For decades, Chinese cinema was understood in generational blocks, each with its own defining characteristics: the Fifth Generation rejected socialist realist propaganda in favor of lushly filmed, socially critical allegories; the Sixth Generation rebuffed the Fifth by embracing gritty urbanism. We may now be at a point where Chinese cinema is too diverse to define. The etymology of the generational concept—used to characterize waves of Beijing Film Academy graduates, who for years were China's only trained filmmakers—is now obsolete in an age where digital filmmaking equipment is widely accessible. The independent scene is as prolific as ever, producing hundreds of features a year outside of state supervision, particularly in the documentary realm.
The explosive activity generated by this new technology is overturning other truisms and assumptions of Chinese cinema. The state-sponsored system was long an object of ridicule, as its lackluster product was routinely trounced by Hollywood imports, whether in Chinese theaters or the pirate DVD market. But signs of creativity and innovation are sprouting, enabled to some extent by the state film industry's redoubled efforts to compete in the world market, whether by upgrading its CGI prowess or encouraging fresh approaches to storytelling.
Some of the most vivid examples of this diversification are on display in "Tales From the New Chinese Cinema," a series curated by Cheng-Sim Lim and Bérénice Reynaud, that recently screened in in Los Angeles and will screen at the Museum of the Moving Image from April 29 to May 1. This video essay looks at the six films in the program, demonstrating their collective range of stylistic approaches and thematic interests by focusing solely on their opening moments. Even within these minute samplings, there's a wealth of detail to be discovered, both cinematic and cultural. In many cases the film's special cinematic qualities are informed by specific cultural subtexts, which this video attempts to uncover. Of course, there's much more to be said about these films than what their opening moments can contain: for example, read Reynaud's extensive commentary on several of these films, published in Senses of Cinema. We've only scratched the surface of these and many other works from today's Chinese cinema.
Kevin B. Lee is editor of the Keyframe journal at Fandor and programming executive at dGenerate Films.More articles by Kevin B. Lee