Tragedy & Memory: Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema

Becoming fixated on fifth generation Chinese cinema is a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, each film I've absorbed has amazed me with dazzling visuals, economic shot design, restrained performances, miraculous scale, depth, subtlety, and generally breathtaking bravery on the part of the filmmakers.

On the other hand, each story seems more depressing than the last. 

Fifth generation cinema often revolves around a family's ultimate destruction at the hands of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. 

But worst of all, these stunning films are almost universally unavailable in a format worthy of their cinematic quality. The DVDs I've acquired through my local dealer of foreign art house flicks are atrocious transfers of vhs tapes and worn out exhibition prints of the films. This cinema and these filmmakers deserve better international distribution of their work.

I patiently await the day the Criterion Collection brings us Raise the Red Lantern, The Blue Kite, Ju Dou, and To Live.

In the case of The Blue Kite, all the above applies. The film is a stunning, soul crushing look at courage in the face of social upheaval, and one family's twelve year journey through a period of incredible uncertainty and devastating tragedy.

I am left, in the face of these films, to re-examine my own relationship with history. 

I long considered the American conscience one deeply scarred by the events of the 1960s and 1970s. Confronting a highly articulate cinema that describes the same period in China, it is hard to take seriously the American national traumas that occurred in relative peace and freedom by comparison. 

It is fascinating to observe that the Chinese people suffered a series of traumas no doubt of a magnitude many times greater than the American culture, but have had limited ability to discuss these events in the cultural conversation of images.

One of the critical historical features and tragedies of the Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema is the frequency with which the most notable films resulted in criminal penalties to the filmmakers, and bans on the films in question.  A film like The Blue Kite never received wide exhibition in China, and was supposedly smuggled out of the country by friends of the director, Tian Zhuangzhuang.

The result is a culture who has not been allowed to reflect on its traumatic past, but has still manifested highly articulate image makers compelled to produce narrative work that confronts historical tragedy.

In doing so, the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers present us a legacy of images who do not re-imagine a dead past, but instead untangle it in a complex living present.  A present whose relationship to trauma is difficult, and on-going.  

The story of these films and their suffocation in Chinese society is the story of the legacy of the very cultural traumas they strive to articulate.  It is an extension of the "Cultural Revolution" these films emerged from.  

It is a unique episode in the history of cinema.  A moment where cinema and history intertwine, wherein the history of the films themselves becomes an active representation of the control impulses they are attempting to deconstruct.  Here, international observers can learn a great deal about how storytelling can influence history, provoke it, and become it. 

These films do not sit well with me.  They keep me awake at night.  They make me aware of how fortunate I am to have accidentally been born in the place and time where I have found myself.  While it may be uncomfortable, I feel that it is important.  It is the cinema; alive in its expression of the horror of human history, and aware of its own vulnerability to those forces.