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The latest offering from one of China’s so-called Fifth Generation of film directors is Zhang Yimou’s exquisite Raise The Red Lantern. Trevor Johnston follows Chinese moviemakers’ recent struggle towards freedom of expression.
The appearance of Chen Kaige‘s masterly Yellow Earth back in 1985 signalled to western viewers the potential emergence ofa ‘modern’ Chinese cinema. This possibility was more than confirmed over the next few years by the UK release of a slew offilms that proved almost as striking: Tian Zhaungzhaung‘s Horse Thief. Zhang Yimou‘s Red Sorghum. plus Chen's second and third movies The Big Parade and King ofthe Children. Visually accomplished and elliptical in form. often ambiguous in attitude in their lively portrayal of specific ethnic cultures, such work had little to do with the ideologically-correct chronicles of model
workers and socialist heroes that had long been the j
staple fare of the country’s fourteen regional film studios.
While the most gifted directors have not been stopped from working, the post-Tianenmen response from Beijing has combined pettiness and inconsistency in almost equal measure.
However. as we all know from the events in Tianenmen Square on 4 June 1989, the early glimmerings of relaxation on the part of the party bureaucrats became just another false dawn once the hardliners had retained an even firmer grip on the new regime. The filmmakers of the Fifth Generation, the likes of Chen, Zhang and company, although already toughened by their experiences during Mao’s Cultural Revolution when many of them had been sent to the countryside as manual labourers. might have been expected to bear the brunt of the crackdown because of their association with the notably liberal Beijing Film Academy. Yet. while the most gifted directors have not been stopped from working. the post-Tianenmen response from Beijing has combined pettiness and inconsistency in almost equal measure.
The Beijing-based China Film Bureau apparently continues. for instance. to encourage
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foreign co-production. which has the effect of funding the filmmakers who have already gained a bankable international reputation; ironically. these are the very same talents whose work the‘ authorities find most troublesome to deal with. After the Film Bureau unsuccessfully attempted to force the withdrawal ()thang Yimou‘s Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination for the Sino-Japanese co-production Ju Dou. Zhang and the Taiwanese producer on his latest film Raise The Red Lantern were canny enough to make sure all their post-production was to be done in Tokyo. purposefully keeping the print out of any Chinese hands who might seek to impound it. Similar precautions were also follwed by Chen Kaige (a resident of New York since early 1989) with his new project Life on a String. produced by British ex-critic Don Ranvaud with money from around Europe and Japan.
Although avoiding any explicit political statements. both these most recent films continue with the characteristic Fifth Generation project of creating a moment in the past which might draw comment on the present. Serene in its austerity. Life on a String‘s story of a travelling blind musician and his peasant acolyte is a parable warning us to be wary ofinfalliable prescriptions that promise to set the world to rights. Raise The Red Lantern. set amidst the feudal decadence of a rich merchant‘s mansion in the early years of the century. is another exquisitely decorative saga of sexual injustice. once again boasting the iconic presence of regular leading lady Gong Li. As the rich man‘s fourth wife and the favoured recipient of his sexual favours — indicated on a nightly basis by servants hoisting the eponymous red lanterns outside the relevant concubine‘s apartment - she soon becomes a victim of the conspiratorial jealousies and jostling for influence that goes on amongst the trio of previous partners. an
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ter decorative saga of sexual injustice‘
ever-shifting internecine conflict which pointedly mirrors the shady factionalism ofcontemporary Chinese political affairs.
Lingering lovingly on the ornamental screens and lacquers of the ageing master‘s conspicuously wealthy surroundings. it‘s not difficult to see why the Film Bureau. intent on disassociating itself from anything that might conceivably bear the taint of ‘bourgeois liberalism‘ has decided to suppress the film at home. Despite the fact that. even before the current retrenchment. titles like Yellow Earth or Red Sorghum barely received much domestic distribution anyway. it is particularly illogical that the authorities should reserve such harsh treatment for the very filmmakers who have put Chinese cinema back on the world map over the past decade or so.
In the meantime. more and more ofthe movies sent in for censorship are being completely shelved by the determinedly capricious current Minister for Film and Television. Ai Zhisheng. With petty cuts being demanded from many others — Ann Hui's recent I'long Kong-'I‘aiwanese co-production My American Grandson had one sequence removed because it showed the protagonist turning up his nose at his elderly Chinese relative‘s inadequate toilet facilities- the outlook in the short term appears grim. Even with foreign backing. one is left wondering for how long. under the present circumstances. Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige will be allowed to shoot their films on mainland China at all. It‘s surley a
2 worst case scenario. but the prospect arises that in a few years time the Fifth Generation might come
to be seen as a beacon ofenlightenment all too
' quickly snuffed out by the forces ofreaction.
! Raise The Red Lantern opens at the Filmhouse,
I Edinburgh on Sunday 23 February and at Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 22 March. Chen K aige '5 Life on a String will open in the spring.