I Wish I Knew will be showing at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival on October 29 and 31st.
I Don’t Believe You’ll Predict Our Ending
July 21, 2010
Personally, I hadn’t known what the category of “Sixth Generation” really marked, what it meant. Speaking purely in terms of age, I’m 7 years younger than Zhang Yuan, who released Mama in 1990. And I’m half a year older than Lu Chuan, who self identifies as a “Seventh Generation” director. It was after I directed Xiao Wu at the age of 28 that people gave me the tag “6th Generation,” and that was in 1998.
I’ve always thought that fervent emphasis on this generational affiliation and fevered opposition to it were in some ways one in the same. At core, its about wanting to avoid being labelled into a certain set, and of course to some degree, its about retaining your sense of individuality, or avoiding the negative connotations or what-naught carried by having such and such label. For instance, to be “Sixth Generation” was basically synonymous with having awful box office sales. But, I thought, if other people were willing to have that tag, I may as well too.
[FULL TRANSLATION AFTER THE JUMP]
The first time I heard the term 6th generation was probably around 1992, when I was finishing up exams at the Beijing Film Academy. I’d finished an exam and went to the art gallery for a show, and while there, picked up the latest copy of The Chinese Arts Bulletin. There was an essay introducing the so called “Sixth Generation” directors. Back then, Zhang Yuan had directed Mama, Wang Xiaoshuai put out The Days, Wu Wen Guang had the documentary Bumming in Beijing - The Last Dreamers. It was from these films that China began to have an independent cinema movement.
The Past: This Was Not A Dream of Freedom
In that article, there was a description that I recall to this day. The article described Wang Xioashuai’s experiences filming The Days, clining to the back of coal trains and buying the cheapest black and white film from outside of Baoding. I often imagine Wang, now a bit plump with fortune, if you will, in the full stride of his youth then, nimble and vigorous and full of vitality, criss-crossing the wild expanse of Hebei, whirling through countless trains, living in his cinema the very dreams of youth.
But, this was not a dream of freedom.
Back then, there wasn’t any sense of collective consciousness - people didn’t think that, as an individual, you could use film as a medium to express individual experience.
I was a 21 year old kid from Shanxi, I’d read a few novels, and had a scattered background in the arts. I am a follower of the "6th Generation,” and have constantly looked to them as models.
Years later, when people began to refer to the “6th Generation” as some sort of unbelievable community - Don Quixotes that were out of their depth, and monstrously out of sync with their times - I flashed a sort of dumb smile.
The Syrian poet Adonis has a poem:
The vast sea has no time to talk to the sands,
for he is always busy charting the waves.
The poet considers things with an open eye, which is worthy of the “6th Generation’s” study. But, I must say, have we really forgotten all this?
We look at today’s youth - darting through the city with their dyed hair - and they are able to freely choose, and even be open with, their sexual orientations. Isn’t this the result, in some ways, of films like Zhang Yuan’s autobiographical East Palace West Palace?
In these changing times, there are more and more people relegated to the fringes of society by the powerful, by the market - and which films are the ones which have constantly chronicled these people, and struggled to turn all of society’s eyes towards the powerless and marginalized? This has been the power of the “6th Generation” directors and their work. In my opinion, the culture of 6th generation cinema was been the most vibrant part of Chinese culture in the 90s.
These films may not have ways to really generate profits, but why can’t we help these films reach a wider audience, and better public reception? Our films have had an audience that’s been growing for over a decade now, and behind us will stand an enormous community. And when we’ve each taken our own films, and finally were allowed to show them on the market, our supporters - those who welcomed us - weren’t a bunch of youth who’d been conquered by Hollywood. Many directors can feel so powerless - but the revival of Chinese film, the expansion of our cinematic pulse, has been made possible by true believers, people who maybe are just as out of the mainstream as we are.
In 1997, economic change yet again picked up pace. This year, Lou Ye filmed Suzhou River, Wang Xiaoshuai released Frozen, Zhang Yuan was preparing to film Seventeen Years, and Zhang Ming had just completed Rainclouds over Wushan. This was the year I started shooting Xiao Wu, and I am honored that I’ve been called part of the "Sixth Generation."
As a cinematic movement, the "Sixth Generation" has already dissolved today - they have each evolved into different spheres, and in the span of a relatively short span of time, we’ve each shown some personal shortcomings, and even some of the weaknesses of the power of film. We should be happy for one thing, however - that most of our films have chosen to ally themselves with realism, and with truth. These films all supplement one another, and are interlinked, and have captured a faint outline of the rapid changes in today’s China.... we have not allowed the real experiences of the Chinese people to disappear into the clamour for materialistic gain. This has been a thread of a scarred, painful era - and we feel such pain ourselves.
