by Dror Kochan
Dror Kochan is a graduate student at the Department of East-Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. His thesis deals with internal migration in China and the representation of migrants in Chinese cinema.
| Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the prominent figures, together with Zhang Yuan,
Jia Zhangke, Zhang Ming, and others, of what is now widely referred to as
China's Sixth Generation or Urban Generation directors.
The Sixth Generation label is somewhat problematic. To start
with, it includes the idea of linear progress of Chinese cinema embedded
in the advancement from fifth to six generation. In this view, Fifth
Generation cinema has more of an epic nature and is grounded in a
historical-political setting dominated by the countryside, while "Six
Generation" movies are dominated by urban realism. However, this classification
should be questioned. The new films made by Fifth Generation
directors show that while some can still be connected to motifs which appeared
in earlier movies, many others can no longer be classified using the old
categories since they contain elements, ideas and methods that are only
partially (or not all) connected to the main elements of their earlier movies.
Nor can they be classified as Sixth Generation, as their subject
matter and its presentation is fundamentally different. Secondly, some directors
(like Ning Ying or Huo Jianqi for example) who chronologically should be
part of the "Fifth Generation" are thought of as part of the "Sixth
Generation", and vice versa, due to the subject matter of their movies.
Furthermore, whereas Fifth Generation directors shared the same
schooling and cooperated on various projects, the younger directors emerged
from different schools, working more individually on their projects and
do not necessarily see themselves as part of a coherent group. The Urban
Generation label might be considered as a somewhat better definition,
but has also its shortcomings, as some of the movies (or parts of them)
take place in non-urban surroundings. Still, the difficulty in finding a
comprehensive definition should not blind us to certain features in Wang's,
as well as other young directors', films, that place their oeuvre in
a common framework.
Wang Xiaoshuai, like many others of the Urban Generation of directors, is in his thirties and so did not have to face the full brunt of the Cultural Revolution, but grew up and began to create during the years of China's bustling economic reforms. Being relatively free of the burdens of the Communist Revolution and the Cultural Revolution, he and his confreres don't feel obliged to probe into the past, but instead focus their gaze on the present and the future of China and Chinese society. Their films look at a changing, contemporary China, using a more realistic, almost documentary, style, airing problems, characters and attitudes that before were barely present, at least not explicitly. Their stories are less epical, and they make less use of historical allegories, as they are more concerned with the here and now. Their visual style is also very different from the artistic symbolism so often used by renowned Chinese directors (such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige), as their movies, also due to budget constraints, are less colourful, and are shot on location, sometimes using non-professional actors, with a strong influence from MTV and television advertisements.
Wang was born in Shanghai in 1966, but when only a few months old, in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, his parents left Shanghai for Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province (his mother's factory was relocated there, while his father was a director in the local opera troupe). He lived in Guiyang for 13 years, and then in 1979 his family moved to Wuhan in Hubei province. Wang lived in Wuhan for two years, leaving for Beijing in 1981, where he entered the Central Art Academy Middle School, as a gifted painter. Upon graduation, Wang decided to relinquish his painting career and enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy in the Department of Directing. After graduating in 1988 he was sent to Fujian Film Studios, where he worked as an assistant for two years. In 1990 he returned to Beijing, penniless, and without a position in the state film apparatus, but determined to create something of his own (1).
Wang spent almost all his life in the city. Missing the Cultural Revolution and not being sent down to the villages, he, like other young directors, might lack what veteran director Xie Fei calls "the knowledge of rural life (2). But the focus of Wang, and other directors, on the city, helps them to examine the main issues and problems that Chinese society faces today, issues taking place in China's sprawling cities. The shift from planned economy to free-market capitalist economy, the decline in the state's ability to provide essential services it provided before, the disappearance of the iron rice ball, the ideological vacuum, the demise of traditional structures, and the widening gaps in society have brought to the forefront issues like migration, dislocation, crime and social alienation, issues that were relatively unknown before, and certainly not mentioned in the official discourse or in state-sponsored movies. Now, these issues form the new urban reality, and have become a major subject in Wang's movies as well as in other Urban movies.
Looking at Wang Xiaoshuai's filmography in light of his biography, two main, interconnected issues come to the fore place and motion. One of the reasons why these Urban Generation movies appeal to audiences in China and abroad is their realist portrayal of city life and society. To achieve this, Wang and other directors use their own life experience and their intimate knowledge of urban terrain. In his movies, Wang returns to the places he knows well, to the places where he grew up, and where his views on self and society were molded. This is not unique to Wang (Jia Zhangke for example uses his hometown in Shanxi province as the setting for his film Xiao Wu), but Wang not only uses the familiar urban setting, he also inserts his own personal recollections of this setting and the people in it. The city becomes another protagonist in Wang's films, which focus equally on people and the physical urban terrain. Wang portrays the different faces of the city cold and brutish, fascinating and strange, indifferent or accepting, frightening and even funny sometimes, like a painter depicting different life scenes throughout a long scroll painting. His experience of the cold urban environment and the loneliness felt by many in the city seems to overflow from the screen in The Days and Frozen, his recollection of Wuhan, a true crossroads, is evident in So Close to Paradise and his nostalgic yearning for the old Beijing of his youth is apparent throughout Beijing Bicycle.
