During the beginning of the sixth generation of filmmaker’s steadyrise, they as a group were referred simply as the “post-fifth generation”(Jinhua, 1999, 353) of filmmakers. Over the course of the coming years theiridentity would gradually distinguish itself apart from the Chinese FifthGeneration of Filmmakers, becoming known as “independent filmmakers”, the “newdocumentary movement” and the “new image movement” to name a few terms thatthey were first referred to as.
Eventually, this group of filmmakers wouldbecome known as the “Sixth” or “Urban Generation” of Chinese Filmmakers, andmore colloquially known in Hong Kong and Taiwan as the “Righteous Seven”, inreference to the fact that the seven main figures of the movement had theirfilms banned from their home state. What sets the Sixth Generation apart fromthe Fifth Generation is their approach toward film dialect, where theirs tendsto be less formal and more experimental, simultaneously toying withpre-determined ideals of Chinese Filmmaking and Narrative conventions. We can see from these descriptions thecomplexity of which the ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese Filmmakers impact was on aninternational level, in terms of how an international audience commonly empathiseswith the dissident or underground nature of this movement. The sixth generationcan be split into two groups of filmmakers. Firstly, is the independentsubgroup of filmmakers that existed and operated outside of the establishedproduction framework, who would eventually break free of the ‘shackles’ ofstate funding and work almost totally independently, or receive funding fromoverseas.
Such representatives of this side include Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai,Jia Zhangke, Lu Yue and Ning Ying. Secondly, are the ‘New Documentary Movement’founders, who are represented by notable people such as Wu Wenguang, DuanJinchuan, Kang Jian’ning and Jiang Yue. The sixth generation crafted its ownidentity by questioning, and deconstructing what came before it. This wasachieved primarily by employing an ideological viewpoint on the Chinese cultureand nation, a motivation that came in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Squareincident which left many Sixth Generation filmmakers, some having graduatedfrom the Film Academy during the same year feeling cheated and angry at analready dysfunctional state. In this essay I plan to explore the means by whichthe Sixth Generation altered what came before them, by utilising a hybridaesthetic that incorporates elements of documentary impulse, realisttendencies, melodrama and surrealism to “bear witness to the destruction andreconstruction of social fabric and urban identities in post-1989 China” asquoted from Zhang Zhen. By analysing the film, Beijing Bicycle by WangXiaoshuai I hope to reveal the primary motivations of Sixth Generationfilmmaking, as well as discuss the aspects of their style that inform themessages that exist in their films. The implementation of realism in many of the Sixth Generation’s filmsis a common topic of discussion among theorists and critics.
The definition ofrealism in cinema has always been a little difficult to explain as it pertainsto multiple contextual elements such as the physical, spiritual, social andpsychological. Kristin Thompson defines it as: “any artwork can be said torealistic on the grounds of some criterion or other… all art has natural linksto reality, for no one could create perceptual objects wholly apart from someaspect of one’s experience of the world”. (Thompson, 1988, 198-199)Historically, realist filmmaking is taken as a form of gesture, one that actsas an opposite to Hollywood-style filmmaking. To further explain, when put in anational context certain forms of realism in cinema relate to specificmovements that act against the established style of the time. One of the mostfamous examples is Italian neorealism from 1942-1952, which came about as aresult of certain filmmakers growing tired of Mussolini’s “white-telephone”style films that depicted historical stories on an epic, grandiose scale thatare predominantly sentimental toward the upper-class. (Thompson and Bordwell,1997, 462) Similarly, French New-Wave cinema in the 1960’s acted as oppositionto the “Cinema of Quality” that dominated the box-office during the time.
Chinese Sixth Generation filmmakers share the sentiment of previous filmmakingmovements that goes against the grain of the mainstream, particularly in howthey deliberately distance themselves from the stylistic traits Fifth Generationfilmmaking. The sixth generation dismissed Fifth Generation cinema for being toocleanly, instead opting to set their stories in the urban and suburban streetsof various Chinese cities in the 1990’s. (Eder and Rossell, 1993, p. 12) Thecinema of the sixth generation is important likewise for defying the”main-motif” cinema that was pushed by the government during the time, a motifthat is defined by the depiction of hard-working socialist party members andthe celebration of CCP ideology in the current Chinese society. Lastly, therealism in Sixth Generation Chinese cinema serves as a faithful depiction anddocument of contemporary Chinese society (Braester, 2010). Jia Zhangke explains the motivation of sixthgeneration cinema: “As a director, I’m very excited and stimulated by what I see aroundme. China is in the midst of great change, with so many things disappearingbefore our eyes. I think there’s a responsibility to film that, so that in thefuture we’ll be able to see how it really was.
