During of filmmakers that existed and operated outside of

During the beginning of the sixth generation of filmmaker’s steady
rise, they as a group were referred simply as the “post-fifth generation”
(Jinhua, 1999, 353) of filmmakers. Over the course of the coming years their
identity would gradually distinguish itself apart from the Chinese Fifth
Generation of Filmmakers, becoming known as “independent filmmakers”, the “new
documentary movement” and the “new image movement” to name a few terms that
they were first referred to as. Eventually, this group of filmmakers would
become known as the “Sixth” or “Urban Generation” of Chinese Filmmakers, and
more colloquially known in Hong Kong and Taiwan as the “Righteous Seven”, in
reference to the fact that the seven main figures of the movement had their
films banned from their home state. What sets the Sixth Generation apart from
the Fifth Generation is their approach toward film dialect, where theirs tends
to be less formal and more experimental, simultaneously toying with
pre-determined ideals of Chinese Filmmaking and Narrative conventions.  We can see from these descriptions the
complexity of which the ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese Filmmakers impact was on an
international level, in terms of how an international audience commonly empathises
with the dissident or underground nature of this movement. The sixth generation
can be split into two groups of filmmakers. Firstly, is the independent
subgroup of filmmakers that existed and operated outside of the established
production framework, who would eventually break free of the ‘shackles’ of
state funding and work almost totally independently, or receive funding from
overseas. 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, Duan
Jinchuan, Kang Jian’ning and Jiang Yue. The sixth generation crafted its own
identity by questioning, and deconstructing what came before it. This was
achieved primarily by employing an ideological viewpoint on the Chinese culture
and nation, a motivation that came in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square
incident which left many Sixth Generation filmmakers, some having graduated
from the Film Academy during the same year feeling cheated and angry at an
already dysfunctional state. In this essay I plan to explore the means by which
the Sixth Generation altered what came before them, by utilising a hybrid
aesthetic that incorporates elements of documentary impulse, realist
tendencies, melodrama and surrealism to “bear witness to the destruction and
reconstruction of social fabric and urban identities in post-1989 China” as
quoted from Zhang Zhen. By analysing the film, Beijing Bicycle by Wang
Xiaoshuai I hope to reveal the primary motivations of Sixth Generation
filmmaking, as well as discuss the aspects of their style that inform the
messages that exist in their films.

 

The implementation of realism in many of the Sixth Generation’s films
is a common topic of discussion among theorists and critics. The definition of
realism in cinema has always been a little difficult to explain as it pertains
to multiple contextual elements such as the physical, spiritual, social and
psychological. Kristin Thompson defines it as: “any artwork can be said to
realistic on the grounds of some criterion or other… all art has natural links
to reality, for no one could create perceptual objects wholly apart from some
aspect of one’s experience of the world”. (Thompson, 1988, 198-199)
Historically, realist filmmaking is taken as a form of gesture, one that acts
as an opposite to Hollywood-style filmmaking. To further explain, when put in a
national context certain forms of realism in cinema relate to specific
movements that act against the established style of the time. One of the most
famous examples is Italian neorealism from 1942-1952, which came about as a
result of certain filmmakers growing tired of Mussolini’s “white-telephone”
style films that depicted historical stories on an epic, grandiose scale that
are predominantly sentimental toward the upper-class. (Thompson and Bordwell,
1997, 462) Similarly, French New-Wave cinema in the 1960’s acted as opposition
to the “Cinema of Quality” that dominated the box-office during the time.
Chinese Sixth Generation filmmakers share the sentiment of previous filmmaking
movements that goes against the grain of the mainstream, particularly in how
they deliberately distance themselves from the stylistic traits Fifth Generation
filmmaking. The sixth generation dismissed Fifth Generation cinema for being too
cleanly, instead opting to set their stories in the urban and suburban streets
of various Chinese cities in the 1990’s. (Eder and Rossell, 1993, p. 12) The
cinema of the sixth generation is important likewise for defying the
“main-motif” cinema that was pushed by the government during the time, a motif
that is defined by the depiction of hard-working socialist party members and
the celebration of CCP ideology in the current Chinese society. Lastly, the
realism in Sixth Generation Chinese cinema serves as a faithful depiction and
document of contemporary Chinese society (Braester, 2010).  Jia Zhangke explains the motivation of sixth
generation cinema:

