Tian Zhuangzhuang

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TIAN Zhuangzhuang

Nationality: Chinese. Born: People's Republic of China, 1952. Education: Trained at the Beijing Agricultural Film Studio, 1975; admitted to the Beijing Film Academy, 1978. Career: Directed first feature for TV, 1980. Awards: Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, for The Blue Kite, 1994.

Films as director:


Our Corner (for TV)


The Red Elephant (co-d with Zhang Jianya)




On the Hunting Ground; Daoma Zei (Horse Thief)


Travelling Players


Rock 'n' Roll Kids


Feifa Shengming


Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch


Lan Fengzheng (The Blue Kite)

Other Film:


Family Portrait (assoc pr)


By TIAN: articles—

"Flying Colours," an interview with Tony Rayns, in Time Out (London), 2 February 1994.

"People and Politics, Simple and Direct," an interview with Robert Sklar, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 4, 1994.

Interview with Hubert Niogret, in Positif (Paris), March 1994.

"Odd Man Out: Tian Zhuangzhuang," an interview with Phillip Lopate, in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1994.

On TIAN: books—

Semsel, George, editor, Chinese Film: The State of the Art in thePeople's Republic, New York, 1987.

Berry, Chris, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, London, 1991.

Chow, Rey, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography,and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, New York, 1995.

On TIAN: articles—

Clark, Paul, "Ethnic Minorities in Chinese Films: Cinema and the Exotic," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu, Hawaii), June 1987.

Marchetti, Gina, "Two from China's Fifth Generation: Interviews with Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang," in Continuum (Ontario), vol. 2, no. 1, 1988/89.

Berry, Chris, "Race: Chinese Film and the Politics of Nationalism," in Cinema Journal (Austin, Texas), Winter 1992.

Scofield, Aislinn, "Tibet: Projections and Perceptions," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu, Hawaii), January 1993.

Lapinski, Stan, "Woede en doortrapte mildheid," Skrien (Amsterdam), no. 197, August-September 1994.

Sklar, Robert, "People and Politics, Simple and Direct," Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 4, 1994.

Gladney, D. C., "Tian Zhuangzhuang, The Fifth Generation, and Minorities in Film in China," in Public Culture, no. 1, 1995.

* * *

Tian Zhuangzhuang began his career as part of what has become known as the "Fifth Generation" of film directors from the People's Republic of China. He is fairly representative of that group for a number of reasons. Like Chen Kaige, for example, he comes from a family already established in Chinese film circles; Tian's mother, a major film star, headed the Beijing Children's Film Studio for many years, and his father, an actor, headed the Chinese National Film Bureau at one time. Also, like many of his contemporaries who were in their teens or early twenties during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, he joined the army and traveled extensively, visiting remote parts of China few "city kids" with an intellectual family background would have seen without the political and social upheaval of that period. Tian became a photographer at this time, and it is this period in his life that undoubtedly provided the impetus for many of his subsequent film features.

Marked by a politicized youth, Tian and others of his generation began to search for a sense of themselves as artists, as part of a Chinese culture and civilization, as national subjects, as men and women, when they matured in the post-Mao era. Many, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, the late Zhang Nuanxin, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, looked to those remote areas of China, where questions of identity have historically been perceived as more fluid: the dry, barren, western deserts, the forbidding northern frontier at the edges of the Great Wall, the distinct non-Han (not part of the majority ethnic group of Han Chinese) areas of Mongolia, Tibet, and Manchuria, and the lush jungles and wetlands of the southern border with Thailand and Vietnam. Rather than looking for models of exemplary behavior among a revolutionary elite, these filmmakers searched for Chinese identity among the poor, the illiterate, the unenlightened, the dispossessed of these border regions.

