Screened Tuesday April 28 on Beauty Media DVD in Weehawken, NJ
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.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of King of the Children in the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Erika Gregor, Profil (2004)
Lawrence Chua, PopcornQ (1997)
Park Kwang-su, Sight & Sound (1992)
Time Out 100 Best Movies of All-Time (1988)
Tony Rayns, Time Out: Regret in 20 Films (2006)
Tom Milne, Time Out (1995)
An unschooled young man, one of the countless victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, is labouring in the countryside when he is suddenly assigned to teach in a near-by village school. Gradually, he finds the confidence to ditch the Maoist textbook and encourage the barely literate kids to write about their own lives and feelings. At the same time, through a series of dream-like meetings with a young cowherd, he begins to sense the possibilities of a life beyond the parameters of traditional education. There are echoes here of a film like Padre Padrone, but Chen’s film is completely free of flabby humanist sentimentality. It takes its tonality from the harsh beauty of the Yunnan landscape of soaring forests and misty valleys: a territory of the mind where hard-edged realism blurs easily into hallucination. By Chinese standards, this is film-making brave to the point of being visionary. By any standards, this follow-up to Yellow Earth and The Big Parade is also something like a masterpiece.
- Time Out
Set during the twilight of the Cultural Revolution, Chen Kaige‘s third film, King of the Children, concerns a young man who is sent from the city to the country for his scheduled tour of farm labor. Upon arriving in this remote mountain area, he — much to his surprise — is asked to become a teacher even though he lacks all the customary qualifications. Confronted with the apathy of his students, the young man decides to throw out the Maoist textbook, which includes such tedious exercises as copying all the characters out of the dictionary, and teach his students to think about the world around them. Just as he begins to connect with his pupils, the authorities catch wind of his pedagogical departures and severely reprimand him. Shot on-location in the Yuan province, King of the Children features some beautiful landscape photography of the region’s forested mountains and precipitous river valleys.
- Brian Whitener, All Movie Guide
Chen’s King of the Children was completed in 1987. This anguished work
demonstrates how contemporary history can be explored allegorically with great
artistic power. The ‘king of the children’, Lao Gan, is sent to a school in Yunnan
province, where many of the students are poor and lead unhappy lives. He is a dedicated
teacher who has come to realize the futility of learning by rote, and he is keen to
stimulate the creative and critical faculties of his students. His teaching methods are
unorthodox by approved standards, and since the local elite disapproves of his tcaching
style and philosophy, he is dismissed.
Chen successfully expands this story visually into a powerInI and allegorical indictment of
the Cultural Revolution that caused irreparable damage to Chinese society. The self-
destructive education system portrayed ill the film becomes a symbol for the Cultural
Revolution in general. As Chen has remarked, lie did not directly depict the violent social
confrontation that took place during the Cultural Revolution. Instead, lie chose the
language and syntax of film to create the atmosphere of the era. The forest, the fog,
and the sound of trees being chopped are all, according to him, ‘reflections of
China during that period of time’.
King of the Children is based on a novel of the same title by All Cheng, but the
director has modified the story to enhance its visual power. The mute cowherd, for ex-
ample, who helps in defining Lao Gan’s character and interests, is not found in the
original story. Chen’s experiments with the visual language of film can be seen very
clearly in this work. He invests the film with a certain mystic aura, through his
deft use of sight and sound, to create a multifaceted experience which has a pointed
relevance to the audience’s perspective on the Cultural Revolution.
- Article found on The College of Wooster Chinese Department website
Many would say the Cultural Revolution has destroyed Chinese culture since numerous cultural relics were destroyed. However, intellectually, it was more a time when the values inherent in traditional Chinese culture were carried to a dangerous extreme. This was violently reflected in the behaviour of every individual – from their blind worship of the leader / emperor figure to the total desecration and condemnation of individual rights. These are mere repetitions of tradition.
