Ni Zhen Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy

By Walsh, Mike | Metro Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Ni Zhen Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy


Walsh, Mike, Metro Magazine


Trans. by Chris Berry, Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2002.

It is one of the constants of international cinema marketing that emergent national cinemas come to be understood in terms of movement-oriented labels, under which the work of at least two directors can be grouped. Hence Chinese cinema, when it began to re-emerge in international festivals in the 1980s, became subsumed under the heading of the Fifth Generation, with Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige providing the auteur brand-names through which Chinese cinema is still most effectively marketed in the west.

It is well known that the Fifth Generation drew its initial unity from the first graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy four years after it had reopened in 1978, as China recovered from the Cultural Revolution. Such a rich body of films stemming from a relatively unified group raises a number of questions: questions concerning the training and influences on the film-makers, the social and industrial conditions which opened up a climate for aesthetic innovation, and the working of the regional studios, such as Xi'an, which were so central to the movement's first heroic phase.

As one of the instructors in the Beijing Film Academy, Ni Zhen would seem to be well-placed to provide us with a memoir which helps to answer many of these questions. This book appeared initially through a Japanese publisher in 1995, though it has now been translated into English with accompanying notes by Chris Berry, and provided with a more recent postscript.

Professor Ni's book organizes its subject into chapters on the re-activation of the Film Academy and its famed 1978 intake, the structure of the teaching course, the first efforts at film production undertaken by the key students, and the subsequent production of One and Eight and Yellow Earth, which did so much to establish the legend of the Fifth Generation. The postscript attempts a rough periodization of the movement and a defence of Zhang Yimou against post-colonialist critiques charging him with orientalism.

Ni's approach is narrative and impressionistic rather than rigorously analytical or heavily contextual. While the book is copiously illustrated, posed group shots of classmates outweigh illustrations from films. The account of the courses offered at the Academy is rather generalized and foregrounds links to other artistic sources. Directing classes begin from theatrical training in staging and acting, the cinematography classes are based on still photography, design courses are centred on painting.

The narrative is often couched in melodramatic language, such as the moment where the Film Academy re-opens with the students bursting through the green, shady entrance. We follow several primary characters (most notably Tian Zhuangzhuang) from their application to the Academy, through the maturation of their aesthetic vision and the commencement of their careers in feature film-making. This emphasis on the artist as extraordinary individual may seem a conservative way of writing film history, but the book also contains important insights into the social background of the Fifth Generation which can be linked to useful generalizations about the development of a group aesthetic.

If the book has a central thesis, it is that the experiences of the Cultural Revolution were paramount for this generation and are essential for an informed appreciation of the significance of their work. The process whereby students were sent to remote parts of the countryside and virtually abandoned, has provided film-makers with a body of narratives which are deeply personal as well as generationally representative.

The model of training at the Beijing Academy is of two generations facing each other across the gap of a middle generation lost to the Cultural Revolution. Both share the common ground of a repudiation of the years dominated by the Gang of Four, the all-purpose villains of Chinese political mythology.

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