In mainland China, the end of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution paved the way for a new group of filmmakers. The Beijing Film Academy, which had been closed from 1966 to 1976, finally reopened in 1978. The graduating class of 1982 became known as the Fifth Generation, and their first major work was Huang tu di (Yellow Earth, 1984), directed by Chen Kaige and photographed by Zhang Yimou. A gentle tale of cultural transition set in the 1930s, Yellow Earth was pictorially stunning and set the style for a more meditational cinema in which the landscape is a central character. Zhang Yimou’s Qiu Ju da guan si (The Story ofQiu Ju, 1992) continued the trend of stark pictorial beauty, coupled with a delicate adherence to the Communist Party line in which some criticism is tolerated, but only if placed in either a historical context or presented as part of an abstract allegory.
Many of China’s most popular directors have begun working outside the country, and a number of China-produced films have been funded with outside money, such as Chen Kaige’s Bian zou bian chang (Life on a String, 1991), with financing from Germany and Britain, and Zhang Yimou’s Da hong deng long gao gao gua (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991), financed by a Taiwanese company, shot in China, and distributed through a firm in Hong Kong to circumvent Chinese censors. Few in China actually get to see these films; the movie theaters still operating in China are rundown, and the favorite venue of exhibition is the traveling caravan, roaming from village to village, for screenings in the vast territorial boundaries.
In Japan, the cinema in the 1970s went through a period of crises, after a boom period in the 1960s. Television viewing, coupled with increasing Hollywood imports, led to a drastic drop in production, causing the Japanese government to introduce a plan in 1972 that gave financial incentives to films of clearly artistic intent. As a result, in the 1980s and 1990s Japanese cinema began a remarkable resurgence, led by filmmakers such as Sogo Ishii, whose Gyakufunsha kazoku (The Crazy Family, 1984) documents in wildly satirical fashion the collapse of a traditional Japanese family under intense social pressure. Also, animé, or highly stylized animated cartoons, began to proliferate with such lavishly designed epics as Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997), which became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history.
A new genre was also developing in Japan that became known informally as “J-Horror.” These films were deeply disturbing, often extremely violent movies that would build up a mood of mounting dread and suspense rather than deliver a series of shocking sequences every ten minutes or so. Many observers compared these atmospheric psychological horror films to the works of producer Val Lewton at RKO in the 1940s, and the comparison has merit, up to a point. Where J-Horror departs from the Lewton formula of understated menace is in its embrace of extravagantly violent visuals at key points in the film’s narrative, usually saving the most shocking sequence for the film’s conclusion.
Two of the genre’s most proficient directors are Hideo Nakata and Takashi Miike. Nakata’s Ringu (The Ring, 1998), which was remade by Gore Verbinski in the United States in 2002 under the same title, dealt with a videotape that curses all who watch it with death within a week. The film was so successful that it spawned an immediate sequel, Ringu 2 (The Ring 2, 1999). Nakata went on to create the equally effective supernatural thriller Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, 2002), remade in the United States by Walter Salles in 2005 with the same title, in which a young woman and her daughter move into an apartment in which it always seems to be raining. Takashi Miike’s Ôdishon (Audition, 1999) is an even more disturbing film, in which a young woman, seemingly shy and modest, is actually a serial killer who mutilates her male victims purely for pleasure. Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (2003) has gone through several remakes in Japan and an American version directed by Shimizu himself in 2004; the film centers on a cursed house that drives its inhabitants insane with a series of bizarre hallucinations. All these films depend on mood, lighting, and a leisurely construction to achieve their unsettling effect; as the many remakes attest, the genre has given new life to the horror film.
Kinji Fukasaku’s filmmaking career began in the mid-1960s. Most of his early films were violent yakuza gangster dramas, science fiction films, and Samurai action dramas, but in his final years he created the controversial and very violent Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale, 2000) and Batoru rowaiaru II: Chinkonka (Battle Royale II, 2003), both based on a best-selling novel by Koushun Takami. Battle Royale depicts a near-future Japan in which high school students have become violent and unmanageable. The government then starts a program that abducts one group of high school students each year and puts them on an island. There they are forced to systematically kill each other one by one, until one lone victor emerges. The entire event is televised and becomes a national craze. Causing a firestorm of government protest in Japan, the film was a runaway success. Fukasaku began shooting the sequel but died before he could complete it; his son, Kenta, who wrote the screenplays for both movies, took over. Quentin Tarantino was so impressed with Battle Royale, and Fukasaku’s career as a whole, that he dedicated Kill Bill: Vol. I (2003) to Fukasaku’s memory.
“Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s violent gangster films also rapidly developed a cult following. Moody and introspective, Kitano’s films intersperse long sections of psychological tension with acts of utter brutality. Kitano began his career as a comedian, then as an omnipresent television host, and finally agreed to star in a feature film, Sono otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki (Violent Cop, 1989), which Kinji Fukasaku was slated to direct. Fukasaku bowed out at the last minute and Kitano took over, creating a film that set the bar still higher for violence. In the film’s opening scene, a gang of juvenile delinquents beats up an elderly man, but Kitano’s character, Detective Azuma, does nothing to prevent the crime. Later, however, Azuma tracks one of the young boys to his home and beats him up, as if to exact some retribution. Subsequent films consolidated his reputation as a sort of ultra-violent Jackie Chan, who mixed everyday tedium with outbursts of violence and bizarre comedy, seemingly schooled more in the ethos of comedy than in the yakuza genre, though his brutal movies often have crime at their forefront.