The terms ‘Fifth Generation Chinese Cinema’ and ‘Fifth Generation Filmmaker’ technically refer to the films produced by filmmakers who were the fifth generation of graduates from the Beijing Film Academy. However, these terms are much more complex and have a deeper meaning.
In a nutshell, Fifth Generation films were drastically different from previously shown and produced films in China. The films dared to be different through experimentation, vivid visual expression, creative freedom, with underlining allegories and metaphors critiquing aspects of society.
During the 1950s to early 1960s, a state-sanctioned cinematic tradition of social realism had been developed in China. The films promoting Communist values mainly focused on peasant or soldier protagonists, or depictions of wars heroically won by Chinese Communist forces.
It is important to note that Zhang Yimou and Chen Gaige had both been sent to partake in hard labour as part of the ‘Down to the Countryside’ initiative. Both directors lived in relative poverty during this time and were taught the hardships of life – aspects both directors chose to reflect upon in their films.
As the Fifth Generation Filmmakers were the first people to attend the Beijing Film Academy after it reopened in 1978, many films they had studied had all been previously banned – encouraging a sense of amateur filmmaking very much present in Zhang Yimou and Chen Gaige’s works.