With this kind of creative work,I can’t wait. If I’m able to shoot, then I must shoot.” (Jia Zhangke, 1999) As quoted from André Bazin, Italian Neorealism has “an exceptionallydocumentary quality that could not be removed from the script without thereby eliminatingthe whole social setting into which its roots are deeply sunk, as well assaying that Italian Neorealism has a “revolutionary humanism” that is preservedby an “adherence to actuality”. (Bazin, 1994, p.
20) Throughout most of theSixth Generation cinema we can spot many traits associated with ItalianNeorealism, and more prominently identify the movements concern with presentingto us a story of the common man getting caught up in the complexities of socialupheaval. The viewpoints portrayed Bazin, and eventually reinforced andrevisited by Kristin Thompson include the concentration on matters that concernthe working classes, broken and episodic narratives that are summarised bychance events and coincidence, and the use of non-actors to portray bothfictional and non-fictional roles on screen. Beijing Bicycle is a 2001 Drama film directed by Wang Xiaoshuai thatdepicts seventeen year-old Guei who has come to Beijing from the countryside toseek work. After landing a job as a bicycle courier, Guei works hard to earnmoney and eventually his bicycle from his employer. A mere few days away fromearning the bicycle, it is stolen from him. To keep his job, he promises hisemployer that he’ll get his job back by finding his bicycle. Jian, lives at theother side of the city and buys Guei’s stolen bicycle from a second-handmarket.
When their paths interconnect, we are presented with a story thatpresents us with a variety of themes related to class, social mobility andyouth. The Director, Wang Xiaoshuai makes his first film that appeals moredirectly to a mainstream audience, yet despite this still manages to create acommentary on relevant social issues in contemporary China. His take on thestory is sentimental, and overtly nostalgic, crafting a narrative that embracesthe future of China whilst acknowledging the overriding responsibility of acountry that has recently introduced mass consumerism into its manifestingcultural and social growth.
Beijing Bicycle is a film that embodies many of thetraits that define Sixth Generation cinema, including cinematic styles such asrealism. (He, 2011, 52-54) The film is predominantly about social change inmodern China, and this is presented to us throughout the visual narrative inthe form of physical reminders – these reminders include the growingindustrialisation and urbanisation of outer Beijing, the commodification offoreign fashion trends in Chinese youth cultures and the migrant labour workerclashing with the urban class of Beijing residents (Chen, 2008, 50-51). Perhapsthe largest thing that Beijing Bicycle puts emphasis on is the radical shift incultural disparity between the urban class and migrant workers who have movedin from the countryside. In the context of a post-1989 China/Beijing, the film’schoice to concentrate solely on the issues associated with poverty in themigrant class can be observed as a critical viewpoint on the situation of thelower-class, but also a direct notion of empathy for citizens wading throughthese issues. Elements of the film style are what communicate the thematicconcerns of the narrative, notably the employment of realism to bridge the gapbetween fictional and non-fictional elements. Realism is prevalent in BeijingBicycle and employed as the primary body of style throughout to effectivelyconvey the concerning themes and sense of narration. By using real settings andnon-professional/amateur actors, Wang Xiaoshuai attempts to bridge the gapbetween the film and real life, creating underlying sense of documentary. The’idea’ of consumer culture is still growing as a normality in Chinese societyat the point of release for the movie, so the Director makes it a point ofinterest for one of the main characters, Jian.
Guei, on the other handrepresents those that have moved to the city in the hopes of acquiring wealthand success within the rapidly growing economy of Beijing. Guei is a migrant, and his problems arise from his idea of traditionconflicting with new ideas of consumerism and urbanisation. Jian on the otherhand is an urban youth, accustomed to the new notions that inhabit Chinesesociety, and his conflict arises from the influence of tradition on his life(Berry, 175).
Beijing Bicycle adjusts the significance of the bicycle inmodern day China by implementing it in the story as both political allegory andsignifier of social standing. The film focuses on the Mountain Bike, whichbecame the ‘fashionable’ and more exciting bike to have in early 1990’s China,especially among youth groups. (Luo, 2013, 70-86) The Mountain Bike, upongaining popularity in China would be sold at triple the price of a regularbike, would replace the status of the latter as a symbol of social affluenceand become the embodiment of modernisation in China. (Gong, 2012, 126) BeijingBicycle’s opening scene represents the two opposing dispositions associatedwith this type of bicycle, those being upward mobility and and classdifferentiation.
