Time Out Beijing Profiles Four Generations of Beijing Film Academy Directors

Beijing Film Academy graduate, teacher and film director Liu Jiayin with her parents on the set of Oxhide II (2009)

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Being the fastest growing film industry in the world, in terms of the increase in box office receipts, total screen numbers, and number of films produced, Chinese cinema is gathering unprecedented attention. While its future generates much discussion, its past also attracts more interest than ever. Time Out Beijing recently interviewed one Chinese director from each of the past four “Generations,” including dGenerate Director Liu Jiayin. Below are some observations of the interesting patterns that emerge from these interviews.

First, there is a clear lineage from the earlier generations to the latter ones. All four directors – Xie Fei from the Fourth Generation, Feng Xiaoning from the Fifth, Wang Xiaoshuai from the Sixth, and Liu Jiayin from the Seventh – acknowledged the presence of their seniors’ works and influences on them in the school. Xie Fei mentioned that during his time, video cassettes were not yet available, so “directors used to bring their new films for screenings” at the school. He got to see Xie Jin’s The Red Detachment of Women in print with his class in 1961. Feng described that for his generation, they ” paid attention to directors like Xie Jin who had gone before [them] – rejecting old traditions blindly is a bad idea.” Wang Xiaoshuai, on the other hand, listed specific people who inspired him when he was a student; they were Ni Zhen (the writer of Raise the Red Lantern), Zheng Dongtian, Lou Ye (director of Summer Palace and Suzhou River), and Lu Xuechang (A Lingering Face and Cala, My Dog!). Liu Jiayin, too, described the great film directors who had studied before her as “an inspiration” and said that she could not begin to tell how much she had learned from being there.

However, despite the continuity, each generation also emulated their previous ones in various ways, punctuating the development of Chinese cinema. Xie Fei believes that Fifth Generation directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige “broke with the old Chinese style,” but he sees it as neither a rebellion against the old style nor a challenge to it. Xie thought that the unique experiences of the Fifth Generation directors, combined with a solid background in film form as well as a creative use of that knowledge, produced visually stunning features like Red Sorghum (1987). Feng Xiaoning agrees with Xie Fei on this point. “Some have said that most of the directors of my generation were trying to challenge what had gone before us,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s true.”

Feng distinguished himself from his contemporaries such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who had moved into commercial filmmaking in the 1990s. Feng said that unlike them, he made films that were not market-oriented. Despite this confessed difference between him and the two commercially and artistically successful filmmakers, Feng added that “directors need to combine the two (sides to movies: the commercial and the artistic), emphasizing one part over the other will not be accepted by the audience.” His words capture the new ambition of the Fifth Generation directors, which was not an attribute of the Fourth Generation directors at all.

Wang Xiaoshuai had this debate about commercial cinema on his mind too, but he stressed personal style over profit-making. “When I was studying, the films of the Fifth Generation were very popular and I was initially shocked by what I saw of their work,” he said. “But I generally didn’t agree with their style; I knew that when I made movies, I’d want to do it differently.” Coming to the Seventh Generation’s view on the characteristics of their group and identity, Liu Jiayin withdrew from articulating any common traits. This withdrawal shows how much she and her cohort want to uphold the value of personalized films, which not only uphold the ideal set out by Wang Xiaoshuai but also push it a step further.

Overall, the BFA has continuously served as a great educational place for Chinese film students, and the students that it has produced also continuously shape the content and the goals of the curriculum of the school. Xie Fei mentioned that when he became a professor at the BFA, he emphasized the teaching of realism. Though he did not specify which kind of realism, it is quite likely that some of the Sixth Generation directors have been his students. Also, one generation lives on in the consciousness or the subconsciousness of the next. From Jia Zhangke’s realist cinema, for example, his documentary Dong, to Liu Jiayin’s personalized film series Oxhide and Oxhide II, the nuanced stylistic shifts indicate the evolution of realism in Chinese cinema, and these changes have intimate relationships with the different generations of students at the BFA.

BFA is still one of only a few film schools in China. Given the large population of China, it is really sad that many who wish to study film do not get the chance to. According to Xie Fei, the place was extremely competitive in the 1960s. “At the end of the evaluation of each semester,” he said. “Some students would not make it through to the next class.” Things might have changed in the 1970s and 1980s, but both Feng Xiaoning and Wang Xiaoshuai stated how hard they had worked as students at the BFA. “My main memories about the Beijing Film Academy are studying, studying and studying,” Wang divulged in his interview. Unlike those who went before her, Liu Jiayin felt differently about the school. According to her, the place felt more inspirational than stressful. For the benefit of the country at large though, more film schools can perhaps ease the competition and provide more opportunities for aspiring filmmakers and films to proliferate. (For a good example of a new, private institution dedicated to filmmaking, look to the Li Xianting Film School.)

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