The Urban Generation

Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

The Urban Generation

Book Pages: 464 Illustrations: 60 illustrations Published: March 2007

Asian Studies > East Asia, Media Studies > Film

Since the early 1990s, while mainland China’s state-owned movie studios have struggled with financial and ideological constraints, an exciting alternative cinema has developed. Dubbed the “Urban Generation,” this new cinema is driven by young filmmakers who emerged in the shadow of the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. What unites diverse directors under the “Urban Generation” rubric is their creative engagement with the wrenching economic and social transformations underway in China. Urban Generation filmmakers are vanguard interpreters of the confusion and anxiety triggered by the massive urbanization of contemporary China. This collection brings together some of the most recent original research on this emerging cinema and its relationship to Chinese society.

The contributors analyze the historical and social conditions that gave rise to the Urban Generation, its aesthetic innovation, and its ambivalent relationship to China’s mainstream film industry and the international film market. Focusing attention on the Urban Generation’s sense of social urgency, its documentary impulses, and its representations of gender and sexuality, the contributors highlight the characters who populate this new urban cinema—ordinary and marginalized city dwellers including aimless bohemians, petty thieves, prostitutes, postal workers, taxi drivers, migrant workers—and the fact that these “floating urban subjects” are often portrayed by non-professional actors. Some essays concentrate on specific films (such as Shower and Suzhou River) or filmmakers (including Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan), while others survey broader concerns. Together the thirteen essays in this collection give a multifaceted account of a significant, ongoing cinematic and cultural phenomenon.

Contributors. Chris Berry, Yomi Braester, Shuqin Cui, Linda Chiu-han Lai, Charles Leary, Sheldon H. Lu, Jason McGrath, Augusta Palmer, Bérénice Reynaud, Yaohua Shi, Yingjin Zhang, Zhang Zhen, Xueping Zhong


The Urban Generation is a rich and timely collection of varied scholarly responses to current Chinese film production.” — Carolyn M. Bloomer, The China Journal

The Urban Generation offers a fascinating account. . . . This anthology of original research is essential to readers who aspire to stay updated with Chinese films and Chinese society. Furthermore, in linking textual analysis conceptually and methodologically to the contextual and the intertextual, it should also be interesting to students of film and cultural studies in general.” — Yiu Fai Chow and Jeroen de Kloet, China Information

“[I]lluminating. . . . Move over and make room for the latest group of cinematic upstarts—the latest auteurs-in-training—to reveal the fast-changing and developing nation that is the new China.” — Terry Hong, The Bloomsbury Review

“There is no more stimulating or comprehensive volume on PRC feature filmmaking at the turn of the 21st century.” — Matthew David Johnson, The China Quarterly

“This anthology eloquently maps out the beginning of a pathway for many of these filmmakers.” — Mike Walsh, Screening the Past

“This book is a remarkable achievement deserving a place on the bookshelves of all serious researchers of Chinese film and indeed world cinema. Any student of modern chinese culture can learn much from this important work. . . . Zhang makes a major contribution to Chinese and world film studies and to our broader understanding of twentieth-century Chinese social and cultural history.” — Paul Clarke, China Review International

“This edited volume is a highly valuable addition to the fast-growing scholarship in the burgeoning field of Chinese film studies. All fourteen chapters are solidly researched and competently written; some provide us with quintessential information on individual filmmakers (e.g., Ji Zhangke, Ning Ying, Zhang Yuan) and works (e.g., Mr. Zhao), whereas others shed light on specific aspects of contemporary Chinese cinema (the documentary film movement, the trope of ‘demolition,’ people’s police in films, etc.).” — Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, Journal of Asian Studies

“This is a magnificently presented work providing an extremely comprehensive and accessible overview of contemporary Chinese cinema. The briefly annotated filmography of the key Urban Generation directors (by Charles Leary) is a most helpful inclusion.” — Peter C. Pugsley, Scope

“Together the thirteen essays in this collection give a multifaceted account of a significant, ongoing cinematic and cultural phenomenon.” — IIAS Newsletter

“Zhang Zhen’s The Urban Generation is a strong, intriguing and rewarding collection of essays which think through the wider cultural resonances of the aesthetics and politics of the cinema of China’s Sixth Generation of filmmakers.” — Graham Chia-Hui Preston, Media International Australia

“Zhang Zhen’s collected volume of essays on recent Chinese films is packed with copious information and penetrating observations and will be of benefit to any one of a number of different sorts of reader.” — Christopher Lupke, China Review

“An essential addition to contemporary Chinese film studies, this provocative collection of essays effectively describes the significant breaks that the most recent generations of filmmakers and media artists in the PRC have made both with the tradition of Chinese filmmaking and with the acclaimed, influential ‘Fifth Generation’ that preceded them.” — Richard Peña, Program Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Professor of Film Studies, Columbia University

“Until the early 1990s, China struggled with modernity, with one step back for every step forward. But it produced a brilliant new cinema that attracted world attention, a national cinema skeptical of China’s ability to change. Since then, China has boomed, skyrocketed upward on the world scene like its new urban skyscrapers, traded in much of its ‘Chineseness’ for a leading role in an emerging global culture, and produced a new generation of independent, forward-looking ‘urban cinema.’ Including thirteen essays about film and film culture in today’s China, this is the first volume to bring the newest Chinese cinema to life. It deserves to be read and then re-read.” — Jerome Silbergeld, author of China into Film and Hitchcock with a Chinese Face


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Zhang Zhen is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. She is the author of An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Bearing Witness: Chinese Urban Cinema in the Era of “Transformation” (Zhuanxing) / Zhang Zhen 1

I. Ideology, Film Practice, and the Market

Rebel without a Cause? China’s New Urban Generation and Postsocialist Filmmaking / Yingjin Zhang 49

The Independent Cinema of Jia Zhangke: From Postsocialist Realism to a Transnational Aesthetic / Jason McGrath 81

Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism / Chris Berry 115

II. The Politics and Poetics of Urban Space

Tear down the City: Reconstructing Urban Space in Contemporary Chinese Popular Cinema and Avant-Garde Art / Sheldon H. Lu 137

Tracing the City’s Scars: Demolition and the Limits of the Documentary Impulse in the New Urban Cinema / Yomi Braester 161

Scaling the Skyscraper: Images of Cosmopolitan Consumption in Street Angel (1937) and Beautiful New World (1998) / Augusta Palmer 181

Whither the Walker Goes: Spatial Practices and Negative Poetics in 1990s Chinese Urban Cinema / Linda Chiu-Han Lai 205

III. The Production of Desire and Identities

Ning Ying’s Beijing Trilogy: Cinematic Configurations of Age, Class, and Sexuality / Shuqin Cui 241

Zhang Yuan’s Imaginary Cities and the Theatricalization of the Chinese “Bastards” / Bérénice Reynaud 264

Mr. Zhao On and Off the Screen: Male Desire and Its Discontent / Xueping Zhong 295

Maintaining Law and Order in the City: New Tales of the People’s Police / Yaohua Shi 316

Urban Dreamscape, Phantom Sisters, and the Identity of an Emergent Art Cinema / Zhang Zhen 344

Appendix: The Urban Generation Filmmakers (compiled by Charles Leary) 389

Bibliography 411

Contributors 429

Index 431
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4074-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4053-9
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