TIAN ZHUANGZHUANG, one of China's most gifted young filmmakers,
is best known in the West as director of two widely hailed dramas.
The first is "Horse Thief," a 1986 masterpiece so innovative that
Tian has jokingly called it "a film for the next century," even
though its subject - the experiences of a Tibetan outlaw - has
roots in ancient traditions of religious and family life.
His other major success is "The Blue Kite," a family saga now
in American theaters after acclaimed showings at the Cannes and New
Blending personal and historical concerns with a richly
emotional story, "The Blue Kite" spans 14 years of Chinese
history, seen through the eyes of a son remembering the three
marriages of his mother, a widow three times over. In its seamless
transitions between private and public events, the film resembles
Chen Kaige's popular "Farewell My Concubine," another drama that
has found strong international favor with a tale of individual
destinies caught in the tide of modern Chinese history.
Tian's own background encompasses much of that history and makes
a narrative almost as dramatic as the stories he puts on the
screen. His father was the first chief of the Beijing Film Studio,
and his mother still runs the Children's Film Studio there. Even
though they were active Communists in the 1960s, their teenage son
was transported to the countryside for "reeducation" during the
Cultural Revolution period, a time of social upheaval meant to
purge China of outside influences.
Later he served in the People's Liberation Army and started his
cinematic career as a production assistant for agricultural films.
When the Beijing Film Academy was allowed to reopen after the
Cultural Revolution ended, Tian became a member of its first new
class. There he worked alongside such fellow students as Chen and
Zhang Yimou, becoming part of a group known as the "Fifth
Generation," because it represents the fifth distinct wave of
filmmakers in modern Chinese cinema.
Members of this group have developed many new approaches to film
style and have taken skeptical or downright adversarial positions
toward government-approved thought.
As a result, numerous Fifth Generation films - including Zhang's
brilliant "Ju Dou" and Chen's recent "Farewell My Concubine,"
among others - have been permanently or temporarily withheld from
exhibition by Chinese authorities. Tian has been a particularly
outspoken figure, supporting political dissidents and dealing with
controversial subjects in his movies.
`THE Blue Kite," which has still not been approved for release
in China, illustrates this aspect of Tian's career. It takes a
critical view of governmentally imposed excesses and abuses,
ranging from the persecution of alleged reactionaries in the 1950s
to the chaos unleashed by the zealotry of the Cultural Revolution
in the `60s. It shows how these problems affected not only the
evolution of Chinese society, but also the everyday lives of
ordinary people whose goals were practical and personal rather than
political and ideological.
Tian was not surprised when his choice of subject in "The Blue
Kite" caused problems with film officials after the movie's
principle photography was completed.
"I suspected that would happen," he told me during a recent
New York visit. …