These young auteurs, most of them graduates of the Beijing Film Academy, are sucessors to the famous Fifth Generation of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. But their films are worlds removed from Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine?those gorgeous parables of loss, steeped in oriental exoticism. In general, the Fifth Generation made pretty films set in the rural past; the Sixth Generation makes gritty films set in the urban present. Emperors and concubines have been replaced by the grungy malcontents of Zhang Yuan's Beijing Bastards (1993), the Sixth Generation's first major film; its anomic punksters spit out obscenities in sync sound and groove to hard rock. A night at the Peking Opera gives way to an all-nighter in the Beijing mosh pit.
Sixth Generation films, with their flat, generic titles (The Days, Postman, Platform), are about ordinary people: sufferers and inflicters of suffering, men of the street and ladies of the evening. There is little facial or verbal inflection, and few dramatic gestures, unless someone is smoking (and in Chinese films, everybody smokes, all the time). All these movies drop one big hint: in a totalitarian society, where anyone may be a government snitch, it's best to keep one's feelings and agenda hidden. To speak up, to shout or plead, is to be noticed; to be noticed is to risk being denounced. Best to blend into the scenery, to seem a gray person in a gray nation. Or to be a twisted bureaucrat (in He Jianjun's Postman or Ning Ying's On the Beat, both 1995). Only then will you flourish.
The anti-romantics of the Sixth Generation renounce glamour. They eschew the star quality that marks Hollywood and Hong Kong; indeed, they often do without professional actors. Their films look less like paintings than placards. No stately settings, no echoes of the fine arts, no images that pop your eyes in wonder. The very notion of masterpiece-making seems dilettantish to the rebels of the sixth form. Here are film kids in revolt?against the government, of course, but also against their sanctified big brothers. Speaking of the Fifth Generation, Zhang Yuan has said, "They had a slogan: 'Not like the past.' It motivated us to create our own: 'Not like the Fifth Generation.'"
There's one thing the two generations have in common: the pernicious attention of government censors. Sixth Generation films have often been drastically cut, or shelved for years, or banned outright. Zhang had his passport revoked in 1997 when the Cannes Film Festival invited his East Palace West Palace, the story of a gay man and the policeman who arrests him. The editing of Postman was halted by the censors; the film had to be smuggled out of China, and was completed with a grant from the Rotterdam Film Festival. In 1996, Wang Xiaoshuai made Frozen under the pseudonym Wu Ming (literally No Name), for fear of government retribution; another of his films, So Close to Paradise, a noirish study of gangsters in Shanghai, was reshot, recut and withheld for five years. Jia Zhangke shot Xiao Wu (Pickpocket, 1997) despite the censors' rejection of his script; he was banned from directing, but went ahead anyway. Jia got funds for his next film, Platform (2000), in part from Japanese star Takeshi Kitano.
The entire film industry in China is a censorship apparatus. The Beijing Film Academy disgorges talented directors, but the regional film studios typically employ these ambitious youngsters in menial jobs. The government hopes that, by the time they are finally given the chance to make a film, they will be sympathetic to the corruption of the system?docile artisans.
But something in a Chinese filmmaker cannot take yes for an answer. In one of the world's most repressive systems, they create fearless social commentary. And instead of waiting for the censors to approve their scripts and their films, they go out and do it themselves. Zhang financed Beijing Bastards with money he got directing music videos. Wang made The Days (1993), the harrowing story of a marriage on the rocks, for an astonishingly meager $10,000. Desperate circumstances create principled outlaws. The censors didn't intend this, but by their intransigence they helped spawn a truly independent film culture.
No wonder the "heroes" of these films are often silent, sullen resisters. The title character of Jia's quietly powerful Xiao Wu is a thief with scruples: he won't give in to the system. He is spurned by an old gangster friend, harassed by the police, cursed by his father ("I should have drowned you in the urinal when you were born"). Finally, arrested for pickpocketing, he is hand-cuffed in a public square and left to be stared at. He is a zoo creature, behind the bars of the people's opprobrium. Jia would work on a larger canvas with Platform, a three-hour series of elegant tableaux about a music group that evolves from agit-prop in 1979 to Mandarin pop a decade later.
Sometimes a villain can be attractive. The mail carrier in Postman reads the letters he is to deliver: the whispers of love, lust, fear in a closed society; loneliness begging for another voice to answer, in harmony or dissonance. The voice is the postman's, once he takes the next step and writes responses as if he were the people who hadn't answered these pleas for a little human contact. The director touches the viewer as well. He has a sense of the winsomeness of voyeuristic obsession, and the small, spare elegances of camera placement, almost worthy of the late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Mr. Zhao, the first film directed by the cinematographer Lu Yue, uses the improvised style of U.S. Method-man John Cassavetes to tell the story of a philanderer caught between a jealous wife and a demanding mistress. Will he leave the one for the other? He doesn't want to decide; he's a practiced evader. What's clear is that his wife plays the role of the exasperated mother, his mistress the role of the spoiled daughter. Eventually we learn that he has another woman in his battered heart; this small film packs a final emotional wallop.
There is a temptation for Western viewers to scrutinize these films with a Chinese censor's eyes, looking for political criticism or social irony in every frame. Of course, what is belligerent folly to the censor is political bravery to us. Some of the festival prizes given to Sixth Generation films seem like citations awarded for valor in the face of institutional myopia, rather than for cinematic achievement. And sometimes, the story behind a Sixth Generation work is more compelling than the story in it.
All right, but why not give points for integrity? The message may be simple, even brutal, but it is authentic. In Frozen, a performance artist literally kills himself for his art, and a friend says, "He sacrificed his life to show that he lived among murderers." Squeeze a little of the melodrama from that statement, and it could apply to the Sixth Generation filmmakers: They risk their careers to deliver uncomfortable truths. If it is hard to find heroes in these movies, it is easy to see the heroes behind them.