Chen Kaige, quoted in Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: visuality, sexuality, ethnography, and contemporary Chinese cinema. Columbia University Press, 1995. Page 120
The paradox of a Chen Kaige style is that its screen world is wedged between two layers: a series of viscerally realistic cinematic images new to Chinese cinema, on the one hand, and the fact that this “real” image appears inside an unprecedentedly conspicuous frame, on the other. Between the frames and the symbols the self-referentiality of the film’s diegesis opens up. In other words, the emergence of an anti-language has as its outcome an overwhelming presencing of language. “Reality” and history”, in contrast, are lost.
In Haizi wang (The King of Children), Chen Kaige confronted this predicament head on. He finally told his (The Fifth Generation’s) own story. With a reasoned, self-reflexive consciousness, he narrated his experience of a long, lonely spiritual wandering. This is a tale of the red earth, of an educated youth. In The King of Children, the Fifth Generation stepped out naked onto the stage. It is, according to Zheng Dongtian, “the testimony” of the Fifth Generation. However, even in The King of Children, the Cultural Revolution appears as an absent presence. The film’s protagonist is actually the director, Chen Kaige, rather than the educated youth, Lao Gan. The events narrated in the film are best understood as representations of the Fifth Generation’s artistic predicament, rather than as the mundane, if intriguing, experiences of an educated youth during the Cultural Revolution. Lao Gan’s short career as a teacher provides the readily available signifier. Its signifieds are history and language, the linguistic and the anti-linguistic, the expressible and the ineffable. This is a truly self-referential film: four times in the movie a framing, stationary frontal shot embedded in the middle of the screen – La Goan (that is, Chen Kaige) in the window, reiterates this aspect of its thematics.
In The King of Children, director Chen Kaige exhibits the self-consciousness typical of a lone rambler, one who hopelessly tries to save himself by salvaging historical representation, and attempts to open up a linguistic space for the Son’s generation in the space crowded with the words of the Father. Thus Chen’s expression is a metadiscourse on expression itself; his language is the longing for language itself. This longing for history and language becomes a struggle reminiscent of the interminable wait for Godot. In Red Sorghum, however, director Zhang Yimou adopts a “mischievous attitude towards this extraordinary heavy material.” He shuffles the fragments of history’s marginalized language and substitutes the language about desire for a desire for language. The film introduces History/ the Other through historicized representation, thus acknowledging the Father’s “rules.” This is a reversal of the attitude Chen Kaige represented through the character of Thick Eyebrows. The King of Children and Red Sorghum therefore constitute the polar opposites of the Fifth Generation’s treatment of History.
As a spiritual biography of the Fifth Generation, The King of Children, in all of its subtlety and complexity, gives vent to the Sisyphean condition of the generation of Sons struggling under the yoke of history and culture. The film demonstrates, in spite of itself, that the Fifth Generation must acquire the Father’s image. They must turn away from the empty horizon. They must end “the anxiety of expression” and achieve self-expression through the acquisition of a new narrative.
- From Cinema and desire: feminist Marxism and cultural politics in the work of Dai Jinhua. By Dai Jinhua, Wang Jing, Tani. E. Barlow. Versa, 2002. pages 23-24, 30, 33
King of the Children continues, in the formalist manner of Lu Xun, the exploration of the cluster of issues involving Chinese national culture that has haunted Chinese intellectuals since the beginning of the twentieth century. To the literary incisiveness of Lu Xun’s conception of hope – not as a road but as a crossroads – Chen’s work brings the complexity of the filmic medium, in which the suggestively speculary process of zhao duixiang – of finding that which gives us “self-regard” and “self-esteem” – takes on collective cultural significance. If Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century have consistently attempted to construct a responsible national culture through an investment in figures of the powerless, Chen’s film indicates how such an investment, because it is inscribed in the formation of an ego-ideal in the terms I describe, excludes woman and the physical reality she represents. Chen’s film offers a fantastic kind of hope – the hope to rewrite culture without woman and all the limitations she embodies, limitations that are inherent to the processes of cultural as well as biological reproduction. The subjectivity that emerges in Chen’s film alternates between notions of culture and those of nature that are both based on a lineage free of woman’s interference. As such, even at its most subversive / deconstructive moments (its staging of the unconscious that is nature’s brute violence), it partakes of a narcissistic avoidance of the politics of sexuality and of gendered sociality that we will call, in spite of the passive “feminine” form it takes, masculine. This masculinity is the sign of a vast transindividual oppression whose undoing must become the collective undertaking of all those who have a claim to modern Chinese culture.
- Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: visuality, sexuality, ethnography, and contemporary Chinese cinema. Columbia University Press, 1995. Pages 140-141
ABOUT CHEN KAIGE
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT profile page for Chen Kaige:
“Ever since first attracting attention as a leading light of the Film Academy’s ‘Fifth Generation’, he has consistently shown himself to be an imaginative and intelligent stylist; even as he has moved from political parable to more conventional accounts of human desire and despair, his work has remained notable for its visual bravura.” - Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“One of the most prominent and accomplished of the post-”Cultural Revolution” Chinesse directors…Chen’s films are renowned both for their emotional delicacy and their lavish spectacle, using an extensive palette of color and state-of-the-art film technology.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
Chen Kaige is, with Zhang Yimou, the leading voice among the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, the first group of students to have graduated following the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 after the depredations of the Cultural Revolution. As both a participant in (as a Red Guard he denounced his own father) and a victim of the Cultural Revolution (his secondary education was curtailed and, like the protagonist of King of the Children, he was sent to the country to “learn from the peasants”), Chen is particularly well-placed to voice concerns about history and identity.
The majority of his films constitute an intelligent and powerfully felt meditation on recent Chinese history, within which, for him, the Cultural Revolution remains a defining moment. “It made,” he has said, “cultural hooligans of us.” He has a reputation within China as a philosophical director, and his style is indeed marked by a laconic handling of narrative and a classical reticence. This is largely deceptive: underneath is an unyielding anger and unflinching integrity.
Chen in interviews has stressed the complementary nature of his first three films. Yellow Earth examines the relationship of “man and the land,” The Big Parade looks at “the individual and the group,” and King of the Children considers “man and culture.” Yellow Earth seems to adopt the structure of the folk ballads that provide a focus for its narrative, with its long held shots and almost lapidary editing. The Big Parade alternates static parade ground shots with the chaos of barrack room life, while the third film mobilises a more rhetorical style of poetic realism. Together the films act as a triple rebuttal of any heroic reading of Maoism and the revolution, precisely by taking up subjects much used in propagandist art—the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army in a village, the training of new recruits, the fate of the teacher sent to the country—and by refuting their simplifications and obfuscations, shot for shot, with quite trenchant deliberation. Attention in Yellow Earth is focused not on the Communist Army whose soldier arrives at the village collecting songs, but on the barren plateau from which the peasantry attempts to wring a meager existence. In the process the account of Yenan which sees it as the birthplace of Communism is marginalized. King of the Children banishes the bright-eyed pupils and spotless classrooms of propaganda in favour of a run-down schoolroom, graffitied and in disrepair, from which the social fabric seems to have fallen away. Likewise The Big Parade banishes heroics and exemplary characters in favour of a clear-eyed look at the cost of moulding the individual into the collective.
In Chen’s films what is unsaid is as important as that which is said; indeed the act of silence becomes a potent force. The voiceless appear everywhere—the almost mute brother in Yellow Earth, the girl’s unspoken fears for her marriage (“voiced” in song), the mute cowherd in King of the Children. In Yellow Earth the girl’s voice is silenced by the force of nature as she drowns singing an anthem about the Communist Party. It is almost better, Chen implies, not to speak at all, than—as he suggests in King of the Children—to copy, to repeat, to “shout to make it right.”
