Fourth Generation gets due at Rotterdam


BEIJING -- The first major retrospective outside Asia of films made in China following the tumult of the Cultural Revolution opens Friday at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which runs Jan. 23-Feb. 3.

As the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach and China's Communist government again tightens the reins on media, the retrospective will present films made from 1979-1989, in answer to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's call to open China up after decades when media equaled propaganda.

"This was the most culturally and politically open time in Chinese filmmaking. Even the semi-independent films today from people like Jia Zhangke have to be more subtle," curator Shelly Kraicer said, referring to the director of 2006 Venice Grand Prize winner "Still Life," which recently opened in the U.S.

Although the directors of these films -- known collectively as the Fourth Generation -- are well known within China, they have largely been overshadowed for foreign viewers by the works of the following Fifth Generation directors such as Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern"), Chen Kaige ("Farewell my Concubine") and Tian Zhuangzhuang.

Fourth Generation films represent a "fertile and creative, though sadly brief, era of Chinese cinema," Kraicer said.

For "Rediscovering the Fourth Generation" at Rotterdam, Kraicer, Beijing-based editor of the electronic newsletter Chinese Cinema Digest, chose a dozen films made in the run up to 1989, when the student democracy movement was crushed by China's army in Tiananmen Square.

From 1979's melodramatic "Little Flower," in which Zhang Zheng directs Joan Chen's debut as a young woman seeking her long-lost brother during wartime, to Teng Wenji's experimental 1984 film "At the Beach," featuring the debut of actress Bai Ling, Kraicer said that the period saw directors stretching their craft in many directions after years in which virtually no films were made.

"Black Snow," released in early 1984, is a tragedy about the demise of an ex-convict, played by Jiang Wen, China's most famous actor, who cannot reintegrate into society. It is the darkest film about China ever to get past the censors and receive a theatrical release, Kraicer said.

"It would never get passed today," said Kraicer, who will introduce festivalgoers to "Black Snow" director Xie, who will travel to Rotterdam with his film.

Director Teng will be present, too, as will the female director Huang Shuqin, whose 1987 "Woman Demon Human," is considered by film scholars a prime example of one of China's few feminist films.

From Jan. 25 to 29, the three directors and Kraicer plan to host a seminar on the Fourth Generation with the participation of Chinese cinema expert Tony Rayns.

It was not easy pulling the retrospective together, said Kraicer who, with Teng, spent a long time negotiating to get the sole surviving copy of "At the Beach" to Rotterdam from the Xi'an Film Studio.

The dozen films in retrospective will be screened on 35mm prints provided by the China Film Archive, the Xi'an and Shanghai Film Studios and the Emei Film Studio. Some are subtitled and some dubbed into English.

A complete list of Chinese Fouth Generation films at IFFR follows.

"Troubled Laughter" (Kunao ren de xiao), Yang Yanjin, Deng Yimin, 1979

"Little Flower" (Xiao Hua), Huang Jianzhong, Zhang Zheng, 1979

"Evening Rain" (Bashan yeyu), Wu Yigong, Wu Yonggang, 1980

"The Alley" (Xiaojie), Yang Yanjin, 1981

"River Without Buoys" (Meiyou hangbiao de heliu), Wu Tianming, 1983

"My Memories of Old Beijing" (Chengnan jiushi), Wu Yigong, 1983

"At the Beach" (Haitan), Teng Wenji, 1984

"Narrow Lane Celebrity" (Xiaoxiang mingliu), Cong Lianwen, 1985

"In the Wild Mountains" (Yeshan), Yan Xueshu, 1985

"Sacrificed Youth" (Qingchun ji), Zhang Nuanxin, 1985

"Woman Demon Human" (Ren gui qing), Huang Shuqin, 1987

"Black Snow" (Benming nian), Xie Fei, 1989