Paul Clark's efficient and intelligent survey titled Reinventing China looks at the films and careers of China's group of film directors who came to fame in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The fame was sometimes relative, but the most celebrated of them -- Zhang Yimou (
Clark, who is a Professor of Chinese at the University of Auckland, claims he got the idea for this new book while standing waist-deep at the quieter end of Hawaii's Waikiki Beach alongside Zhang and Chen -- enviable access to your celebrated subject-matter, you might think. But Clark is something of an authority on this subject and is the author of the much more extensive survey Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics Since 1949.
That book was published by Cambridge University Press in 1987 and it's a fair guess that Clark offered this new book, in many ways an up-dating of the older one, to the same publisher.
That it has ended up appearing under the imprint of the far smaller Chinese University Press in Hong Kong should not necessarily be seen as saying something about its relative quality. Publishers' criteria for taking on books change by the day and the Hong Kong outfit has done a good job in terms of presentation and paper quality.
Not only Zhang and Chen but all the eight other filmmakers featured in this book enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy in the same year, 1978, and graduated four years later. The academy was, at the time, China's only film school. The book, then, is in the way of being what Clark calls a "collective biography" of a generation. Mao Zedong had died in September 1976, and his widow and her associates had been arrested the following month. China was thus clearly set for change, and the halt to that change that was to come in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, was still some way off. That a new kind of film was to emerge was virtually inevitable.
What was new about the films produced by this generation was that, for the first time in 40 years, they were not the products of a hard-line ideology. On the other hand, Clark makes the point that the students of this era had not had an unenviable upbringing. Their childhoods had taken place in the 1950s and early 1960s, what Clark calls "generally happy times," largely optimistic though inevitably politically-charged. These were the heady days of revolution, comparable to those early on in the revolutions in France and Russia, when all things seemed possible and the future a promised land.
All that disappeared in 1966 with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, followed in 1968 by the initiation of the scheme that was to influence a whole generation, the sending down to the countryside of 17 million of the nation's often relatively privileged urban youth.
Most of the filmmakers featured in this book were in their early teens in 1968. Not all their families were of equal revolutionary standing, however. Zhang's father had been an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) Nationalist army prior to 1949 and earned a living doing odd jobs.
His status was further reduced by the fact that his eldest brother had fled to Taiwan in 1948. Zhang's mother was a professional dermatologist, but both parents were sent to the mountainous interior in the late 1960s -- a result of perceived anti-revolutionary crimes, and Zhang himself was labeled the "son of a dog" by Red Guards.