Hu Bo leaves us suspended over this bleak interregnum – where the old has gone but the new is not yet born. His death too, leaves a similar blank spot. Only time will tell whether there will emerge another generation of Chinese filmmakers – however loose the affiliation – capable of developing, if not necessarily Hu’s worldview, at least his attempt to further articulate some of late modernity’s devastating effects on Chinese society.
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However we might assess the legacies of capitalism, few will deny that it has been – and still is – a force to be reckoned with. Both the appalled and the enthralled confront capitalism’s power with an admixture of awe and vertigo: Karl Marx could both denounce the “vampire-like” bourgeoisie for feeding on the muscle, blood, and nerves of the proletariat, and celebrate them as “the first to show what man’s activity can bring about.”1 Joseph Schumpeter – who was opposed to Marxism, socialism, and government interference of almost any kind – similarly celebrated capitalism’s “gale of creative destruction,” recognizing the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”2 However, for Schumpeter that “perennial gale” is both a necessary part of capitalism’s reinvigorating innovation and that which will entail its eventual collapse, to be replaced by something at which Schumpeter himself could only vaguely gesture.3 Both were captivated by capitalism’s ability to take “all that is solid” and melt it into air.4
Where Marx wrote with 19th-century imperial Europe in mind, perhaps England in particular, and Schumpeter focussed on America, the then nascent giant of the early 20th century, the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers have spent the last two and a half decades responding to the peculiarities distinctive of China’s transformation into a behemoth within – if not entirely a part of – the contemporary capitalist world order.
There is no manifesto of intent to unite this generation: such a grouping refers, at best, to a loose affiliation, indicating the fact that most Sixth Generation directors are of a similar age and attended the Beijing Film Academy at roughly the same time. Nevertheless, there are also undoubted thematic similarities in their work. Where directors (of the Fifth Generation) like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang were reacting against the strictures imposed by the Cultural Revolution, tending toward stories and aesthetics in which the lavish and operatic took pride of place, this new generation of filmmakers has focused on the experiences of ordinary people (老百姓 – literally the “hundred old surnames”) struggling to confront the vicissitudes of a radically changing and unmistakably modern world.5
Beginning after 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the ratcheting up of state censorship it precipitated, these Sixth Generation directors started life as underground filmmakers. Early films such as Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (北京杂种) (1993) and East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫) (1997), He Jianjun’s The Postman (邮差) (1995), Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003) (盲井), and Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu (小武) (1997), and others suffered censorship and outright bans, often relying on foreign capital funds – the Hubert Bals Fund in particular – international festivals, and a thriving local market in pirated DVDs – to find any kind of audience.
Undoubtedly the most lauded of these Sixth Generation directors is Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯). From his beginnings in that 1990s underground to his current status as an internationally renowned, and locally respected, filmmaker, Jia has never veered from chronicling the “melting into air” that has been shaping contemporary Chinese society for the past 40 years. His most recent films in particular – from Still Life (2006) (三峡好人) through Mountains May Depart (2015) (山河故人), and on to his most recent film, Ash Is Purest White (2018) (江湖儿女) – chart the tribulations of characters struggling against the tide of social, economic, and geographic upheaval in order to moor themselves back into familiar patterns of family and friendship.
Still Life (三峡好人)6 (2006) is set against the construction of the Three Gorge Dam. More specifically, it is set in Fengjie, a small provincial town near Chongqing, where parts of the population are to be relocated in light of the area’s imminent flooding. It is the story of two people in search of their respective spouses. One of these spouses, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), wishes to find her husband (Guo Bin) in order to get a divorce and then remarry. The other, Sanming (played by Han Sanming, Jia’s cousin), comes to Fengjie to find his wife and daughter and bring them home to Shanxi, where he is employed as a miner. In Mountains May Depart (山河故人) (2015) the story unfolds in three parts. The first part is the story of a love triangle between Shen Tao, Zhang Jinsheng, and Liangzi; the second part, some fifteen years later, sees Tao and Jinsheng married and divorced. The two have a son – Daole, named by Jinsheng to sound like “dollar” – from whom Tao is estranged. Liangzi, in contrast, is now a miner who visits Tao in order to ask for money to help with medical expenses. The final part is the story of Daole’s affair with his Chinese teacher, set in Australia in 2025. In Ash Is Purest White (江湖儿女)7 (2018), Jia employs the familiar machinery of a gangster film to explore similar themes of dislocation, fragile relationships, and the itinerancy of modern China. Zhao Qiao, a gangster’s moll with considerable personal power in the Shanxi town of Datong, goes to prison for saving the life of her criminal lover, Guo Bin. When she gets out she tracks down Bin, only to find that he has abandoned her, and she returns to Datong alone. Several years later Bin also returns – now disabled and wheelchair bound. Qiao finds a doctor to rehabilitate Bin, but at the film’s close Bin once again walks out on Qiao.