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“As a director, I’m very excited and stimulated by what I see around
me. China is in the midst of great change, with so many things disappearing
before our eyes. I think there’s a responsibility to film that, so that in the
future 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 exceptionally
documentary quality that could not be removed from the script without thereby eliminating
the whole social setting into which its roots are deeply sunk, as well as
saying that Italian Neorealism has a “revolutionary humanism” that is preserved
by an “adherence to actuality”. (Bazin, 1994, p. 20) Throughout most of the
Sixth Generation cinema we can spot many traits associated with Italian
Neorealism, and more prominently identify the movements concern with presenting
to us a story of the common man getting caught up in the complexities of social
upheaval. The viewpoints portrayed Bazin, and eventually reinforced and
revisited by Kristin Thompson include the concentration on matters that concern
the working classes, broken and episodic narratives that are summarised by
chance events and coincidence, and the use of non-actors to portray both
fictional and non-fictional roles on screen.

 

Beijing Bicycle is a 2001 Drama film directed by Wang Xiaoshuai that
depicts seventeen year-old Guei who has come to Beijing from the countryside to
seek work. After landing a job as a bicycle courier, Guei works hard to earn
money and eventually his bicycle from his employer. A mere few days away from
earning the bicycle, it is stolen from him. To keep his job, he promises his
employer that he’ll get his job back by finding his bicycle. Jian, lives at the
other side of the city and buys Guei’s stolen bicycle from a second-hand
market. When their paths interconnect, we are presented with a story that
presents us with a variety of themes related to class, social mobility and
youth. The Director, Wang Xiaoshuai makes his first film that appeals more
directly to a mainstream audience, yet despite this still manages to create a
commentary on relevant social issues in contemporary China. His take on the
story is sentimental, and overtly nostalgic, crafting a narrative that embraces
the future of China whilst acknowledging the overriding responsibility of a
country that has recently introduced mass consumerism into its manifesting
cultural and social growth. Beijing Bicycle is a film that embodies many of the
traits that define Sixth Generation cinema, including cinematic styles such as
realism. (He, 2011, 52-54) The film is predominantly about social change in
modern China, and this is presented to us throughout the visual narrative in
the form of physical reminders – these reminders include the growing
industrialisation and urbanisation of outer Beijing, the commodification of
foreign fashion trends in Chinese youth cultures and the migrant labour worker
clashing with the urban class of Beijing residents (Chen, 2008, 50-51). Perhaps
the largest thing that Beijing Bicycle puts emphasis on is the radical shift in
cultural disparity between the urban class and migrant workers who have moved
in from the countryside. In the context of a post-1989 China/Beijing, the film’s
choice to concentrate solely on the issues associated with poverty in the
migrant class can be observed as a critical viewpoint on the situation of the
lower-class, but also a direct notion of empathy for citizens wading through
these issues. Elements of the film style are what communicate the thematic
concerns of the narrative, notably the employment of realism to bridge the gap
between fictional and non-fictional elements. Realism is prevalent in Beijing
Bicycle and employed as the primary body of style throughout to effectively
convey the concerning themes and sense of narration. By using real settings and
non-professional/amateur actors, Wang Xiaoshuai attempts to bridge the gap
between the film and real life, creating underlying sense of documentary. The
‘idea’ of consumer culture is still growing as a normality in Chinese society
at the point of release for the movie, so the Director makes it a point of
interest for one of the main characters, Jian. Guei, on the other hand
represents those that have moved to the city in the hopes of acquiring wealth
and success within the rapidly growing economy of Beijing.

 

