As China adjusted to post-isolationism in the 1980s, radical new societal narratives emerged and the role of youth during this metamorphosis became prominent in mainstream culture and academic debate. In tandem, the last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a novel emphasis within local film cultures on the ramifications of these changes upon the life experiences of young people as they came of age in an exceptional period of modern Chinese history.
Youthful protagonists in films produced by the isolationist state tended to neglect the emotional complexities involved with growing up and sideline youthful rebellion. Instead, young people in state produced propagandist cinema such as Wang Yan’s Youth in the Flames of War (1959 and Zhao Ming’s Young Generation (1965) were ultimately portrayed as obedient future nature builders via an education in socialist rhetoric from their elders. As the industry began to break free from full state control a new generation of commercially ambitious and artistically inspired filmmakers came to prominence that began to transfer young people’s experiences to the narrative forefront. Consequently, the portrayal of young people’s experiences began to shake off its prior narrow and romantic contingencies.
Cultural critics have tended to group these under the umbrella term of the ‘youth problem’ or ‘young rebel’ film. These formal classifications work as general indicators of trends during this period but they underplay the diversity on offer. As directors continued to use the youth based film for social criticism during this period, a multitude of approaches and styles appeared to interrogate China’s turbulent history and critique the shock of the present. As such, these films are perhaps best thought of as a cultural and critical movement.
For instance, many of these works focused on the urgent ambitions and hopes of young people navigating life within the city. As they came of age in a period of rapid urbanisation and western style individualism, fresh opportunities for hedonistic behaviour arose. During this period, films such as Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Rock Kids (1988) and Xia Gang’s Half Flame, Half Brine (1989) presented youth as anxiously caught between tradition and flourishing modernity.
Perhaps one of the most influential and thematically bleakest of the period is Xie Fei’s Black Snow (1990). The narrative concerns the delinquent Li Huiquan (Jiang Wen) moving around Beijing as he attempts to negotiate a place for himself in society after his release from labour camp. A sombre exercise in political and social allegory, Li finds himself at a loss as the camera tracks him through the ominous cityscape. We follow Li as he ventures through shady backstreets of the city’s traditional hutongs then onto neon lit nightclubs and other icons of western-style capitalism. A film of parallelisms, the director presents the protagonist as an anti-hero figure unsure of his future in a city paradoxically haunted by the past but unable to fully comprehend a new present. As such, it can be viewed as a predecessor to much of pessimistically themed youth centred urban based of cinema the Sixth Generation.
As part of the output from the Fourth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, Black Snow makes for an interesting companion piece with the work of the Fifth Generation filmmaker, Zhang Yimou. Reflecting the propensity in his early work for opening cinematic worlds through the naivety of youthful inexperience and recent history, Shanghai Triad (1995) is commonly praised for its inclusion in the cannon of classic gangster films. Certainly, Zhang builds upon previous cultural representations of the cosmopolitan city as a hive of decadence, crime and danger. We follow 14-year-old provincial lad, Shuiseheng (Wang Xiao Xiao) from wide-eyed innocence arriving at the buzzing metropolis to aloof detachment from the immoral acts that he witnesses. As his life continuingly intertwines with the Shanghai underworld it becomes apparent that this despondent coming of age tale utilises recent history as generational and national allegory.
Recent history is also investigated in Jiang Weng’s In the Heat of The Sun (1994). Western spectators may immediately recognise Jiang from his role as Baze Malbus in the recent blockbuster, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). To Chinese audiences, however, he is more famous as a prolific and highly gifted actor/director in local commercial cinema. An essential addition to youth films of the period, In the Heat of The Sun is epic in scope yet intimate in its moving portrayal of four young men growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Although the brutality of these years is quite graphic, Jiang radiates nostalgia for the characters’ rebellious teenage years and loves lost now resigned to memory in adulthood. This visionary film makes a contrast to Zhang Nuasing’s earlier, more subdued chronicle of young people coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, Sacrficied Youth (1986).
In the 1990s, this strand of generational discourse visibly progressed from the grand visions and exotic locales of the Fifth Generation to urban realist filmmakers that envisaged post Tiananmen life for young people living in the city as an existence of aimless disaffection. These films were less visually histrionic and they engaged in the monotony of everyday existence for young people unsure of their place in a society still transitioning from socialist to materialist culture. Crucially, films such as Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (1993) documented local youth based liumang cultures of dissent.
Liumang is loosely translated as youth based hooligan or punk culture. It is a terminology whose contemporary origins can be traced back to the popular novels of Wang Shu. Although film adaptations such as Samsara (1988) appeared earlier, it is widely thought that Beijing Bastards epitomises the wandering disillusionment and rebellious nature of the culture and generation. In Zhang’s film, the young members of the rock scene are observed as they spend their days aimlessly meandering around Beijing, ideologically isolated from normal members of society. With an emphasis on cinematic realism, static camera-work, low-key lighting and downbeat dialogue, Zhang reflects the stagnant nature of their lives through the day. At night, they find meaning in their art as the play to warmly lit bars, chaotically crowded by other young people.
Ultimately, Beijing Bastards refuses to suggest that solutions are easily available for these characters troubled lives. But, like much of Chinese youth based cinema it offers global audiences the chance to observe and discuss an extraordinary period documented by masterful filmmakers.
This piece has been cross-posted at the Medium blog of the DC Chinese Film Festival.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.