“We wanted to create a new kind of cinema language. We were fed up with the way Chinese films relied so heavily on dialogue. We wanted to create something very fresh, something visually based. You can see that in our first movies.”
“I want to express my feelings on Chinese history. China has for many thousands of years remained static. That’s why all of my shots are so still. I want people to see that, although these scenes are very beautiful, they are also static. I want the viewer to wonder why there isn’t any movement.”
Born: 12 August 1952, Beijing, China
Directing career: 1984 –
Movement: The Chinese ‘Fifth Generation’.
Traits: Themes of Chinese identity and history, especially relating to the Cultural Revolution era; known for early, philosophical films with visual flair, but transitioned to more commercial, spectacle-films from the mid-1990s on.
Collaborators: Zhang Yimou (cinematographer, 2 films), Gong Li (actor, 3 films), Zhao Jiping (composer, 7 films), Gu Changwei (cinematographer, 3 films), He Qun (art director, 2 films).
Related Directors: Zhang Yimou.
Yellow Earth (1984)
Life on a String (1991)
Temptress Moon (1996)
In the mid-1980s, a new generation of filmmakers including Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou made a film that changed Chinese cinema irreversibly. This video essay explains what was so different and original about Yellow Earth, the film that gave rise to the so-called Chinese Fifth Generation.
Life on a String
Chen Kaige’s fourth feature film takes place in some unspecified timeless past, somewhere on the vast deserts of Northern China. Its main characters, two itinerant lute players, one old master and his pupil, may both be blind but Chen’s epic is itself visually spectacular, carving some of the most stunning images he’s ever set to film out of the harsh but beautiful scenery. This makes it tempting to slot it as the missing link between his early, rural-set dramas of spare beauty with palettes of ochre and blue for the land and sky dominating the scenery (Yellow Earth, King of the Children), and the later big-budget spectacles relying on extravagant visuals and musicality (Farewell My Concubine, and many of his subsequent films).
Music is at the core of Life on a String and its central metaphor of life and fate as being like the master’s lute. The film gets under way with a flashback in a mysterious, blue-lit chamber where the old master as an already-blind young apprentice is being taught by his own master a lesson set to haunt him the remainder of his days. Legend has it that day if a lute player breaks one thousand strings during his playing life, the gods will restore his sight. Cut to many years, and 995 broken strings, later and the now elderly blind master still plays as often as he can, entirely seized by the prospect that capricious and unpredictable fate will sever one of his lute’s strings five more times so that his eyes could at last see the world. His life, literally, hangs on a string…
Meanwhile, he also now has a blind apprentice of his own, who falls in love with a young peasant girl during their travels. This leads to a tale forbidden love as the girl’s family is militantly opposed to any union between their daughter and a blind itinerant musician, with tragic consequences, a side-plot which you can take or leave to be frank. It does however feed the messages behind the old master’s musical numbers, which form the film’s main set-pieces, in which he sings for common understanding and acceptance. Your enjoyment of the film will depend a lot on how you respond to these scenes, like this one:
In another, even grander moment, the old master prevents an inter-village war, the cinematography incorporating long shots of hundreds of men from the two rival clans charging at each other, amid the mountainous landscapes (and no CGI here of course). Mileages will vary, but if you are struck with anywhere near the awe the perplexed villagers are by the power of the master’s song and playing, then this film is certain to work its magic onto you.
Although made when the Chinese New Wave seemed on the wane, after the trauma of Tiananmen and the ensuing crackdowns by a repressive regime suspicious of anything that might diverge from the party-line, Chen still seems to be innovating here, playing freely with his own art. The elliptical editing, the sudden abrupt cuts taking us from one scene to the next, the constant elemental crackling of wind, water or fire on the soundtrack, and this strange recurring half-way place, under a waterfall, where the old man’s own love resides and which may well be a gateway into the afterlife… all these things provide Life on a String with plenty enough mystery to match its visual beauty.
Chen Kaige’s sixth feature, and immediate follow-up to the huge success of his operatic historical epic Farewell My Concubine, is a continuation of the lavish spectacle that was increasingly becoming a staple of the Fifth Generation (Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad had shortly preceded it). here merged with Wong Kar-wai-esque stylistics via the visuals of cinematographer-extraordinaire Christopher Doyle. Doyle recaptures some of the feeling that had illuminated his recent Wong hits (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels), bringing his box of camera tricks to the 1920s Shanghai setting. A nimble camera that floats and dances with its filmed subject, wide-angle lens close-ups, soft bright lighting, a neon-lit Shanghai that at times rekindles the look of Storaro and Bertolucci’s The Conformist; Temptress is certainly not lacking aesthetically.
Narratively, however, to call it impressionistic might be more flattering than it deserves. The unnecessarily tortuous tale centres on a gigolo (Leslie Cheung, as ever worth watching for the emotional force of his performance but we may well call his character underwritten) employed by his mob boss to seduce and blackmail rich married women. His vacuous life is brought to a tormented crossroads when his next job entails returning to the household he ran away from as a 13-year-old servant, now headed by the little girl he once played with, Ruyi (Gong Li), and her fiercely loyal cousin Duanwu (Kevin Lin). Cue flashbacks, bitter memories, and heartbreaks, all outstaged by Doyle’s camerawork and undermined by weak characterisation, particularly Gong Li’s Ruyi. The whole thing plays out like a less engaging version of the love-triangle in Farewell My Concubine, though of course with talent like Doyle, Cheung and Gong Li on board it has its share of beautiful moments.
After the Chinese New Wave movement was slowly diluted in the early 1990s, this elegant mess was, sadly, just about concordant with the beginning of the end for the Fifth Generation as it had first come to be known in the eighties. Chen and Zhang Yimou alike now seemed to be falling back on spectacular versions of their own country, and what more glamorous and more exotic vision than the neon hustle and bustle of Shanghai in its golden era, with its cosmopolitan nightlife and crime triads? The committed, brave films of the eighties were now firmly in the rear-view mirror.