Director: Zhang Yimou (China)
When Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum won the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival, it was a coming-of-age moment for both Chinese cinema and the Fifth Generation of film-makers who had emerged in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang’s feature debut unfolds in a remote northern province in the 1920s and ’30s, and tells of a young woman and her arranged marriage to a leprous winemaker. The first of 10 films that Zhang would make with star Gong Li, it is a bittersweet tale of love and death, sacrifice and suffering, and is suffused with sensuous images.
The Fifth Generation of Chinese film-makers had already begun to make waves at international festivals when Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) — which Zhang had photographed — won the Silver Leopard at Locarno in 1985.
Survivors of the Cultural Revolution, these film-makers had attended China’s national film school, Beijing Film Academy, when it re-opened in 1978. They were the first generation free to see the films of auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Akira Kurosawa, and apply what they had seen to their own work. The 153 graduates of 1982 included Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Junzhao.
Wary of overtly criticising the Chinese government, but keen to explore the possibilities for film-making in a less restrictive age, the Fifth Generation film-makers frequently used stories from the past to illuminate the concerns of the present.
Their films celebrated local cultures and everyday lives, embracing complex plots and making dramatic use of deep, intense colours.
After witnessing Red Sorghum, Western arthouse audiences eagerly embraced Zhang’s films such as 1991’s Raise The Red Lantern and his 1992 Venice Golden Lion winner The Story Of Qiu Ju, alongside Chen’s 1993 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Farewell, My Concubine.
There was a moment in world cinema when Chinese productions dominated the conversation at film festivals and became the foreign-language country of choice for Western audiences attracted by their ravishing colours, epic storytelling and heady romanticism.
Fifth Generation films such as Red Sorghum directly influenced titles including 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers, which are still among the most successful foreign-language titles ever released in the UK.
The combination of a more commercially minded Chinese film industry, social changes within the country and the debate about whether to make films for a domestic or international audience made life more challenging for the generation that came to prominence in the 1980s.
Whatever the current status of their careers, their legacy is a revitalised Chinese film culture that won the hearts and minds of audiences and critics around the world.