopic studies of a society undergoing drastic and, at times, violent change. They tackle a wide spectrum of social experiences and issues—disability, alcoholism, homosexuality, mental illness, prostitution, criminal activity, bohemian life styles, migrant work, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. There is a palpable documentary pulse in the works of these young directors, aiming for a heightened sense of reality. By insistently blurring the boundary between fiction and reality, they begin to subject the cinematic medium itself to critical scrutiny.

"The Urban Generation" has been organized by Zhang Zhen of the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University and Zhijie Jia of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. We additionally acknowledge the generous assistance of Nancy Jervis of the China Institute, New York; Eileen Chow, Daniel Kramer, and Leo Ou-fan Lee of Harvard University; Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Yaohua Shi of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Xueping Zhong of Tufts University; Kent Jones of the Film Society of Lincoln Center; and Chris Straayer of New York University.


February 16 (Friday) 7 pm

Postman (You chai)

Directed by He Jianjun
China 1995, 35mm, color, 101 min.
With Feng Yuanzheng, Liang Danni, Pu Cunxin, Huang Xin
Chinese with English subtitles

One of the most critically acclaimed films to have emerged from the "Sixth Generation," Beijing-based He Jianjun’s Postman is a fascinating study of an introverted mailman who cannot resist the urge to open and read the letters he is entrusted to deliver. Emotionally detached from his coworkers and family members, Xiaodou becomes entangled in the lives of the people whose mail he opens in private. Initially inconsequential, these interventions become more critical when he discovers a secret affair between two gay junkies. The film’s subtle performances and stylistic innovations brought it awards from the Thessaloniki, Rotterdam, and Singapore film festivals. It is He Jianjun’s second feature: after an apprenticeship with noted Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige, he made the independently produced Red Beads in 1993.

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February 16 (Friday) 9 pm

Rainclouds over Wushan / In Expectation (Wushan yunyu)

Directed by Zhang Ming
China 1996, 35mm, color, 96 min.
With Zhang Xianmin, Zhong Ping, Wang Wenqiang
Chinese with English subtitles

This episodic tale explores the expectations for life, love, and happiness among three average Chinese thirty-somethings—characters who exist mostly on only emptiness and unfulfilled wishes. The intertwining stories are set against the backdrop of a small river town about to be flooded for the Yangzte Gorges dam project; blank concrete walls and already deserted buildings project a sense of muted hopelessness. We are separately introduced to the introverted Mai Qiang, who directs boat traffic on the river and is the reluctant recipient of a girl lent by his womanizing pal; to Chen Qing, a single-mother and hotel receptionist who is involved with her boss; and to Wu Gang, a policeman who is having a gold ring made for an undetermined fiancée. Slowly things begin to connect up when the hotel manager contacts the policeman over an incident involving the other two characters. From these unpromising circumstances, a simple love story emerges.

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February 17 (Saturday) 7 pm

Xiao Wu

Directed by Jia Zhangke
China 1997, 16mm, color, 107 min.
With Wang Hongwei, Hao Hongjian, Zu Baitao
Chinese with English subtitles

Director Jia Zhangke’s debut feature has been compared to Bresson’s Mouchette both for its unadorned realism and its transcendent humanism. Filmed on a small budget with a nonprofessional cast, Xiao Wu follows its eponymous protagonist, a small-time pickpocket, through the days and nights of his amiable but aimless existence. Increasing difficulties accrue (family and friendship troubles, mixed romantic signals from the ostess at the local karaoke bar, a crackdown by the local police) until, at his most vulnerable, Xiao Wu lets loose with sng in the local bath house. This unglamorized view of small-town China won top prize at the Pusan, Korea Film Festival; the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema at the Vancouver International Film Festival; and has been shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival and in Lincoln Center and MoMA’s New Directors’ program.


February 17 (Saturday) 9 pm

Sons (Erzi)

Directed by Zhang Yuan
China 1996, 35mm, color, 95 min.
With Li Maojie, Li Wei, Li Ji
Chinese with English subtitles

This story of a family torn apart by alcoholism and insanity is remarkable for the genesis of its plot. Zhang Yuan, one of the filmmakers who launched Chinese independent cinema, learned about the plight of his downstairs neighbors, a retired couple (former professional dancers) and their two deadbeat sons who hit hard times following the father’s commitment to a mental institution. The director went to the mental hospital, "borrowed" Mr. Li, and re-enacted the family’s troubles with the four family members playing themselves in the film. The title was suggested by the father himself, who told Zhang Yuan, "Only some men are fathers, but all men are sons."

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Director Ah Nian in Person
February 23 (Friday) 7 pm

Call me (Hu wo)

Directed by Ah Nian
China 2000, 35mm, color, 87 min.
With Li Mengnan, Ji Bo, Yan Danchen
Chinese with English subtitles

An intricate tapestry of parallel narratives that unfolds over the course of seven days, Call Me, as the title suggests, concerns the quest for human contact in the city. Newly uprooted from the provinces, the two main characters struggle to get by in the teeming Chinese capital by delivering flowers and selling blood. Their lives soon intersect with others who seek emotional intimacy. The flower vendor tries in vain to deliver a bouquet to a young woman on behalf of a client, while the guileless migrant laborer, reduced to selling blood, contracts AIDS and desperately tries to locate those who have received his blood. Their repeated pleas for response, relayed through a messaging center, give the film its title and become a metaphor for the characters’ inability to achieve direct connection.