The visual layer of the opening, which is comprised of amateur’style’ cinematography shot on a DV camera shows us various intercutting shotsfocusing on individual workers with messy hair and country-style clothing. Eachgazes and interacts with the camera as if unfazed, or unfamiliar with itspresence, staring into the lens blankly and without interaction. These shotsindicate the almost alienated status that they inhabit in Chinese urbansociety. As the audience is faced with these characters, we immediately inhabitthe point of view of the female interviewer, whose cold and detached superiorityis personified in an off-screen voice.
(Zhang, 2010, 79) This form ofspectatorial viewpoint is employed to reveal the social unevenness that existsin placing the migrant workers under the gaze of a detached, debilitatingcamera. The bicycle takes form as symbol of social status on political allegoryin the title sequence too. (She, 1979) Here, various black & white, slowmotion shots of bicycles are superimposed on top of each other in sequence, thecamera itself remaining stationary in most of these shots. The representationof bicycles in black and white with mundane cityscapes inhabiting thebackground is representative of the historical past in urban China, where thenostalgic viewpoint is suggestive of the social mobility that a bicycle used toprovide in the older years of China, but also to symbolise the slow economicdevelopment of the country prior to the 1980’s/1990’s. These images areemployed to serve as a form of visual symbolism, one of social significance inthe present day, and challenge the notable importance of the bicycle to Chineseculture in the modern day. To further gratify the power of this introduction,not only does it manage to allude to the struggles that the two main characterswill undergo later on in the story, it manages to foreshadow the film’scritique of social mobility in the rapidly urbanising Beijing. The first half of Beijing Bicycle presents to us theoverbearing, almost dystopian atmosphere of Beijing to the audience. Shortlyafter Gui receives his bike in the narrative and we are subject to a sequenceof him cycling around Beijing making his first deliveries, we are able toobserve Gui’s satisfaction with his situation.
Despite his manager plainlydetailing a very unfair payment plan for his first few weeks as a courierbicyclist, where Gui receives only 20% of the overall earnings from a delivery,Gui himself seems completely content with the situation. In the followingmontage where Gui cycles around the city, the combination of soundtrack andcamerawork helps to connote the freedom that Gui feels from cycling aroundBeijing at great speed and ease. In a following scene, Gui travels to acommercial building downtown for a delivery. As he leaves his bike outside thecommercial building, he cautiously eyes it and makes sure that the bike won’tbe stolen. (Berry, 2002, 174-75) In thefollowing scene we are confronted with the reality of Gui’s marginalisation inthe urban setting, firstly where he interacts with a revolving door. Thestruggle with the door underpins the idea that he is unfamiliar with hissurroundings. When he eventually makes his way into the Lobby, he is met withan underscore of silence, where the lack of verbal communication between peoplesuggests his isolation from the urban herd (Zhang, 2002, 281).
When he is metwith the secretary silently at the front desk, she is carefully framed in a waythat shows only her torso, essentially making the woman anonymous to theviewer. Her anonymous nature is implemented to infer Gui’s social inferiorityamong the urban class, as well as his negligibility among Beijing where it’scitizens are massively dismissive of migrant workers. By including a woman withno face in these shots, the framing manifests the unequal power dynamic thatexists between Gui and the secretary, and thus symbolically suggesting thedivide between the urban and migrant citizens of urban areas. Gui’s firstdelivery job uses effective camerawork, sound and framing to suggest the socialstratosphere of Beijing, one where the social space is defined firstly by thealienation between classes and social groups, and secondly where consumerismdefines the identity of an individual’s status. The difference between bothGui’s and Jian’s symbolic attachment to the mountain bike is primarily definedby two aspects: Practicality and Style. (Wright, 2001) Gui attaches thesignificance of practical mobility to the mountain bike, where it representshis only path in culminating success in a rapidly urbanising Beijing. (Zhang,80) Jian, on the other hand, sees the mountain bike for its social mobility.
Jian attaches his social identity to the mountain bike, as to him it representsfreedom, fashionability and coolness. Although, the primary logical reasoningfor Jian owning the hike is to get to school quicker than before. This, incontrast means Jian requires the bike for practical use, as it’s logical placein his life is as a necessity of daily use. The aspect of the mountain bikeacting as a play thing and social symbol comes secondary to Jian. The ending of Beijing Bicycle is by nature ambivalent, as we seeGui walk from his fight with Da Huan with a now smashed up bicycle. YingjinZhang argues that the ending is an allusion to crushed dreams and frustrateddesires (Zhang , p.
