Chinese cinema’s entry into the global culture market came in the late 1980s, with directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige collecting international awards and critical acclaim for films such as Red Sorghum and The King of Children (both 1987).footnote1 Part of a cohort of film-makers who graduated from Beijing Film Academy around 1982, known in the prc as the ‘Fifth Generation’, Zhang and Chen based their success on a repudiation of the previous socialist-realist studio tradition, in favour of a reconnection with a mythologized past and evocation of sweeping, dehistoricized landscapes. In hindsight, the novelty of their work lay not so much in its cinematic language or any stylistic innovation as in the distance it took from the frames of reference of Mao’s China—its aesthetics, value-system, material conditions and everyday life—which were pronounced obsolete. In that sense, the cinematic modernism of the Fifth Generation functioned as a confirmation of universal time, as defined by the global market.

The socialist-realist tradition never mounted any effective or coherent resistance to this, as it dwindled to irrelevance in the political-aesthetic debates of the post-Mao period. Rather, criticism of the Fifth Generation from the outset centred on its insistence on grand overarching narratives, and on its unwillingness to straightforwardly ‘tell a story’ (jiang gushi). The elevated style of these films, reifying what they depicted into something ‘timeless’, seemed distant from the concrete experience of their own times, and failed to represent or recount the ongoing, epic social transformation of the country itself in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. The absence of stories in the Fifth Generation revealed on the level of form a poverty of experience that stood in stark contrast to the riot of bewildering content taking place around it.

Over the course of the 1990s, the Fifth Generation’s place in the national cultural scene—and with it the place of cinematic modernism within the arena of social and ideological change—became more precarious. Tiananmen and its aftermath had turned anything vaguely critical or non-conformist into a real or potential instance of dissent, which had to be muffled, if not summarily suppressed, by state censorship. By the early 1990s, Fifth Generation films were being received abroad as political allegories of a repressive regime, earning them bans from the domestic market—even though it was the state that had granted access to international film festivals in the first place. But such harsh administrative measures seemed sentimental by comparison with the full-throttle globalization and marketization taking place in China in the second half of the 1990s. Under these pressures, the moment of Chinese high modernism now dissolved into a grab-bag of postmodern variations on local and global genres, from the kung fu movie and tv sitcom to uniquely Chinese visual spectaculars such as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics—superintended and designed by Zhang Yimou himself. His unapologetic embrace of the state’s instrumentalization of his cinematic ‘sculptural consciousness’ represented one pole of the dichotomy into which Fifth Generation film-makers had now fallen; the other was constituted by a nostalgic gaze at its earlier self, as in Chen Kaige’s Mei Lan Fang (2008), a lesser version of his own 1994 Palme d’Or winner Farewell My Concubine.

The arrival of Jia Zhangke and his fellow ‘Sixth Generation’ film-makers in the mid-1990s was in every sense a response to this situation. In place of a fantastical, ideological symbolic unity, they staged allegorical fragments of a broken, disoriented reality. Where the Fifth Generation sutured together a mythological whole—embodied by vast, empty shots of a pristine, ahistorical landscape, from Shaanxi’s loess plateau in Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum to the icy mountain ranges of Tibet—the Sixth was eager to portray the shabby, formless texture of everyday life in county-level towns, where socialist underdevelopment meets the onslaught of marketization. The result of this collision is a landscape littered with wandering souls and shattered dreams, filled with suppressed rage, disappointment and despair running so deep that, like a chronic disease, they become part of the quotidian routine.

Youthful rebellion and hopelessness on the margins of Chinese modernization—far away from the glamour of Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen—are dominant themes in Jia Zhangke’s early films. His first full-length feature, Xiaowu (1997), centres on a petty thief in Fenyang, left behind to scrape a living from crime while all his friends have gone straight and moved into commerce. Platform (2000), the second film in Jia’s ‘hometown trilogy’, follows the fortunes of a troupe of cultural workers from Fenyang, whose trips to the countryside punctuate a story of the gradual disintegration of socialist culture, as they go from staging Maoist agitprop to desultory roadside go-go dancing. The third part of the trilogy, Unknown Pleasures (2002), tells the story of two adolescent sons of laid-off workers who carry out a bank robbery that ends in comical disaster; though the scene has shifted to Datong, the film’s action remains far removed from the mainstream of China’s marketization.