At the root of all these different characters’ stories there remains the purpose provided by other people: Navigating the centrifugal forces at work within and upon modern Chinese society, these are ordinary men and women trying to hold families and friendships together. Some of these relationships survive – Sanming finds his wife, Missy Ma, and the film ends with them resolving to find their daughter, who has been sold into indentured servitude, and return to Shanxi; some of these relationships end to make way for new ones – Shen Hong gets her divorce; and other relationships collapse – in Mountains May Depart, Shen Tao loses contact with Daole, and Ash Is Purest White concludes with Bin once again abandoning Qiao. This emphasis on relationships – between parents and their children in particular, captured by the Chinese ideal of filial piety or xiaoshun (孝顺), but also between friends, and spouses – reflects an important feature of traditional Chinese ethics and values.8 The strongest and most sympathetic of Jia’s characters are those moved by the call of these ethical demands, those who attempt to keep things from falling apart. Still Life’s Guo Bin and Mountain May Depart’s Zhang Jinsheng, both of whom have made considerable money from China’s explosive entry onto the world stage, are primarily shallow and weak characters. In contrast, and as Ian Johnston has noted, Jia is keen to pay testament to the quiet strength and resolve demonstrated by his protagonists: Still Life’s Han Sanming in particular is a lesson in studied and unremitting doggedness – witness his brilliant, almost effortless, response to a young hoodlum’s attempt to mug him after he first disembarks at Fengjie.9
None of this is to say that Jia is only critical of the fissiparous quality of China’s contemporary development – there is little of the overbearing Luddite in Jia’s oeuvre, and the vast numbers of people who have been lifted out of poverty by China’s development should never be overlooked. Neither, however, does it seem that Jia would be completely at ease with someone like Marshall Berman’s understanding of what modernity augurs, and what it means to be modern. Berman claimed that
To be modern . . . is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one’s own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows.10
Jia’s treatment of modernity is more ambivalent than this. Although Berman too is acutely aware of the challenges modern capitalism throws up for ordinary people, Jia is far more interested in fleshing out the human costs wrought by modern China’s ability to ceaselessly conjure industrial productive force “from the lap of social labour.”11 His focus is on the effects of things like the ending of lifelong state employment and its “iron rice bowls”; mass migration the likes of which the world has never before witnessed – 300 million people have moved from rural environments to the urban in search of employment, with cities like Chongqing (the municipality in which Still Life is set) at one point growing by a rate of 30,000 people a month; and the ongoing devastations of the Chinese landscape. It is hard to think how one can make one’s home in such a maelstrom, and really whether someone should have to. Indeed, those who have been able to make their home within modernity’s “perilous flow” – the heroes in Berman’s sense – have in Jia’s oeuvre lost a great deal in the process. In fact, in many ways, people like Guo Bin (both from Still Life and Ash) and Jinsheng have lost far more than those who at least attempt to struggle against the maelstrom.
