- The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century
In the three years this book has been available, graduate students and all of us engaged in research on Chinese film have found it invaluable. Frequent references, particularly to the chapters by the more widely known contributors, attest to the enduring impact of the work. Some of the chapters provide, in effect, a preview of subsequent books from the same authors. Zhang Zhen begins the collection with a consideration of the label “urban generation,” offering insight into the ways in which the filmmakers discussed in these pages can be understood as different from their older peers. The emergence of a singular and somewhat unexpected fifth generation in the mid-1980s led to a generational emphasis in Chinese film studies. The almost immediate dissipation of the fifth generation raised questions [End Page 385] about the utility of generational or other ways of identifying contemporary trends. Zhang provides a brief, insightful overview of the new modalities for viewing these films, including film clubs and other groups. These spectator practices reinforce the sense of independence associated with these new, post–fifth generation filmmakers.
Three sections follow: “Ideology, Film Practice, and the Market”; “The Politics and Poetics of Urban Space”; and “The Production of Desire and Identities.” The first part examines the historical conditions out of which the urban generation emerged. Yingjin Zhang offers his thoughts on the interplay between politics, art, capital, and marginality in a postsocialist milieu. He questions the assumptions some critics make about the underground or resistant stand of these film makers, arguing persuasively for a more nuanced view. Jason McGrath uses the films of Jia Zhangke to assess the question of realism in this director’s aesthetics, including The World, which marked a departure from Jia’s Shanxi roots. The always stimulating Chris Berry introduces ideas about the new kind of documentary approach in many of these films, anticipating some of the themes in the volume he has edited with Lu Xinyu and Lisa Rofel, The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record (University of Hong Kong Press, 2010).
Sheldon Lu starts the second section with a nicely organized essay on urban space as reflected in recent films and in avant-garde art, including photography. It is a useful reminder of wider artistic cross-currents and practices that have always influenced Chinese film. Demolition and relocation figure also in Yomi Braester’s chapter on what he calls “the limits of the documentary impulse” (p. 161). This anticipates his splendid Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract (Duke University Press, 2010). Augusta Palmer examines images of the city in Street Angel (1937) and the 1998 film Beautiful New World, directed by Shi Runjiu, particularly those images of the skyscraper as an emblem of modernity and Shanghai’s distinction. Linda Chiu-Han Lai looks at urban drifters in recent films, explaining the differences between fifth-generation Huang Jianxin’s urban characters and those of more independent, younger directors.
The third section is a wide-ranging set of chapters, starting with Shuqin Cui’s enthusiastic exploration of sexuality, class, and age in Ning Ying’s Beijing trilogy. Despite being perhaps the only author here who has no Chinese-language ability, Bérénice Reynaud insightfully assesses what she argues is the apparent contradiction between Zhang Yuan’s realist inclinations and his theatricalization of urban space. Xueping Zhong focuses on Lü Yue’s droll Mr. Zhao (1998) and its presentation of male desire and discontent. Yaohua Shi looks at several films featuring police officers, including Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace and Ning Ying’s On the Beat, comparing them with previous, mainstream representations of police. Zhang Zhen bookends the collection with a wonderful comparison of the female double in the context of Beijing and Shanghai in transformation. An appendix of brief...