China's 'pariah' directors adapt to a thaw
By R. Scott Macintosh
Published: THURSDAY, MARCH 17, 2005
BEIJING: Times have changed since the sentries at the State Administration of Radio, Film
and Television here kept photographs of the filmmaker Jia Zhangke on hand to keep him
from entering the building. Like other directors of his generation who have worked outside
the state-controlled movie industry, Jia's film artistry has been praised abroad and banned
at home. With his latest effort, "The World," his first government-approved movie, he has
turned from pariah to golden boy.
In April, in what appears to be a well-coordinated coming out party for the filmmaker, Jia's
fourth feature film will make its Chinese debut at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
"The World" will then open in Seoul before its release in mainland China, East Asia and
Europe, all with the full support of the Chinese film authorities. Releases in North America
and Argentina will come in the spring.
To a die-hard auteur, this flip-flop could seem like a sellout. But in today's China, it's a sign
of the times. Filmmakers of the so-called Sixth Generation who first defied the state to
pursue their artistic visions are being lured into the Chinese mainstream. Tired of making
films that no one can see or that are available only on pirated DVDs, they are working with
censors to get their films shown on the mainland.
Jia said that by working within the system, directors are in a better position to push for an
end to state censorship and for changes to a distribution system that leaves many worthy
films invisible. "Some people say that I have gone 'inside,' which I don't agree with," Jia
said. "I want to serve as a bridge, first to allow the Chinese public to see more of these kinds
of films, second to establish a long-term dialogue between independent moviemakers and
the movie censorship authorities.
"This bridge," he continued, "is not only myself, but also other independent moviemakers
who have switched over as a group. We, as the young generation of directors, want to show
Chinese audiences how we look at China and the world. And we want to have regular
discussions with the authorities on how to reform the Chinese motion picture system."
The Sixth Generation movement began after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.
Frustrated with the way things were, young directors pursued artistic freedom underground.
Their films are gritty tales of rootless individuals struggling with the changes in modern
society and a departure from the sweeping epics of the Fifth Generation - Yimou Zhang's
"Raise the Red Lantern," for example, and Kaige Chen's "Farewell My Concubine."
Although Sixth Generation directors have won international praise, few people in their
homeland know of them. The best films have never been shown in theaters.
For Jia and other once-outlawed filmmakers, finding a Chinese audience has obvious
appeal. Cui Zi'en, a Sixth Generation filmmaker and a professor at the Beijing Film
Academy, estimates that about 20 percent of China's independents have switched to the
"offic ial" side in the last year. Like Jia, they are about to get their first screenings at home.
Liu Hao's "Two Great Sheep," for one, is in theaters here now.
The switch can be traced to a meeting last year of government offic ials and filmmakers that
resulted in a policy change that makes it easier to submit movie ideas to the authorities.
Cui said: "The offic ials said, 'Join us. What's wrong with making commercial films that will
earn a lot of money and be seen by the public?' A lot of talented filmmakers were seduced
by that argument. The rule was changed to attract more talent to make movies that people
can watch. But it just makes it easier to get started. It's superficial, because after the product
is finished, you still have to go to the censors."
Filmmakers have different notions of how far to go and where to draw the lines of
compromise. Many have refused to cooperate, saying that to do so would result in their
films' losing their artistic edge.
Among other things, the independents are pressing the authorities to adopt a ratings system
and to scrap the censorship system. There are no real guidelines here on what is and what
is not permitted in film. Content is left to those censors' judgments.
And conflicts during the censorship process are common. Gu Changwei was forced to make
cuts to his film "Peacock," which won the Silver Bear award at the 2005 Berlin film festival
in February, because of "homosexual content." And Jia had to fight to keep a Russian
character from being cut from his film because she was involved with prostitution.
The most important thing is the director's independent expression and the spirit of
independence," Jia said. "Whether the film is approved by authorities or not, I'm going to
make films the way I want. So are other filmmakers." He said he believes the release of "The
World" will prove that it is possible to make an "offic ial" film without compromising artistic
"Right now the major change is that these filmmakers are being allowed to make films in
the system," said Katharina Schneider-Roos, who works with the Vienna film festival and
Unesco. "They have a point of view of China that they are being allowed to express, which
is a big change, and a Chinese audience that's allowed to see the films. Chinese officials
are eager to normalize the situation. They see it as an industry with a large commercial
side, and they want to be able to compete with big foreign industries like Hollywood. The
question is whether a Chinese audience will want to see these films."
That Jia is even getting a theatrical release is a major coup. But this has less to do with the
film than with his success in breaking the state monopoly over film distribution by forming
his own company to handle the domestic release of "The World" and other art films.
Commercial movies are favored over art films in the Chinese market. Out of the 200 or so
movies made each year, about 50 are distributed. Theaters often show only one movie
even if they have several screens. And art films have been known to languish for years
before getting a screening, if they are screened at all.
"I was worried," Jia said. "That's why I started my own company. There are production
companies for art films, but the problem is that there are no professional distribution
companies to allow art movies to be shown. We are solving that problem."
Jia hopes to distribute one new film every quarter. Among the movies his company will
distribute this year is the first "official" film by Wang Xiaoshuai, director of "The Days,"
which is considered a seminal work of the Sixth Generation. Jia also is producing the new