While the pre-eminence of Fifth Generation filmmakers lasted, roughly, fifteen years, there is little sign that the Sixth Generation filmmakers, some of whom having now been working for over twenty years, are being challenged by any significant movement of young pretenders. Although there have been stirrings of some interesting new voices in recent years, there has not yet been any talk of an emerging Seventh Generation of Chinese filmmakers.12
One director who might have augured in this Seventh Generation is the late Hu Bo, whose debut feature An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐) (2018) was also to be his last: Hu committed suicide in 2017 at the age of 29, reportedly after conflicts with the film’s producer, Wang Xiaoshuai. Set in the space of a day, An Elephant Sitting Still follows the stories of four characters: Wei Bu – as he tries to escape his comeuppance for pushing a classmate Yu Shuai down the stairs of his dilapidated school; Wang Jin, whose son and daughter-in-law want to put him in an old people’s home; Huang Ling, Wei Bu’s friend, who is having an affair with her school’s deputy dean; and Yu Cheng, a petty criminal and the brother of Yu Shuai, who witnesses a friend’s suicide after the latter discovered Yu was sleeping with his wife, and who is also on the (reluctant) hunt for Wei Bu, with the aim of avenging his brother’s hospitalization. As the film’s strands develop and intersect, Wei Bu, Wang Jin (with his kidnapped granddaughter in tow), and Huang Ling find themselves on a bus to Manzhouli, where there is word of an elephant who sits in the local zoo, ignoring the people who poke at or try to feed him. Their bus breaks down en route and the film ends – with one of its very few wide shots – with the passengers kicking a shuttlecock (jianzi) between themselves, before being interrupted by the inexplicable trumpeting of an elephant.
Set in Jingxing County in China’s northern province of Hubei, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still occurs against a backdrop that is in some ways similar to those employed by Jia – there are the same signs of heavy industry, large housing complexes, and the nondescript train stations and other fixtures of a provincial Chinese town. There are also similar themes of wandering and itinerancy. But in contrast to those films discussed above, there is in Hu’s film little remaining for the characters to hold things together. If the Jia focuses on what happens to people when the buttresses of their life “melt into air,” Hu’s film explores what happens after that melting has finished, when the various parts of that which has borne the brunt of capitalism’s heat finally ossifies and calcifies into something altogether new. Gone are the thousand-mile search for spouses, the attempts to preserve friendships formed in youth, even the attempts to resolve relationships that have run their natural course. Gone, finally, is even the sense that the end of these relationships should precipitate a sense of loss. Instead of these purposes, there remains only the abstract appeal of flight, and an even more abstract appeal to the sight of an animal acting oddly in a zoo.13 Where Jia tells stories of struggle against the maelstrom, Hu tells of people finding no way to, following Berman, make themselves at home in the debris of that maelstrom. So rather than trying to hold things together, Hu’s protagonists light out for new, only faintly understood territories.
The styles of these directors’ different perspectives are also reflective of their different concerns and sympathies. At the beginning of Still Life, Jia sets the camera roaming around the sweating bodies – smoking, chatting, fortune telling, playing, tending to children, staring out into the waters – gathered closely on a boat. The ethereal music that plays over the scene mingles with the voices of the passengers, raising the scene to a deeply moving pitch. And throughout Still Life, the focus remains on that complex space between people, whether they are cramped on boats or in buses, working in the guts of a soon-to-be demolished building, in hotels, karaoke bars, and across restaurant tables. There is, throughout Jia’s film, great energy to these scenes, a strong sense of mainland China’s peculiarly vibrant public spaces, and a great affection for the people who fill them out. It’s the scenery that sits behind the bodies and their actions – the enormous dams, drowned villages, sprouting cityscapes, the buildings-cum-spaceships and the progress they represent – that threatens to overwhelm the relationships occurring within their shadows. In contrast, there is no point in An Elephant Sitting Still with anything like that same assembly of people. Instead, the camera usually focuses on a single person, sometimes only the back of that person, keeping other figures blurred and abstracted, refusing even to expand into a two shot that might include another, or dwell for too long upon a face that might, at least, connect audience and protagonist.
These shifts are, in many ways, reflective of a later stage in capitalist development – where there is nothing left of the holy that can be profaned.14 Where in the work of the Sixth Generation rapid economic, cultural, and social changes are tearing things asunder, in Hu Bo’s world, the tearing is complete. There is nothing at the centre of these people’s lives that might prevent things from falling apart, no pattern of relationship available for preservation: friends are betrayed and cuckolded; father and grandfathers are remorselessly shunted off into the margins of old people’s homes; a brother’s near fatal accident is only passively avenged; teachers have passionless affairs with their students. The raw heat of disintegration has cooled into its final, definitive shape, leaving behind the devastated remnants of those once familiar, traditional patterns, with nothing yet in sight that might replace them. Fredric Jameson once said “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”15 However, in An Elephant Sitting Still, though there is no immediate end in sight, and there is still the pursuit of something at the centre of its story – however ineffable the quest might be – these characters are offered nothing beyond abstraction.
