With more than 2.7 billion yuan in box office receipts to date, “Moon Man” — a sci-slapstick about a stranded astronaut — is the undisputed champion of the summer blockbuster season. But if you asked any of the millions of Chinese who bought a ticket, they’d be hard-pressed to name the director who brought it to life.
That’s not necessarily surprising. “Moon Man” was helmed by Zhang Chiyu, a hired gun under contract with the comedy troupe Mahua FunAge. Prior to “Moon Man,” Zhang had just a single directing credit to his name, for “Never Say Die,” a body-swapping piece better known for its offensive gender politics than its box office performance. This time, audiences turned out for comedian Shen Teng, a bona-fide star in Chinese comedy circles; Zhang’s vision for “Moon Man,” to the extent it existed, was irrelevant to the film’s success.
In this respect, “Moon Man” is in good company. Around the world, the idea of the singular auteur seems to be in decline. In Hollywood, big studios like Marvel and Disney treat even Oscar-winning directors as largely interchangeable. And in China, where evolutions in domestic filmmaking have been marked by the rise of successive “generations” of directors for over a century, genre and cast are now the primary drivers of a film’s success.
A still from the 2022 film “Moon Man.” From Douban
Anyone familiar with the history of Chinese cinema knows about the six generations of directors, starting with the founding fathers of Chinese filmmaking, Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan. As the first generation, they established the prototype of Chinese films. Then came the leftist second generation in the 1930s and 1940s, including Cai Chusheng, Sun Yu, Wu Yonggang, and Yuan Muzhi. The third generation — most notably Cui Wei, Cheng Yin, Xie Jin, and Wang Ping — emerged after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and spent their careers making ideological propaganda.
The fourth generation appeared on the scene only belatedly, in the wake of the decadelong Cultural Revolution. Wu Yigong, Huang Shuqin, and Zhang Nuanxin, among others, sought to revitalize creative concepts and film language in the early years of China’s economic reforms. Their successors, most notably Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, brought global recognition to Chinese cinema. Finally, the sixth generation, including Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye, and Jia Zhangke, burst onto the international film festival circuit in the 1990s with more down-to-earth stories of urban life in a radically changed nation.
Today, Zhang Yuan is nearly 60. The most active of the sixth-generation directors, Jia and Wang, are in their early- and mid-fifties, respectively. They have been the global face of Chinese cinema for almost 30 years, and there’s a case to be made that they’re one of Chinese film’s most internationally acclaimed generations. With no clear successors on the horizon, they may also be its last.
China’s habit of grouping directors into generations is relatively unique, arising both from the director-centric nature of Chinese cinema and the country’s complicated 20th century history. It’s not biological age that marks a given generation; rather, it’s the similar historical plights they experienced and the way their parallel life experiences aligned their modes of expression.
In the 1920s, the first generation of directors founded the Star Motion Picture Company, which produced early Chinese films like “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple,” “Fate in Tears and Laughter,” “Sing-Song Girl Red Peony,” and other massive commercial successes of the silent film era. These films sought to create a national cinematic language based in traditional Chinese culture, much to the chagrin of the era’s radical intellectuals.
A stage photo from the 1928 film “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.” From Douban
Eventually, the radicals decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1934, Cai Chusheng’s work “Song of the Fishermen” won an honorary prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. Writing half a century later, the critic Ke Ling described the win as “symbolizing a new chapter in Chinese cinema; left-wing movies merged Chinese film — now reoriented — with the new cultural movement and set it upon the road to serious art.”
The second generation of Chinese directors all hailed from the rising leftist movement, and their current-day popularity is in part a product of how Chinese cinema excluded popular “right-wing” works and their creators, including Ma-Xu Weibang, from the second generation, even though these actually commanded larger audiences in the 1930s and ’40s than the leftist pictures and directors better remembered today.
The second generation’s political leanings did not help them after the founding of the People’s Republic, however. Mao Zedong saw film as an essential propaganda tool, and the veteran directors active in the ’30s and ’40s were quickly marginalized in favor of artists who had lived with Mao in the wartime Communist stronghold of Yan’an or in other areas under Communist Party control. In his “Introduction to the History of Contemporary Chinese Film Art (1949-1966),” Meng Liye, a film historian who lived through the high socialist period, wrote the following of the third generation of directors: “They saw themselves first and foremost as revolutionaries. No other group of artists practiced the will of the leaders and the ruling party as unswervingly as the Chinese directors of the 1950s and 1960s.”