Tian Zhuangzhuang is perhaps the best known of this group for reviving and revitalizing a staple of the Chinese film industry—the "national minority" genre. Made to celebrate the solidarity of the Chinese people under the Communist regime, these films, often made by studios based in the minority areas themselves, showcased the songs, dances, customs, and patriotism of the non-Han community. Stories of liberation, they usually contrast the "backwardness" of traditional life before the Revolution with the benefits of Chinese Communist rule. Tian's On the Hunting Ground, made in Inner Mongolia, and Horse Thief, set in Tibet, fall within the rough parameters of this genre. However, Tian's work marks a radical break with the aesthetics of earlier generations of Chinese filmmakers. Rather than placing minority peoples within a narrative of liberation accessible to the average Han Chinese viewer, Tian, in On the Hunting Ground, for example, emphasizes the relationship between the land and the people. Long shots and long takes dominate; the landscape overpowers any identification with individual characters; dialogue, which is minimal, goes untranslated; rituals and social relationships remain unexplained. The Mongolian steppes—exotic, violent, harsh, and picturesque—become the visual embodiment of an unfathomable part of the Chinese nation, a marker of the limits of an ethnic identity. Clearly, this distance signals that this film may say more about Tian as the eye of the camera, an outsider, an intruder, than about the Mongolians as objects of his observations. These films are not about the plight of a downtrodden "minority" (although the people presented in Tian's films are indeed poor and sometimes desperate), rather these are films about the liminality of Chinese ethnicity and, by implication, political authority, within its own borders. After the Cultural Revolution, a generation became "outsiders" in their own nation, stripped of political certainty and a clear sense of an ethnic, national, and gendered self. (It is not coincidental that On the Hunting Ground and Horse Thief are peopled principally by non-Han men engaged in "manly," often violent and bloody occupations like hunting, since political, economic, and cultural uncertainties often play themselves out as a search for a more certain sense of gender—a nostalgia for a time or a yearning for a place where "men are men.")

In Horse Thief, Tian continues to explore the issues he outlined in On the Hunting Ground. However, this film follows a more conventional path, and centers its narrative around the tribulations of Rorbu, the horse thief of the title, who attempts to change his ways after the death of his son. Set before the Chinese annexation of Tibet, the film could be read as a pre-Revolutionary indictment of traditional Tibetan nomads. However, the spectacular images the camera lingers over—from the beauty of the mountains to the grizzly "sky burials," featuring vultures picking the bones of human cadavers, and the other, unexplained Buddhist rites that form the backbone of the film—take attention away from the protagonist and his ethical and economic dilemmas. Rather, like On the Hunting Ground, Horse Thief challenges the viewer with an unexplained and unexplainable "otherness" that defies easy recuperation into a Han sense of self. The analogy to the filmmaker's own predicament again becomes clear. Investigating the Tibetan horse thief, an outlaw from a still recalcitrant "minority" nation, takes on the trappings of an investigation of the filmmaker's own sense of self and otherness, rather than of a call for a "free" Tibet or an enlightened, subdued, "revolutionary" Tibet to cure Rorbu's ills. This is an aesthetic search for a new way of depicting China, and a visual call for a reinvention of Chinese cinema.

Ironically, the free experimentation that Tian's earlier work exemplified has been tempered less by government censorship (although Tian has had some problems) and more by the growing pressures on Chinese filmmakers to fit into the new market economy and make films that make money. Rock 'n' Roll Kids, for example, exploited interest in rock music among Chinese youth. Travelling Players, based on a well-known literary source, followed a more gritty road with its itinerant minstrels; however, Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch is, in most respects, a conventional costume drama, made on the coattails of films like Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, to exploit international interest in pre-Republican palace intrigue and spectacle.

The Blue Kite marks another stage in Tian's career. Almost a companion piece to Zhang Yimou's To Live, The Blue Kite takes an epic view of post-Liberation China, primarily focusing on the years of the Cultural Revolution, through the eyes of Tietou, "Iron Head," an innocent who becomes the victim of senseless violence brought on by political turmoil. Although suppressed by the government, The Blue Kite still found its way into the international festival circuit and has enjoyed commercial distribution as an "art film" abroad. After its screening at the Cannes Film Festival without official permission, however, Tian was not able to work in the Chinese film industry again until very recently (as an executive producer rather than director). Given that the Chinese government itself is delighted to decry the excesses of the Cultural Revolution publicly in the international press, the controversy generated by the film must spring from an allegorical reading of Tietou as hard-headed China herself, innocent, tough, but ultimately vulnerable and naive. Perhaps Tietou is too much like Tian's generation as a group, victims of and witnesses to a corruption that may or may not be endemic to a system or an era or an identity, and undeniably, like Tietou's family, complicit in that corruption. Like the minority peoples of his earlier films, the child Tietou acts as a mirror of the preoccupations of a generation, and this film functions as a bridge to the more experimental works of Tian's oeuvre.

—Gina Marchetti