I was born in Nanjing five years after the Tiananmen Square protests. By then, records of the demonstrations and the Communist party’s brutal suppression had been scrubbed clean. So Tiananmen was not part of the national conversation when I was growing up. I only fully grasped what had happened when I visited Hong Kong in my early twenties (that would be harder now under the city’s new national security law). Tiananmen isn’t just absent from history books; the Chinese authorities keep an eye on literature and film, so anything that’s politically subversive is censored or driven underground and abroad.
One film that fell victim to this regime is Lan Yu, which I recently saw for the first time at a screening in Soho. It’s a gay love story between a poor university student and an older Beijing businessman set in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In one scene, injured young people from the Tiananmen protests are rushed away on carts and bicycles by their friends, gunshots ringing in the distance.
The film was released in 2001 (though not in mainland China), and it is enjoying an international revival thanks to a recent remastering. I met its producer, Zhang Yongning, through a friend last year. Introducing the film on stage, Yongning said he knew he needed to find a Hong Kong or Taiwanese director who wouldn’t be as limited by mainland China’s censorship. He settled on Stanley Kwan. Kwan, who is from Hong Kong, had seen much more reporting of the 4 June crackdown than any director from the mainland. No wonder the Tiananmen scene reminded me of documentary footage.
Yongning tells me that he thinks the film’s gay romance is more likely to have affronted the censors than its reference to the protests (homosexuality was only declassified as a mental illness in 2001, and gay references are often cut from Chinese releases of western films). Nevertheless, watching the film in the lead-up to the anniversary of Tiananmen – surrounded by other overseas Chinese – felt like an act of remembrance. Has our country become any better since those students defied the authorities 33 years ago?
China is richer now, of course. At the time of Tiananmen, 60 per cent of the Chinese population lived on less than $1.90 a day (the World Bank’s official measure of poverty). Now the figure is just 0.1 per cent. The average income has risen 30-fold. These are more than just stats to my family, whose lives are immeasurably better than they were a generation ago.
But this prosperity did not, as many hoped, bring wider liberalism. In many ways, China is more shut off today than it was back then. Just look at the rise and fall of Chinese cinema. The two decades after the Cultural Revolution were a golden age for film, which saw the rise of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ of directors who, legendarily, all happened to be contemporaries in Beijing Film Academy’s 1978 class.
As the Chinese economy opened up in the 1980s and 1990s, these directors pushed the boundaries of speech and artistic expression. In their films they depicted, for the first time, the suffering under Chinese communism. They showed the lives of the marginalised: gay and even transgender people, as well as mistresses, thieves and prostitutes. Their films represented a tantalising vision of a free and creative China – something those students at Tiananmen at around the same time fought to realise.
For that generation of directors and actors who lived through the Cultural Revolution, their work must have been cathartic. Watching their films now, it’s hard not to feel dizzy at the speed at which China changed. How can it be that a gambling aristo (at the start of Zhang Yimou’s 1994 film To Live) exchanges his silks for a Mao suit and becomes a family man living in a commune? Did that really happen all in one lifetime?
‘No matter how resourceful you are, you can’t escape fate,’ says one character in Chen Kaige’s 1993 Farewell My Concubine. This will have resonated with the Chinese audience – how could it not, when they knew it to be true from their own lives? Few had consulted them about the direction of their country or the pace of change.
Avant-garde Chinese films are thin on the ground these days. Beijing’s censors have become more ambitious and pernicious. Chinese directors used to be able to use international acclaim to pressure the authorities back home – the censors simply couldn’t impose a blanket ban on Farewell My Concubine, the first Chinese film to win the Palme d’Or, the highest accolade at Cannes. Then the government brought in severe punishments for those who sent their films to foreign film festivals before they were viewed in Beijing. The Blue Kite, which recounts the Great Leap Forward and other Maoist disasters, was entered into (and won) the Tokyo International Film Festival without Beijing’s approval. Its director, Tian Zhuangzhuang, was banned from filmmaking for almost a decade.
Formerly radical directors end up bowing to the pressure. Zhang Yimou now directs Olympics ceremonies. Chen Kaige’s latest, The Battle at Lake Changjin, is little more than a mindless action film and didn’t risk crossing the censors. The career of a courageous new director would be a short one.
I also worry China’s cinemagoers today are too superficial, too hubristic. They don’t want to see hard questions raised about their past and present. One family member suggested to me that Chen Kaige’s debut, Yellow Earth – about the breathtaking hardship and backwardness of northwestern China in the 1930s – was just poverty porn for westerners. What tops the Chinese box office now are absurdly pro-government action films such as Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior 2.
So Chinese cinema is failing. What about Chinese lives? Materially, they have improved. Yet politically, the people are still powerless, as the world has witnessed with the relentless lockdown in Shanghai over the past couple of months. No amount of wealth helped the city’s people resist the state in its devastating drive to achieve zero Covid – because, fundamentally, not much has changed since the tanks rolled in 1989.