Guei is a migrant, and his problems arise from his idea of tradition
conflicting with new ideas of consumerism and urbanisation. Jian on the other
hand is an urban youth, accustomed to the new notions that inhabit Chinese
society, and his conflict arises from the influence of tradition on his life
(Berry, 175). Beijing Bicycle adjusts the significance of the bicycle in
modern day China by implementing it in the story as both political allegory and
signifier of social standing. The film focuses on the Mountain Bike, which
became the ‘fashionable’ and more exciting bike to have in early 1990’s China,
especially among youth groups. (Luo, 2013, 70-86) The Mountain Bike, upon
gaining popularity in China would be sold at triple the price of a regular
bike, would replace the status of the latter as a symbol of social affluence
and become the embodiment of modernisation in China. (Gong, 2012, 126) Beijing
Bicycle’s opening scene represents the two opposing dispositions associated
with this type of bicycle, those being upward mobility and and class
differentiation. The visual layer of the opening, which is comprised of amateur
‘style’ cinematography shot on a DV camera shows us various intercutting shots
focusing on individual workers with messy hair and country-style clothing. Each
gazes and interacts with the camera as if unfazed, or unfamiliar with its
presence, staring into the lens blankly and without interaction. These shots
indicate the almost alienated status that they inhabit in Chinese urban
society. As the audience is faced with these characters, we immediately inhabit
the point of view of the female interviewer, whose cold and detached superiority
is personified in an off-screen voice. (Zhang, 2010, 79) This form of
spectatorial viewpoint is employed to reveal the social unevenness that exists
in placing the migrant workers under the gaze of a detached, debilitating
camera. The bicycle takes form as symbol of social status on political allegory
in the title sequence too. (She, 1979) Here, various black & white, slow
motion shots of bicycles are superimposed on top of each other in sequence, the
camera itself remaining stationary in most of these shots. The representation
of bicycles in black and white with mundane cityscapes inhabiting the
background is representative of the historical past in urban China, where the
nostalgic viewpoint is suggestive of the social mobility that a bicycle used to
provide in the older years of China, but also to symbolise the slow economic
development of the country prior to the 1980’s/1990’s. These images are
employed to serve as a form of visual symbolism, one of social significance in
the present day, and challenge the notable importance of the bicycle to Chinese
culture 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 characters
will undergo later on in the story, it manages to foreshadow the film’s
critique of social mobility in the rapidly urbanising Beijing.

 

The first half of Beijing Bicycle presents to us the
overbearing, almost dystopian atmosphere of Beijing to the audience. Shortly
after Gui receives his bike in the narrative and we are subject to a sequence
of him cycling around Beijing making his first deliveries, we are able to
observe Gui’s satisfaction with his situation. Despite his manager plainly
detailing a very unfair payment plan for his first few weeks as a courier
bicyclist, where Gui receives only 20% of the overall earnings from a delivery,
Gui himself seems completely content with the situation. In the following
montage where Gui cycles around the city, the combination of soundtrack and
camerawork helps to connote the freedom that Gui feels from cycling around
Beijing at great speed and ease. In a following scene, Gui travels to a
commercial building downtown for a delivery. As he leaves his bike outside the
commercial building, he cautiously eyes it and makes sure that the bike won’t
be stolen. (Berry, 2002, 174-75)  In the
following scene we are confronted with the reality of Gui’s marginalisation in
the urban setting, firstly where he interacts with a revolving door. The
struggle with the door underpins the idea that he is unfamiliar with his
surroundings. When he eventually makes his way into the Lobby, he is met with
an underscore of silence, where the lack of verbal communication between people
suggests his isolation from the urban herd (Zhang, 2002, 281). When he is met
with the secretary silently at the front desk, she is carefully framed in a way
that shows only her torso, essentially making the woman anonymous to the
viewer. Her anonymous nature is implemented to infer Gui’s social inferiority
among the urban class, as well as his negligibility among Beijing where it’s
citizens are massively dismissive of migrant workers. By including a woman with
no face in these shots, the framing manifests the unequal power dynamic that
exists between Gui and the secretary, and thus symbolically suggesting the
divide between the urban and migrant citizens of urban areas. Gui’s first
delivery job uses effective camerawork, sound and framing to suggest the social
stratosphere of Beijing, one where the social space is defined firstly by the
alienation between classes and social groups, and secondly where consumerism
defines the identity of an individual’s status. The difference between both
Gui’s and Jian’s symbolic attachment to the mountain bike is primarily defined
by two aspects: Practicality and Style. (Wright, 2001) Gui attaches the
significance of practical mobility to the mountain bike, where it represents
his 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 represents
freedom, fashionability and coolness. Although, the primary logical reasoning
for Jian owning the hike is to get to school quicker than before. This, in
contrast means Jian requires the bike for practical use, as it’s logical place
in his life is as a necessity of daily use. The aspect of the mountain bike
acting as a play thing and social symbol comes secondary to Jian.

