Screened Tuesday April 28 on Beauty Media DVD in Weehawken, NJ
TSPDT rank #915 IMDb Wiki
First, I want to acknowledge that this is the first – and perhaps only – Shooting Down Pictures blog entry dedicated to a Chinese film, a fact that at first seems baffling given my passion for Chinese cinema (not to mention the fact that I’m heavily involved in a pioneering effort to bring more Chinese cinema to the U.S.). But this blog is dedicated to exploring the titles on the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films list that I haven’t yet seen, and of the 20 films from China/Hong Kong/Taiwan on the list, this is the only one that qualifies.
It’s also worth noting that I watched this film the same week that I read a breakthrough in-depth article on Jia Zhangke by Evan Ossnos in The New Yorker, the leading figure of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers from the Beijing Film Academy. It’s an article that, in my opinion, marks a decisive shift in mainstream American attention away from the Fifth Generation and towards the Sixth Generation (a much-delayed shift, I must say, and one I find all the more amusing since I’m currently focused on what one might call the post-Generation – or de-Generation? – of Chinese filmmakers). There are 13 productions from Mainland China and Hong Kong listed in the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films, of which five titles are from the vaunted Fifth Generation of Beijing Film Academy directors, and all belong to just two names: Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Too bad there isn’t room for other great Fifth Generation works, such as Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief and The Blue Kite or Jiang Wens’ In the Heat of the Sun, much less numerous Sixth Generation titles by Jia Zhangke, Ning Ying (On the Beat), Zhang Yuan (Sons) and the like.
I bring up the issue of Fifth, Sixth and post-Generation Chinese cinema because it informed my viewing of King of the Children, the first Fifth Generation film I’ve seen in a few years (I don’t include anything Zhang or Chen have done in the 2000s as they’re working in quite a different aesthetic environment than what they did in the ’80s and ’90s.) In some ways, the highly politicized realism of post-Fifth Generation films have done their work on my eyes, because it was difficult for me to get into the world of the film as an authentic place and time. It’s amazing to think that King of the Children was once considered part of a breakthrough movement to bring the “real” China to the screen, in opposition to the whitewashed, progagandizing cinema of an idealized China that was the norm (and still is, though in a more sophisticated form). In its own way King of the Children idealizes the rural peasantry, lensing the dirt-poor environment in lush, romantic hues.
Vast, almost abstract shots of landscapes and the ruddy soil convey fertility and potential, symbolized as well in the children being taught by an inexperienced sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution. This rough-edged eccentric prone to fits of laughter allows his students to chart their own path to knowledge, partly due to necessity (lack of schoolbooks and his own training as an educator). It’s a celebration of innovation, improvisation and pragmatism, but is soon curtailed by the rule-sticking authorities. The premise is clearly allegorical with elements both highly personal (the teacher standing in for Chen the artist/innovator – a lot of Chen protagonists have this autobiographical subtext of keeping their artistic integrity under pressure of institutional compromise) and impersonal (the children are an largely indistinguishable mass, save for one gifted child whose story of scholarship as redemption for his peasant father’s struggles falls into its own symbolic purpose). Images take on a monumental quality: the children are at times shot from below looking upward like heroic statues, or aligned en masse like the terra cotta soldiers in Xi’an. Even the acting has a stiff-backed affect. Most of the action takes place around a schoolhouse whose impossibly voluminous thatched roof seems too extravagant for such a dirt-poor setting. There’s virtually no depiction of the children’s parents and how they live, or any sort of day-to-day living outside the schoolhouse; the community is barely a sliver. These are the kinds of concerns that subsequent Chinese filmmakers preoccupied themselves with filling in; the return of Marxist socialist materialist cinema with a vengeance.
Despite the limitations of Chen’s approach in terms of illuminating a social situation by resorting to reductive symbolism, there’s no denying that this same approach generates some impressive visuals and uniquely cinematic moments. A scene that seems both laughably absurd yet aurally and visually stunning is when the teacher, forced to copy a lesson out of the only schoolbook available, furiously transcribes it onto a chalkboard as his students follow suit with pencil and paper. Their scribblings build into a rumble resembling a stampede of cattle (another metaphor invoked to suggest the immense power and herd mentality of the Chinese people). This goes on well into the night, with an oil lamp at each desk offering plumes of fire to this ritual of rote recitation, resembling what John Woo would do with church interiors slathered in candlelight.
While the grandiosity of such gestures may seem patronizing and even cliche after so many Fifth Generation films to follow that made postcard porn out of desolate environs, at the time these were mindblowingly unprecedented expressions of a new subjectivity in Chinese cinema, one that came from a discernibly individual vision rather than a bland, groupthink aesthetic. Who’s to say what this decade’s Chinese cinema, dominated by bleeding edge, street-level realism, will look like twenty years from now.
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