Having recently attended several screenings at the BFI’s Chinese cinema season, including films with less than 100 user votes on iMDB (as good an indicator of obscureness as any), the exciting opportunity arises for me to raise awareness about little-known, seldom-seen films deserving of wider recognition.
Of particular interest to me was the Chinese New Wave strand, so I started with an afternoon screening of The One and the Eight (1983). Directed by Zhang Junzhao and shot by cinematographer Zhang Yimou, this period war drama is regarded as the first film made by the new wave generation of mainland China. However, it displeased the censors and took several years to be re-edited to their liking, by which time other new wave films had been released, such as Yellow Earth (1984). The original version is now almost certainly lost to us, but the released version still shows why it was a major novelty for Chinese cinema at that time.
As is often the case, the context behind the film only elevates our understanding of its importance. Therefore, in this post I want to not only talk about the film but also tell the story of that context, the fascinating background of Chinese cinema, which naturally is linked to the tumultuous history and rich culture of China itself.
A New Wave crashes against the shores of Chinese cinema:
First, let’s sort out an issue of nomenclature. The term ‘new wave’ is used abundantly throughout cinema history, and is often a label attributed not by the filmmakers themselves, but by critics and historians (as was the case for the Chinese New Wave). So, what exactly does a cinematic new wave imply?
If we’re willing to subscribe to the general theory that cinema progresses in cycles of invention and re-invention, where templates for filmmaking are adjusted and innovations introduced (of course with troughs of artistic stagnation in between the peaks too), we can then think of a new wave as a revitalising cycle for cinema. They occur when a generation of directors, writers, actors and other film artists, generally young and with new ideas, come along ready to break the mould. Timing is crucial, the scene must be set for something fresh, for new attitudes and approaches going against what came before (usually when it is felt current conventions have become stale). It is then that new waves appear to turn over the hourglass of cinema history and start a new cycle.
However different the individuals within them may be, these generations tend to share some beliefs about what cinema should be. This was the case for the first set of ‘new waves’ to be given that moniker: the European new waves of the 1960s. But the term could just as well be retrospectively applied to the film movements that came before (German Expressionism, Italian Neo-realism, etc), except maybe cinema was not yet old enough then to be able to usher in something specifically ‘new’. Later on, in the 1980s, a second batch of new waves would appear from countries which had not previously been famous for their cinematic input: the likes of Iran, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Ireland, Mali, and others, all joining in the ‘new wave’ spirit and feted by international festival circuits and critics.
This brings us to the Chinese New Wave. It was a breeze of fresh air compared to what had come before in Chinese cinema. As a group of films and directors (the main three being Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang, but plenty of others made interesting films too), this ‘new wave’ embraced new stylistic and artistic possibilities and displayed an eagerness (and ability) to experiment and take risks. The directors involved wanted to move away from the main traditions which had existed in Chinese cinema during the previous 5 or 6 decades, namely the melodrama and the political propaganda film.
Most of all, this new wave could only have happened in the 1980s. There are a number of reasons for this, which remind us that films are not made in a bubble, but are shaped and influenced by external factors. Here are three main reasons why the Chinese New Wave’s moment came at this specific time:
- The historical and political context finally allowed it after many years where film production (other than propaganda) had been impossible. Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, both in 1976, and the slight loosening-up of the political atmosphere under Deng Xiaoping, resulted in giving artists at least a modicum of freedom where before they’d had none. That the moment should come in the brief window of time before the tragedies of Tiananmen Square, and the regime’s reversion to strict clampdown in the late 1980s, was also crucial.
- In terms of film culture, the Beijing Film Academy, China’s only film school, was re-opened in 1978, after being closed throughout the Cultural Revolution. The Academy received over 10,000 applications, from all over China, to be part of the first new batch of admissions. Film-making had been repressed for all these years, and now the lid had been lifted at last.
- One final ingredient was still missing. As the great film theorist Andre Bazin once put it, great films happen thanks to the fortuitous intersection of the right historical moment and talent. And so the talent arrived, from the Beijing Film Academy. Out of all those applications, the Academy picked just 153. They were a determined bunch, partaking in all-night viewing sessions at the Academy’s library, feeding on whatever films foreign embassies had been kind enough to loan out, in order to move beyond the influence of Chinese and Soviet cinema — the only previously allowed films before 1976. Among them were Chen, Tian and both Zhangs, as well as, incidentally, the artist Ai Weiwei. They graduated in 1982 and collectively would be labelled the ‘Fifth Generation’ (a term indicating their status as the fifth generation of graduates from the Film Academy), but for this post I’ve preferred to use ‘Chinese New Wave’. They had been prevented from expressing themselves for so long, but, after living through the madness of the Cultural Revolution first-hand, they now had a lot to say. Film would be their medium of expression.