Hu Bo leaves us suspended over this bleak interregnum – where the old has gone but the new is not yet born. His death too, leaves a similar blank spot. Only time will tell whether there will emerge another generation of Chinese filmmakers – however loose the affiliation – capable of developing, if not necessarily Hu’s worldview, at least his attempt to further articulate some of late modernity’s devastating effects on Chinese society.16 As noted above, the Chinese Communist Party’s strict censorship has always set considerable challenges for its filmmakers. Jia – as well as Wang Xiaoshuai, Li Yang and Zhang Yuan, Lou Ye, and others – have all had films banned by the Chinese authorities. Nevertheless, many of these directors have also managed to make films with various levels of state and local support. These include Jia’s Touch of Sin (天注定) (2013), which addressed, in lightly fictionalized forms, some violent incidents that shook Chinese society and threw harsh light on government corruption and exploitation. More recently, Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长) (2018) also managed to capture some of the human and relational costs of the recently repealed one-child policy.17
It is important to acknowledge, then, that even in the teeth of these difficult circumstances, filmmakers like Jia and Wang have retained a critical edge. These filmmakers are not just darlings of the international festival circuit, but are also presences – to be sure, marginal – within China itself. However, with the current political situation providing less and less room for voices critical of the Communist Party, the challenges facing incoming filmmakers wanting to capture the ongoing dynamic shifts of a profoundly unsettled Chinese society and be seen by a compatriot audience will have a difficult time mastering a similar trick. Irrespective of what comes next, for Chinese – and world – cinema, Hu Bo’s untimely death was the loss of an important young voice.
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Images are screenshots from the film’s DVDs and trailers.
- Respectively, Marx, Karl. Capital. London: Penguin, 1990, 342. Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. London: Verso, 2012, 38. [↩]
- Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Routledge, 82–83. [↩]
- Ibid., 139. [↩]
- Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 38. [↩]
- Even this is an oversimplification. Both thematically and aesthetically, Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) (秋菊打官司) feels very much like a Sixth Generation film, and Jia Zhangke has praised both it and Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) (黄土地) as an important influence on his work. Conversely, Li Yang, who has been described as a Sixth Generation filmmaker, has rejected the label. [↩]
- Literally, “The Good People of Sanxia.” [↩]
- The Chinese title jiānghú érnǚ has a number of meanings. Most literally it means “the sons and daughters of Jianghu.” However, jiānghú can refer both to the ancient world of martial arts and, more recently, to those who have chosen to distance themselves from the world, variously meaning criminal, drifter or simply itinerant wanderer. [↩]
- In Ian Johnston’s review of Still Life (this journal; November 1, 2007), he points to the ways in which the commodities that structure the films into its different chapters (tobacco, liquor, tea, toffee) are each used to mark the various relationships that develop within the film. I think Johnston’s reading – is absolutely on the money. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air. London: Verso, 2009, 345–346. [↩]
- Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 41. [↩]
- One obvious example is Gan Bi, whose Kaili Blues (路边野餐) (2015) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚) (2018) both offer very different aesthetic sensibilities and themes to those dominant within Sixth Generation. [↩]
- Bela Tarr’s praise for An Elephant should be no surprise, and there are evident echoes of Werckmeister Harmonies in both the films’ style and underpinning philosophy. [↩]
- Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 38. [↩]
- Jameson, Fredric. “Future City.” New Left Review 21, 2003, 76. [↩]
- Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (悲兮魔兽) (2015) and Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (铁西区) (2002), both documentaries, offer similar moves beyond the world of the Sixth Generation, gesturing toward a much darker reality, one potentially beyond redemption. Li Yang’s first two films, Blind Shaft (盲井) (2002) and Blind Mountain (盲山) (2007) are similarly bleak in their appraisals of modern China. [↩]
- Some have succumbed to Chinese censorial pressure. Zhang Yuan, for example, made Sister Jiang (江姐) (2003), which proclaims “Long Live the Communist Party.” [↩]