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Director Ning Ying in Person
February 23 (Friday) 9 pm

On the Beat (Minjing Gushi)

Directed by Ning Ying
China 1995, 35mm, color, 102 min.
With Li Zhanho, Wang Lianggui, Zhao Zhiming
Chinese with English subtitles

The award-winning third feature by Ning Ying, China’s premiere woman director, is a subtly subversive portrayal of modern Beijing. Set within a desolate landscape of imposing skyscrapers amidst stretches of tenement housing, contemporary urban life emerges as a highly compromised series of negotiations between individuals attempting to embrace their own destinies and a state machine that manages to intervene in the most intimate affairs of daily life. Ning Ying’s gift is to gently capture this retail dispensing of ideology to the citizenry—from young policemen patrolling neighborhoods by bicycle to aged women who monitor the fertility of their female neighbors and parents who attempt to mold their children into "fitting" members of the society.

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Director Wang Quan’an in Person
February 24 (Saturday) 7 pm

Lunar Eclipse (Yue shi)

Directed by Wang Quan’an
China 1999, 35mm, color, 100 min.
With Yu Nan, Wu Chao, Hu Xiaoguang
Chinese with English subtitles

This elegant film about love, desire, and betrayal is mixed with a touch of mystery and told in a cinematic language rarely seen in Chinese films. It marks the debut of Wang Quanan, a 1991 graduate of the Beijing Film Academy. A young newlywed has a chance encounter with an enigmatic minivan driver with a passion for photography. When the amateur photographer confesses to a previous love affair with a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to her, the young woman falls under the spell of this soft-spoken, unkempt, and seemingly hapless young man. Dai Jinghua, one of China’s leading film critics, has described Lunar Eclipse as one of the most uncompromising Chinese films ever made and a landmark in Chinese cinema.

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February 24 (Saturday) 9:30 pm

Mr. Zhao (Shao xiansheng)

Directed by Lu Yue
China 1998, 35mm, color, 89 min.
With Shi Jingming, Zhang Zhihua, Chen Yinan
Chinese with English subtitles

The debut feature by Lu Yue, one of the leading cinematographers in contemporary Asian cinema, Mr. Zhao is a psychologically complex portrayal of the dynamics of love and family relationships in contemporary Shanghai. The story concerns two women with markedly different lifestyles and values who are in love with the same man, a university professor who proves incapable of taking control of his life. Mr. Zhao’s wife, a factory worker who is laid off due to the economic crisis, discovers by chance that her husband is having an affair with a former student. What ensues transcends simple marital melodrama, as Lu Yue aims to reflect the changes and underlying tensions in modern Chinese society. Filmed using improvised performances and dialogue, this potent depiction of modern relationships captured the coveted Golden Leopard award at the Locarno Film Festival.

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Director Lu Xuechang in Person
February 25 (Sunday) 7 pm

The Making of Steel (Gangtie shi zenyang lian cheng de)

Directed by Lu Xuechang
China 1998, 35mm, color, 108 min.
With Zhu Hongmao, Zhu Jie, Tian Zhuangzhuang
Chinese with English subtitles

Spanning two decades of Chinese history—from the repressed seventies to the money-crazed present—The Making of Steel follows a young man’s journey from boiler stoker to frustrated rocker in Beijing. In the end, the misfit hero develops a sort of nostalgia for the revolution, stoked by the memory of a social-realist book from his childhood entitled The Making of Steel. Veteran Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang, who nourished the current generation of young filmmakers, plays the father figure to the young man in the film. Heavily critiqued by the Chinese censors for its treatment of such touchy subjects as alcohol, drug addiction, and casual sex, the film underwent six edits before satisfying the authorities.

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February 25 (Sunday) 9:30 pm

So Close to Paradise (Biandan guniang)

Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai
China 1998, 35mm, color, 95 min.
With Wang Tong, Shi Yu, Guo Tao
Chinese with English subtitles

The third film by Wang Xiaoshuai (whose other credits include The Days and Frozen), So Close to Paradise was held up by censorship for three years. The film’s two central characters are migrant laborers from the countryside who come to the provincial city of Wuhan, in central China, to find their fortunes. One, a naif, becomes a dock worker; the other, more worldly, a small-time con man. When the pair comes together to plan a kidnapping, both fall in love with their victim, a Vietnamese nightclub singer who is also the object of affection of a crime boss. The film provides an unflinching look at the alienation, crime, and prostitution that so often invade the lives of those who leave rural areas for economic opportunities in China’s cities. So Close to Paradise was selected for inclusion in the prestigious Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and has been screened at major international festivals worldwide.

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February 27 (Tuesday) 8 pm

A Beautiful New World (Meli xin shijie)

Directed by Shi Runjiu
China 1999, 35mm, color, 100 min.
With Jiang Wu, Tao Hong, Chen Ning
Chinese with English subtitles

This good-natured comedy takes a fresh look at the clash between materialism, capitalism, traditional values, and human desire in modern China. A naive peasant wins a luxury apartment in Shanghai through a lottery but is soon disillusioned by its elusiveness. Instead of taking instant ownership, he is forced to move in with a distant relative, a younger woman he calls "auntie." The film’s Brechtian touches include meta-narrative commentary on the adventures of the main character in the form of a street ballad singer and Suzhou-style storytelling in a teahouse. These touches are balanced by elements that hark back to Chinese cinema of the thirties and forties, in which the crassly materialistic metropolis is critiqued. The unlikely romance between the country bumpkin and his aggressively modern "auntie" likewise evokes comedies of an earlier era.

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