Understandably, this new generation of Chinese filmmakers wanted to break with the past. Before knowing what their films should be like, they knew what they should not be like. No more simplistic political propaganda filled with black-and-white certitudes (e.g. “peasants are good”, “bourgeois are bad”, “Mao and the Party know best”, etc.), and no more melodramatic histrionics. The slate would be wiped clean and the aim was now to make films like no other Chinese films before them. Things which had been missing from the earlier Chinese films, subjects, angles, character types, all were now encouraged. This confrontational attitude would mean having to lock horns with the censorship imposed by the Central Film Bureau in Beijing, as One and Eight and its makers would soon find out.
The One and the Eight — A film like no Chinese film before:
The One and the Eight was made in 1983, by a group of Beijing Film Academy graduates (director Zhang Junzhao, art designer He Qun and cinematographer Zhang Yimou) sent by the Central Film Bureau to work at a small regional film studio in Guangxi province, near the border with Vietnam. Again, we see here the fortuitous elements that worked in the New Wave’s favour, because this small studio would allow them far more freedom. Far away from the big cities, they were left to do their own thing. On top of this, Guangxi film studio was understaffed, and desperate for new productions to meet its quotas. The three young men, eager to put all their ideas into practice, happily obliged by immediately setting out to make their own film.
Set in 1939, during the ruthlessly bloody war between China and Japan, One and the Eight is centered around the story of nine Chinese soldiers held as prisoners by their own army under suspicion of conspiring with the Japanese enemy. The ‘one’ of the title refers to the solitary loner amongst the nine; he does not know the other eight and although they gang up on him, he remains strong and steadfast in the face of adversity, maintaining hs innocence. Another telling detail is that he is the only one of the nine prisoners whose real name we learn — it is Wang Jin. The ‘eight’ of the title are a group of eight men, seemingly bandits, far more cowardly and whose treason or desertion is far less in doubt.
The narrative of the film is structured into two halves. In the first section, the nine men are in jail and we are introduced to them, the contrast between Wang and the eight others, and the dynamics between them. In the second half, after the unit comes under attack from the Japanese, most of the regular soldiers are killed, and the nine men are freed in order to fight. The eight men, previously unpatriotic and indifferent to the war, have now had Wang’s bravery rub off on them, and join him to battle valiantly against the attackers.
But what was truly innovative, for Chinese cinema at least, is how the film uses film language (cinematography, framing compositions, depth of field) to get its points across. No more was theatre, opera or other artforms used as a crutch, cinema now would stand on its own two feet and rely on its own unique properties. It is Zhang Yimou’s visuals that tell us all we need to know, about Wang’s honour and innocence, and about the eight’s cowardice and guilt. (Sadly I am unable to offer screenshots of the film — and I must specify that despite the black-and-white publicity stills of the film I’ve added to the post, it is in fact in colour. I’ll have to use my recollection of the cinema screening and my descriptive powers.)
Take the jail scenes for instance: Wang is almost always framed on his own or apart from the others (and also asymmetrically, his head or body not in the centre of the frame) — this is an individual personality, a non-conformist who is assured in his principles. He does not fit in with the eight bandits, and nor can he be neatly scaffolded in the centre of the frame by the compositions. The ‘eight’ on the other hand are often cramped together, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 in the same frame, faces and bodies overlapping. They are a group, a collective; not a cohesive, unified one, but essentially a disorganised rabble. The ‘one’ is thus privileged as the hero of the piece, his innocence and general good nature is made clear, while the ‘eight’ are weak men, confused at best, callous bullies and cowards at worst. Through simple framing patterns, the first part of the film sets up this contrast of individual vs. collective, of conformity vs. non-conformity.
More than this, the cinematography tentatively encodes the political message of the film. It is not that much of a stretch to read a rejection of fundamental Chinese Communist Party doctrines, or at the very least a desire to seriously question them, in this favouring of the individual over the collective. Combined with its unorthodox depiction of a crucial part of Chinese communist mythology (the valiant battle of the Communist armies against the Japanese invaders), it makes it easy to see why the censors were none too pleased. In the second half, and this is perhaps where most of the re-shooting and re-editing was done, the film becomes far more of a patriotic piece, with Wang’s willingness to fight affecting the eight freed prisoners. Scenes amid the barren desert of Hebei province in Northern China, with war-cries and patriotic chants aplenty, now reveal the bandits willingly fighting under Wang’s leadership. The group has been affected and changed by one individual. But the ending undercuts the patriotism, with all but two of the nine falling victim to the war, and the survivors exhausted, exasperated and close to losing sanity.
A Taste of Things to Come:
Of course with the enforced changes it’s hard to say much about the extent of the film’s intended ideological critique, but it looked and sounded (in its sparse but frank, coarse dialogue) like no Chinese film before it. This was enough to provide a springboard for the New Wave filmmakers, and probably just as importantly, it introduced the incredible visual eye of Zhang Yimou. Both of these threads shall be carried on next time when I speak about Yellow Earth, the first real masterpiece of the movement.
The rest of the 1980s and early 1990s would see the Chinese New Wave aim to do nothing less than re-evaluate China’s past and update cinema’s status within Chinese culture. This would mean having to reconceptualise the notion of cinema in their country, by breaking free from politics and propaganda, and proving it could stand by itself as an artform. Hopefully in future posts I can continue to describe their ambitious efforts. Thanks for reading!