To young filmmakers in China Chen’s work, and that of other Fifth Generation directors, can seem academic or irrelevant. To the rest of us, the care with which Chen Kaige observes his protagonists’ struggles for integrity amid lethally shifting political tides makes for a perennially relevant body of work.
—Verina Glaessner, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com
CHEN KAIGE: I remember during the Cultural Revolution…
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You had to denounce your own parents…
Yes. We were forced to leave the school and hang out in the streets, that sort of thing, but we would find places, this small group of friends and I–these dark little rooms where we would gather and lock ourselves up and listen to classical music, and I think that the music really made us more psychologically comfortable. There were a lot of things we needed comforting about–most of us had fallen out with or were in big trouble with our parents. We were young and scared. Now there’s a lot of social change taking place in China, but for the longest time we forgot how important a thing culture and music were to us as a people.
What sort of access did you have to films as a child?
Not very much at all. I had some small degree of privilege because my father was a director and sometimes we would get to go to the film archive and see some films. That’s how I got to see Charlie Chaplin for the first time.
Why so many period dramas and all this interest in the past?
I prefer to do period pieces because the sad thing is that the Chinese culture has been cut-off, truncated. We’ve lost our national identity–we have no idea why we call ourselves “Chinese,” and I’m not pointing the finger at any one culprit, but someone needs to be responsible now for a reclamation of our society. So I concentrate in my films to focus on a period in our past where Chinese culture was still alive. In my mind, I wonder now if my feelings about this have changed a little. We still don’t have a solid identity, but I recognize now that there are good stories to be told and conflicts to be resolved in a contemporary setting–it’s a maturation on my part.
When you make a period piece, however, you begin to reclaim China’s past for a contemporary audience, do you not? The Emperor and the Assassin for instance, about the first emperor of China, is an astonishing work and my favourite of your films.
You’re right, you’re right–that happens I think. I strongly believe there’s a value that still exists in traditional culture that because of what happened in the beginning of the 20th century–the forced belief that our culture was useless–that it’s all the more important now to enforce a cultural pride. But the result hasn’t been very good. Kids in China want to see the newest Hollywood movie rather than something from their own culture and their own past.
Can you trace sources for your visual compositions?
I can’t tell you for certain–I think I have that kind of instinct. I understand images more than language. Obviously I spent a lot of time in museums, watching filmmakers I admire, learning a lot from Chinese classical poetry forms that merge image and word. I traveled, and suffered–I loved and was loved, hated and have been hated. Life things, emotional things. Not doing things as an expert, but approaching new experiences with a childlike manner. But I see the images in my mind–I don’t block out or storyboard. I’m afraid that if I ask the crew to rehearse too many times that nothing will be fresh. My way to do rehearsals is to do it in front of the camera.
So many of your films are adaptations of other source materials.
The fact is I would like to create original stories–I don’t really believe in adaptation. I think some interesting things are out there that I can fit into my vision, but I would like to develop more original work.
Tell me about working with Gong Li on three films.
I did a lot of talking to her, finding out what she wants. She’s an outstanding actress, for sure, and very smart, but I never really developed a relationship with her. She’s been very fortunate to collaborate with Zhang Yimou on so many wonderful movies.
What was your experience working in Hollywood on Killing Me Softly?
I loved the crew and shooting in London, but I’m not used to this kind of system. There’s always a producer with a worried face looking over your shoulder. There’s a whole different list of stresses–the budget, and the shooting schedule. It’s a completely foreign process. I wasn’t involved in the casting process either–Heather [Graham] was decided on by the producer, I only got to cast Joseph [Fiennes].Can you make any broad statements about your body of work?
There are two things that I’m trying to do in my films: I’m trying to be sensitive about human nature. I’m curious to discover what it is to be human–it’s our job as artists that we know ourselves more and so, through our art, we can make the world better. The other thing I want to do with my films is to create and develop new elements of cinema language. You can see that change already taking place with new mediums and influences. I’m not very comfortable talking about my films, in reality, I believe in the act of working and the eloquent power of the visual. It’s your job to make sense of it all.