MEMOIRS FROM THE BEIJING FILM ACADEMY: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation, by Ni Zhen, translated by Chris Berry. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002, 234 pp., £14.94 (paper).

Ni Zhen taught film theory at the Beijing Film Academy where in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000 he instructed those young film students who would become the directors responsible for that renaissance of Chinese cinema from the group that became known as the “Fifth Generation.”

The graduating class, the fifth since the foundation of the Academy, was unusually talented and in addition had gone through and survived the destructive “Cultural Revolution.” Ni writes of “the stark look, powerful emotions, national anxiety, and deep reflection that characterize early Fifth-Generation cinema,” and there is no doubt that this new personal honesty was in part an answer to this “revolution,” which Ni writes “turned a nation of one billion people into fanatical lemmings.”

Every member of this graduating class was affected by revolution. Chen Kaige, to become the most famous graduate, often recalled that, as a child of 14, he rushed up with the rest of the crowd and attacked his father. Long after, he wondered why he had done this. Ni offers several speculations. “Was it because he was afraid of death? Yes, but there was something more terrifying. Having been driven out from but wanting to rejoin the masses who had collectively taken leave of their senses, he hurt his own gentle and dutiful father in order to be acknowledged as one of the group.”

The director of “Yellow Earth” and “Farewell, My Concubine,” Chen has become synonymous with Fifth Generation films, as has Zhang Yimou, director of “Red Sorghum,” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” the screenplay of which was written by Ni. Other directors in this generation of filmmakers, however, perhaps not so internationally famous, were equally important.

Among them was Tian Zhuangzhuang, director of “The Horse thief,” and “The Blue Kite.” Of him Ni writes, “his eye for subject matter, his on-location style, and his preference for contemporary themes . . . might well have lit the way for the Fifth Generation film style.”

However, Zhang’s double role as cinematographer and director “determined the visual design and narrative structure of the earliest Fifth Generation films [and] an emphasis on visual language marked the films directed by Chen Kaige.” One result is that these two directors came abroad to typify the entire generation.

The tribulation and triumphs of this group of directors follows their work at the Academy and their later films. Their idealism is contrasted by the author with contemporary conditions. “But today, society has become completely enveloped in a commercial atmosphere and students view study and work as ways to get rich.”

Nor (though Ni does not mention it) does the later work of the Fifth Generation live up to early promise. Chen’s big budget “The Emperor and the Assassin” ran into production difficulties and emerged as an indistinguished martial melodrama. Zhang recently completed the mainstream kung-fu fight-film, “Hero,” which pleased both the Chinese government and the Chinese people, but did nothing to enhance the director’s cinematic reputation.

Such criticism as this does not, to be sure, belong in a book which seeks to memorialize the very real success of students of the Beijing Film Academy. The celebratory triumphalism of the style, however, does somewhat mitigate the message. A change in admission systems was “like a clap of springtime thunder awakening great hope,” later “every student’s heart was beating with hopes and dreams for the blossoming of Chinese cinema,” and in the group “no one would let the others down, and through fire or flood they would tackle the hurdles together.”

Perhaps such a cliched style sounds more convincing in Chinese but here, seriously and ably translated, it lends a partisan tone and a seeming lack of verisimilitude. Zhang at a photo exhibition makes a revolve to be a director, “as he stood among the endless flow of visitors and closed his lips tightly.” Unless Ni was right alongside and observed this, we have here mere rhetoric.

But if the book is less than a stylistic success, it is a rich compendium of information to be found nowhere else. It is not often that one has such access to successful film directors during their school days. And it is rare indeed that one is given such important documents as Zhang’s notes on the visual style of “Yellow Earth.”

The book also includes lists of names and film titles in their original Chinese characters, contains full notes and index, and is an indispensable guide for the Western student of contemporary Chinese cinema.

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