Wang's focus on the cities does not mean disregarding the rural, though generally Wang examines not the countryside setting but the movements between countryside and city. Connecting the place (the city) and the motion, Wang is able to explore not only movement between physical locations but at the same time the changes and movements occurring within his characters' social and personal lives.
His view of the urban landscape and its people is mediated by his own memories of places and times, and his outsider status in the cities. Growing up, moving from place to place, Wang not only came in touch with a wide immigrant population, but was in fact a part of that population. Being an outsider himself, he is able to give the migrants in his films a voice and power not given to them in the official media or the mainstream discourse. Both So Close to Paradise and Beijing Bicycle deal with rural migrants who come to the big city in search of work and a better life. Like the camera's movements in the city itself, the move from the country to the city and motion along streets and alleys, in the city and among its inhabitants, is at once a physical movement as well as an oscillation between tradition and modernity (socially, mentally and physically) that is portrayed not only in the difference between the countryside and the city, but also within the city itself.
An interesting question that emerges from his cinema concerns the migrants' future prospects. Will they return to the countryside, or stay in the city? At what cost? And at what social status? These questions have a wide application for Chinese society and polity, as with movements of millions of migrants to the cities, the whole structure of society might be on the brink of change. The two movies spell out different possibilities. So Close to Paradise, created within the state-owned film industry, is ambivalent: on the one hand it speaks of migrants returning to their villages, as if that is their preordained destiny, because they don't have the skills to survive in the city or because life in the village is easier. On the other hand, Dongzi (played by Shi Yu), the naïve young immigrant, does stay in the city, although we are left to wonder about his future there. In Beijing Bicycle, Gui (Cui Lin), the rural migrant, insists on staying in the city, even if not yet formally, firmly facing an inhospitable urban society. His resolve and determination to stay in the city and his ability to do so, against all odds, prove to us that he is there to stay, thus creating a challenge both for urban society and for government policies that are only now beginning to give their attention to this issues.
Although Wang's movies cannot be categorised as classical journey films, the heroes all take part in a journey, within society and within the self. The protagonists' confrontations with the changes in Chinese society result in a change of the self as well. The physical movements happen on different levels, from China to the outside world and back, from the city to the countryside and back, and within the city itself, but all these journeys illustrate a shift, articulated by James Clifford, as a shift from roots to routes (4), a change very much evident in contemporary Chinese society and culture (5). In Wang's movies we hardly see the journey itself but its presence and its impact are everywhere. Travelling to Dong's (Liu Xiaodong) parental home in The Days takes us not only to a different physical universe, but to a different cultural and social one, thus emphasising the huge gap between modern and traditional in contemporary Chinese society, a gap the younger generation (here Dong and Chun) are unable to bridge, not only in relation to the older generation, but also among themselves. Going through barren landscape helps emphasise the emptiness, detachment and desolation of the younger generation in China (6). The change of the seasons in Frozen, and with them the different burials undertaken by Qi Lei, entails a different kind of movement, a motion toward the boundaries. Qi Lei is not only exploring the boundaries of life and death, but also the changing social boundaries in modern China. Wang presents the problem of identifying the new social borders, of finding the place for the individual in the new social structure and how society deals with those individuals who no longer fit into the former social-cultural-ideological mould. As part of the big journey, Qi Lei and his friends go on a small journey to and within a mental hospital. Wang's camera moves among the inmates, making us aware of the social changes and their effect on society. We look at the faces and think of Qi Lei and his kind, can they change to fit in into the new society? Should they? What is the alternative? Then, when Qi Lei's longhaired friend is taken as a patient, we get part of the answer, as he first struggles against but then tries to fit into normative societal paradigms. Another part of the answer is given through Qi Lei's actions. His conflict is implicit in his dialectical movement, feigning death when he feels he can no longer survive, his attempt to be normal, another pretense, in order to survive, and finally his real death, unable to accept the life forced on him.
Wang remains ambiguous as to the result of the movement. We might lean toward seeing movement itself as salvation, that is, moving from a life of poverty, of minimal subsistence and desperation to the chance of a better life and even success. But Wang does not let us off so easily. He hints at the rewards available at the end of the journey (like the letters sent from the USA by Chun in The Days, stating that this is what real life should really be like), but most of the time what we see are dangers, shortcomings and the disillusionment of the travellers. Life on the move and in the paradise destination can be empty and violent, and even leads to death. This is true not only of those who hope to move from the traditional to the modern, but also of those who take a nostalgic look at the past. But as a traveller himself, he knows better than to lecture us against movement, and so in the final scene in Drifters, after presenting all the dangers, problems and obstacles that the migrant faces on both sides of the move, we see another load of migrants embark on the same journey.
This somewhat dualist attitude is all too familiar to Wang and other Chinese directors, who have to work in a very constraining system of production. They can work within the state-run film studios system and enjoy a hefty budget and relatively easy access to China's movie distribution market, but then they have to accept the constraints of the studios and the censors and fit their vision into a framework acceptable to the party and the state. Alternatively they can create independent films, for which they must find private (usually foreign) investors. These films do not enjoy authorized screening in China (they use alternate distribution channels like copied CDs and video tapes or screening at movie clubs) and have to be produced almost clandestinely. Wang has put it this way:
© Dror Kochan, September 2003
in Senses of Cinema
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