80-81) or alternatively as Ling Chen observes, an indicatorthat Gui will continue to pursue is dreams of success in Beijing and hold on tothe desires that define him (Chen, 50-51). Wang Xiaoshuai claims that “owningthe bicycle symbolises maturity and their ability to possess something insociety” (Berry, 2002, 175). Through analysis of the final shot, and observingthe mise-en-scene, where we are shown a panoramic high-angle shot that shows usa non-specific Beijing street filled with cars and bicycles. In contrast to thevery first scene in the movie, where the shots are dominated by bicycles, thisfinal shot is filled with cars of various sizes, colours, shapes that fill theforeground of the space.
The bicycles disappear mid frame, replaced by carsthat are making their way toward the horizon, or the centre of Beijing. Whatthis shot symbolises is the metaphorical end of the bicycles functionality andstate of motion in Beijing. The role of the bicycle in the urban space has beenreplaced by the car, but instead the bicycle takes on the symbol of the Beijingteenager’s lives, where they are marginalised in society yet remain inseparablefrom its cultural imagination.
It is through the contested ownership of themountain bike that the film divulges a subtext regarding a rapidly changingBeijing, one where it’s moral and ethical landscape are evolving anddeveloping, creating a sense of uncertainty and ideological obscurity. The twodistinguishable reliances that the two characters have on the mountain bike areindicative of two kinds of mobility in the modern Chinese city. Jian’sindividualistic reliance on the mountain bike is telling of the working class’growing affinity towards materialism, and his opinion that the bike is thecentral force holding his entire life together (in terms of practical andsocial mobility), makes his story more symptomatic of Chinese society as awhole. Wang Xiaoshuai explains that his film is “a story about fate and theexperience of growing up”(Zhang, 79), detailing that “all are equal beforefate” (Wright, 2001), although it is obvious that his depiction of increasinglydivided social reality is present in Beijing Bicycle. The ambivalence ofthe ending is a further suggestion of what critics have observed. The representation of Beijing as a city in Beijing Bicycle isinteresting for its depiction of temporal space. Beijing is by nature presentedin all of its forms throughout the film, for its juxtaposition of uptown glamorand suburban compression. The perspective representation of Beijing also differsbased on which character is being presented to us on-screen.
Typically, inGui’s bicycle scenes, when her rides through the central part of the city thefilm accentuates the scale of everything around. A mixture of high-angle andlow-angle coverage makes the high-rise buildings and skyscrapers seem muchlarger than they really are, almost intimidating in relation to Gui. This styleof shooting is supposed to represent his infatuation with the city’s modernity,whilst also providing the city with a distinct, individualistic geography. FromJian’s point-of-view, the city is represented from a more neutral, flatterperspective. The character himself seems completely devoid of interest of hisplace in wider scope of an ever-changing city, instead opting to occupy hisinterest of asserting social mobility among his friends and peers. The variousshots on Jian’s rooftop in certain sections throughout the movie develop hisstasis and removal from the larger city, by foregrounding the older courtyardsand old-city alleyways, and backgrounding the towering skyscrapers in thefar-distance. Jian is seemingly removed from the social sphere of centralBeijing, whereas Gui revels in the ever-changing, rapid urbanisation of acityscape that is purely comprised of the efforts of migrant workers such ashim.
To conclude, from what we havebeen able to analyse in Beijing Bicycle, it is clear that this is a filmthat represents both an allegorical and metaphorical representation of thecrisis of identity that is fraught by the younger generation in mainland China,as well as signifying the rise of an externalised psychological reliance onmaterialism among urban-dwelling citizens of Beijing. Gui and Jian’sinterconnected stories detail the distance felt between the urban class ofBeijing and the recently migrated rural class seeking work in a desperateenvironment based around frivolous misrepresentation and consumer-basedinterests. Perhaps not a dystopian environment, but one where the issues of aseemingly accelerated economic growth have become more prevalent thanks togrowing social instability among the working class. The employment of thebicycle as a visual metaphor in the film is significant for its influentialrole in both connecting and disconnecting social ties among its users. Thebicycle reveals the issues of the contested urban social space between migrantworkers and residents of the city, as well as acting as a symbolic metaphor forthe growing disillusion and sense of identity among various urban youthsubcultures in Beijing.
In terms of representing the ‘Sixth Generation’ offilmmakers, Beijing Bicycle does a fantastic job at revealing thegeneral motivation of this group of filmmakers to document social change in ablossoming post-socialist China.