Now: Surving in “Commercial Warfare”
Among my most memorable moments was in 2003, the day at the Beijing Film Academy when the ban on most “6th Generation” directors was lifted. A government official had said, we are lifting the ban on you today, but you should understand that soon, you’ll be the “underground” films of the industry. In the nearly six years following that announcement, I can personally say that I experienced a totally new ruthlessness within the market. Of course, its necessary to say that, in reality, we aren’t all opposed to the market - a free market is one of the many permutations of a free society, so we don’t have too much to complain about in that regard. Even knowing that the “market” can saddle itself with entrenched power, we’re willing to embrace the market, and even expend all our efforts and resources on it.
The greatest irony is that with each new film, the media now puts enormous emphasis on ticket returns, and loves to announce the “death” of the “Sixth Generation.” Art films require a relatively long period of time to catch on, and even the first month or two of release can be an exploratory promotion phase. But even prior to a film’s release, you’ll hear announcements that this and that film will be a total flop at the box office, and its hard for a director not to feel desperate. One just loses the ability to even wait a few days, and the audience disperses. No one wants to watch something that’s pronounced dead on arrival - they only want to see miracles.
So that was commercial warfare, and in the billowing gun-smoke, we’re still standing. I am certainly willing to be part of this relentless group of survivors, known as the “6th Generation.” And though this movement may be at an end now, I myself have a much longer career ahead of me. After New Wave ended, Truffaut was able to become a commercial film director with wide box-office appeal, while Godard became more of an auteur, and of course, a wide range of directors took a middle path. Individual changes cannot represent a group, and likewise one cannot fault a group for the faults of an individual. This is all passe.
No matter what, we are a bunch that remains faithful to cinema, and whatever obstacles we face - market forces or other - we will persevere. If you are willing to admit that a nation’s films should have cultural significance, I’ll tell you now - in the last ten years, the films that have contained the most cultural force have been those by the “6th Generation” of directors. And it is difficult to imagine a scenario where we lose the work of these directors。Our film culture hangs by a mere thread: what else could we show to the world to prove that yes, Chinese film culture is alive.
As for the audience, as for the market, I still have the most primal passion for it. There’s another poem, from the Latvian poet Vizma Belševica:
If you draped upon yourself the joyous cries of stars,
I would set my love aflame on your body,
Each time you hurt me,
I would extinguish a star,
Then, why do I still sigh with such sadness?
Future: I do not believe that dreams are false
As with any generation of directors, we will age, and sooner or later, lose our creativity. Day by day, that self that seduces us to give up, to sink, will grow stronger - physical exhaustion and a world weariness that was unprecedented in our youth will emerge as well. Selfishness will even begin to have its own appeal, and that appeal will slink besides us with a smile. But to me, just seeing bustling streets is, for now, enough to incite a flash of feeling in my heart, and I remember the reasons I began to make movies in the first place.
To learn to place that pulsating passion of life, and the true self, into ones own work - that is why we must continue to make films in the future. It is unfortunate that some “6th Generation” directors have, I believe, have confronted the problem of the “self” or first-person within film quite erroneously, and due to a lack of familiarity, confuse it with modes of egoism or narcissism. If a movie does not have, through and through, a “consciousness” animating it, they say that the movie has no subject at all.
Yet, I believe even the most unformed narrator can still communicate genuine and important personal experience.
Don’t worry about our paranoia - film should be a fun, and for the most part, we’re now defending the right of the film to serve as entertainment. However, a multiplicity of views shouldn’t be exclusively filed as mere entertainment. As culture loses its final grounds of liveliness, the carnival of the masses will begin to establish new reigns of power.
Among our crowd, there will be directors who put out all sorts of masterpieces, and also people who put out all sorts of crap. Yet, I believe that as long as the self is still valued, the spirit will be retained. As long as there remains a keen perception of realism, then we will still be full of creative energy.
I must apologize - I’ve said “we’ far too much, and of course, the broader cinematic spirit is not constituted by one person alone. Before closing the essay, I’d like to evoke a habit of older literary norms, and quote a few lines from Bei Dao:
I do not believe the sky is blue,
I do not believe the thunder’s echo,
I do not believe dreams are false,
I do not believe death eludes retribution.
I’ll add a line: I don’t believe you will predict our ending.