Refers to the 1982 graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy. Approximately one hundred students graduated in this year. This was the first graduating class since the re-opening of the school at the end of the Cultural Revolution. The 1982 class included such esteemed directors as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. These directors represented a new epoch in Chinese cinema. Their films were the first to break the propaganda mold of the Soviet-trained Fourth Generation directors and seek other topics for inspiration. Not only were many of these films lacking any praise for Chinese Socialism, but a good deal were openly critical of the government - an unprecedented stance that caused delays in release of many of the films. Moreover, Fifth Generation directors were the first to receive widespread international recognition and critical acclaim as well as moderate financial success.
The film which awakened the world to the new cinematic force in China was The Yellow Earth. Released in 1984, the film was directed by Chen Kaige and shot by Zhang Yimou, the two most renowned directors of their generation.
The Yellow Earth, which is set in 1939, centers on the relationship between Gu Qing, a member of the Eighth Route Army, and a peasant family. Gu comes to the village to compile a collection of folk songs, and he meets the young Cuiqiao and her family. She is due to enter into an arranged marriage, which terrifies her. She is inspired by Gu's stories of girls fighting in the army, and asks him whether she can follow him back to Yanan. While Cuiqiao waits for Gu Qing's return from Yanan with official approval, she is married. She decides to try to join an army unit that is camping on the other side of the Yellow River and drowns as she tries to row herself across.
All this is played out against the land that gives the film its title. The Yellow Earth directly addresses the triangular relationship between the land, the party and the peasants, a relationship which underlies Maoist revolutionary thought. The peasants in The Yellow Earth struggle hard to survive against the hardships of the land, as they have done throughout history. Communism was meant to improve the lives of these peasants, and Cuiqiao's last words before drowning are: "Here to save the people are the Communists." Taken literally, this line is politically correct, as it implies things will get better in the future. But in the context of the movie as a whole, it is a statement of misplaced faith which highlights how ineffective any political party can be against the great and unpredictable power of the yellow land.1
Originally censored in mainland China The Yellow Earth was later deemed acceptable after it won the prize for best picture at the Hawaii International Film Festival. This award was the first of many received by Fifth Generation directors. Other awards have included Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prizes, Berlin International Film Festival Gold and Silver bears and Venice Film Festival Gold and Silver Lions.
It has been suggested that the heyday of Fifth Generation directors is over and that many of them no longer have anything to contribute to the world of cinema. If one looks at Zhang Yimou's and Chen Kaige's most recent offerings, (the pleasant but forgettable Happy Times and the ill-fated venture into English film Killing Me Softly, respectively) it is certainly possible to draw a similar conclusion, but only time will tell.
1Richard James Havis. "THE Best Film." [ http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/features/asiabest2000/ann.film.html ]. Sept. 2, 2002.