The Cultural Revolution led to a long gap between the third and fourth generations; when the latter finally arrived on the scene in the late 1970s it was described as a “late spring.” By the time fourth generation directors were free to direct films independently, most were nearing middle age, and the fifth generation was already nipping at their heels.
A still from the 1987 film “Hibiscus Town,” directed by Xie Jin. From Douban
Both time and opportunities came scarce to the fourth generation, but their output shouldn’t be overlooked. Their creative explosion coincided with a transitional period of Chinese society, and their work reverently depicts the cultural re-awakening of the Chinese people after the 1960s and ’70s, their return to humanity following their alienation from mass political movements, and the re-emergence of cinematic consciousness. In a sense, they restored cinema to the cinemas, ridding it of ideological instrumentalism, and focusing on small stories in an era of big changes. A particular fixation of theirs was children — long absent from Chinese screens — as a metaphor for the emotional repression of an entire nation.
Known as the “wolf cubs,” the fifth generation lost little time making up for the years they spent as “sent down” youth in Mao’s countryside. “One individual’s tragedy can no longer encapsulate all that we feel, and we hope that those wounds will give bloom to the ideas that uplift the nation,” wrote Chen Kaige about his “Yellow Earth.” The narrative themes, imagery, and visual rhetoric of this group differed markedly from that of past Chinese directors. In subverting the traditional melodrama of Chinese cinema, they turned to composition, color, and sound to shape new stories of ancient China, while benefitting from a broader atmosphere of reform, opening, and foreign exchange, which successfully ushered Chinese films back onto the international film stage.
A still from the 1984 film “Yellow Earth.” From Douban
But cracks in the generational model were beginning to show by the time the sixth generation arrived on the scene. As early as 1995, critic Li Sheng wrote in the inaugural issue of The Journal of Beijing Film Academy that the then-emerging sixth generation had, “different styles and no common artistic positions. Their sole similarity is that their films all relate to the urban youth and that they share a background in film school.”
Li went on to argue that the “generational” characterization was inappropriate given the varying quality, quantity, and creative styles of the relevant directors’ works. But the “sixth generation” nomenclature has persisted, mainly because the fifth generation dominated public opinion and criticism for so long and Chinese cinema was hungry for new blood.
Meanwhile, despite the growing profile of Chinese directors on the international film festival circuit, the country’s film industry was in trouble. Chen’s fellow fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou began arguing in the mid-1990s that, in a globalized world, it was not enough for a handful of state-backed and auteur-directed films to receive awards from art and film festivals; the country needed a viable commercial film industry capable of producing blockbusters and arthouse flicks alike. The Chinese film market was in a precarious state at that time, with audiences dropping from 3.4 billion at the peak of the 1980s to 450 million at the nadir of the ’90s. Compounding the problem, one of the conditions of China’s World Trade Organization accession in 1999 was opening the country’s film market to Hollywood, sending an already reeling industry into a state of panic.
A still from the 2002 film “Hero,” directed by Zhang Yimou. From Douban
In response, China’s powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television announced new regulations marketizing film production and allowing private companies to enter the industry and compete with state-owned studios on a level playing field. That sparked Chinese cinema’s single greatest transformation since 1949, from ideological politics to market politics, and from a state-run film industry into a commercialized film industry.
The state-owned film studios that once monopolized the industry saw their control eroded, and the vast sums of money on the table lured a diverse mix of screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, film school instructors, and TV directors into film. Digital equipment has also greatly reduced the cost of film production, allowing young film buffs to realize their dream of directing on a budget. Also joining the gold rush were Hong Kong-based filmmakers who went to the mainland and newcomers with overseas experience.
The largely homogenous generations that characterized the past are no more. Film production has been democratized, and the director-centered production system has given way to a genre- and star-centric one. Auteurs like Zhang Lü, Yi Lichuan, and Pema Tseden are still finding success, but their ages, backgrounds, and techniques all defy easy categorization.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from VCG and Douban, reedited by Sixth Tone)