 

The ending of Beijing Bicycle is by nature ambivalent, as we see
Gui walk from his fight with Da Huan with a now smashed up bicycle. Yingjin
Zhang argues that the ending is an allusion to crushed dreams and frustrated
desires (Zhang , p. 80-81) or alternatively as Ling Chen observes, an indicator
that Gui will continue to pursue is dreams of success in Beijing and hold on to
the desires that define him (Chen, 50-51). Wang Xiaoshuai claims that “owning
the bicycle symbolises maturity and their ability to possess something in
society” (Berry, 2002, 175). Through analysis of the final shot, and observing
the mise-en-scene, where we are shown a panoramic high-angle shot that shows us
a non-specific Beijing street filled with cars and bicycles. In contrast to the
very first scene in the movie, where the shots are dominated by bicycles, this
final shot is filled with cars of various sizes, colours, shapes that fill the
foreground of the space. The bicycles disappear mid frame, replaced by cars
that are making their way toward the horizon, or the centre of Beijing. What
this shot symbolises is the metaphorical end of the bicycles functionality and
state of motion in Beijing. The role of the bicycle in the urban space has been
replaced by the car, but instead the bicycle takes on the symbol of the Beijing
teenager’s lives, where they are marginalised in society yet remain inseparable
from its cultural imagination. It is through the contested ownership of the
mountain bike that the film divulges a subtext regarding a rapidly changing
Beijing, one where it’s moral and ethical landscape are evolving and
developing, creating a sense of uncertainty and ideological obscurity. The two
distinguishable reliances that the two characters have on the mountain bike are
indicative of two kinds of mobility in the modern Chinese city. Jian’s
individualistic reliance on the mountain bike is telling of the working class’
growing affinity towards materialism, and his opinion that the bike is the
central force holding his entire life together (in terms of practical and
social mobility), makes his story more symptomatic of Chinese society as a
whole. Wang Xiaoshuai explains that his film is “a story about fate and the
experience of growing up”(Zhang, 79), detailing that “all are equal before
fate” (Wright, 2001), although it is obvious that his depiction of increasingly
divided social reality is present in Beijing Bicycle. The ambivalence of
the ending is a further suggestion of what critics have observed.

 

The representation of Beijing as a city in Beijing Bicycle is
interesting for its depiction of temporal space. Beijing is by nature presented
in all of its forms throughout the film, for its juxtaposition of uptown glamor
and suburban compression. The perspective representation of Beijing also differs
based on which character is being presented to us on-screen. Typically, in
Gui’s bicycle scenes, when her rides through the central part of the city the
film accentuates the scale of everything around. A mixture of high-angle and
low-angle coverage makes the high-rise buildings and skyscrapers seem much
larger than they really are, almost intimidating in relation to Gui. This style
of shooting is supposed to represent his infatuation with the city’s modernity,
whilst also providing the city with a distinct, individualistic geography. From
Jian’s point-of-view, the city is represented from a more neutral, flatter
perspective. The character himself seems completely devoid of interest of his
place in wider scope of an ever-changing city, instead opting to occupy his
interest of asserting social mobility among his friends and peers. The various
shots on Jian’s rooftop in certain sections throughout the movie develop his
stasis and removal from the larger city, by foregrounding the older courtyards
and old-city alleyways, and backgrounding the towering skyscrapers in the
far-distance. Jian is seemingly removed from the social sphere of central
Beijing, whereas Gui revels in the ever-changing, rapid urbanisation of a
cityscape that is purely comprised of the efforts of migrant workers such as
him.

 

To conclude, from what we have
been able to analyse in Beijing Bicycle, it is clear that this is a film
that represents both an allegorical and metaphorical representation of the
crisis of identity that is fraught by the younger generation in mainland China,
as well as signifying the rise of an externalised psychological reliance on
materialism among urban-dwelling citizens of Beijing. Gui and Jian’s
interconnected stories detail the distance felt between the urban class of
Beijing and the recently migrated rural class seeking work in a desperate
environment based around frivolous misrepresentation and consumer-based
interests. Perhaps not a dystopian environment, but one where the issues of a
seemingly accelerated economic growth have become more prevalent thanks to
growing social instability among the working class. The employment of the
bicycle as a visual metaphor in the film is significant for its influential
role in both connecting and disconnecting social ties among its users. The
bicycle reveals the issues of the contested urban social space between migrant
workers and residents of the city, as well as acting as a symbolic metaphor for
the growing disillusion and sense of identity among various urban youth
subcultures in Beijing. In terms of representing the ‘Sixth Generation’ of
filmmakers, Beijing Bicycle does a fantastic job at revealing the
general motivation of this group of filmmakers to document social change in a
blossoming post-socialist China.