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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Urban Generation

At the beginning of the 1990’s, a new wave of Chinese filmmakers emerged out of industry taking the world by storm, calling themselves “The Sixth Generation”. It was coined as “the return of the amateur filmmaker” because of the trademark use of producing edgier underground films that relied on long takes, hand-held cameras, etc. However, through all the usage of techniques like nonlinear narratives, fast-motion camera, jump cuts, and a lighting style similar to film-noir, the essence of these films always revolved around the urban. This new generation of filmmakers, including Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) portrayed a less romantic view of the urban, but focused on the disorientation and loss of place associated with the metropolis. It was the intention of these filmmakers to highlight the negative repercussions of China’s emergence on the global-economics front through the often unpleasant and mundane activities/spaces. These films are intentionally set within the metropolis as a way to narrate and deal with the urban physiology in hand with the psychological; what becomes of the public/private space in the rapidly urbanizing Chinese city? The following are various clips from two sixth generation filmmakers: Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, Jia Zhangke’s The World.

Lou Ye’s major motif of the river serves as the backdrop from which the story and, to a certain extent, the city of Shanghai is perceived. The Suzhou River has historically been a major waterway that has supplied trade and commerce to the development of Shanghai. But the former glory is sharply contrasted with what Lou depicts: dark and muddied and filled with trash. The city in the background is starkly imposed upon images of decrepit steel factories decaying at the river’s edge, the crumbling ruins of an industrial China. In essence, the Suzhou River once supplied the lifeblood to the city, but now merely acts as a relic of time, receiving the waste of Shanghai’s shift into urbanization. What is the real Shanghai, is it the romanticized picture of glamour, or is it really comprised of the gritty reality engrained within the urban fabric?

The World is a film about the unfulfilled lives of a few characters that work at a World theme park. Zhangke celebrates the glamour of this make-believe world, but undermines the superficial through exposing the deception of what the park really means. The despair of the characters is epitomized by the soul-less architectural manifestations that surround them; it is representative of their desire to escape, yet inability to actually do so. Their search for the cosmopolitan associated with the urban leads them to the false realization of “traveling the world”. If the metropolis has evolved to point of quantifying and servicing the macro, global scale as a commodity, what then becomes real? For some, a theme park may be the closest chance they have to exploring the world/culture. It is the realization (and the capacity) of China’s global emerging perspective, but presenting it in a mundane and almost repetitive way that makes The World a telling narrative of an empty, urbanized, city.

_Jonathan

Filed under: Architecture, China, film, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Metropolis, Psyche, Suzhou River, The World, Urbanism, Video,

Duality of the City

The phenomenon of city growth illustrates much more than the physical manifestation of the physical urban environment. It is both the physical and the metaphysical that encompass the complexity of urban architecture and the individual experience of the everyday life. In essence, we can say that the city, as a metropolis, exists and functions with dualistic tendencies; it is material and immaterial, public and private, past and present. Most Chinese cities, especially, Beijing, have had a long cultural history leading up to the end of the 20th century. However, the recent jump from the city in response to global modernization has created an uneven displacement of old city versus new city fabric. As a consequence of this vast expansion of new cultural production, the modern Chinese city is continuously operating within a zone intersecting the real, surreal, and the extinct city. In Xiaoshuai Wang’s film Beijing Bicycle, the characteristic urban qualities of the city and urban everyday are portrayed and focused through the discourse of old versus new. Wang’s visualization through thematic means conveys the disparage between the quintessential image of Beijing against the backdrop of the city’s transformation into a contemporary metropolis.

The film is mainly focused on the built form, the manifestation of the development and change of Beijing’s fabric from old, panoramic hutongs, to tall, vertical skyscraper cities. I am reminded of a telling scene, where Wang depicts the modernization of Beijing through a series of sequences showing the congestion of car traffic. Yet within this gridlock, we see the seamless flow of bicycles, old and young alike, weave through traffic in-sync creating a wonderful image of order amidst chaos. Wang’s fast-paced thematic vision encompasses the physical spaces in an intimate fashion, revealing the microcosm of the crowded, dirty, and narrow alleys of the hutong districts. These images are all portrayals of Wang’s image of the urban everyday life; crisscrossing alleyways, compactness are in fact the reality of the everyday to most rural immigrants. Wang’s focus is not on the modernization of Beijing, although he does pay respect to it, but rather a depiction into the disappearing fabric of old Beijing; the result of urbanization and metropolitan living. The cinematic experience of Beijing Bicycle presents a focus on a city that has been shaped by many different portrayals that have often hidden or eradicated the true urban. The thematic context presents a rather disjunctive view of Beijing as polemical, sprawled, and diverse; it is an illustration of the Beijing’s change from historical to modernity/commercial. And yet within the chaos and confusion, the city is the setting and container in which people’s lives take place. The story of a country boy who tries to make it in the big city is intertwined with a schoolboy struggling to gain the attention and recognition he desperately desires. The result is a wonderful narrative of two lives meeting and changing each other. All in all, the image of the city is never repetitive nor homogenous, never merely a single portrayal, but a combination of many images and experiences. Through Beijing Bicycle, Wang hopes to convey the sentiment that perhaps the city transcends just the material, but becomes more representative about the experiential and metaphysical.

_Jonathan

Filed under: Architecture, Beijing, beijing bicycle, China, cinema, Duality, film, history, hutong, Modernization, physical, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Xiaoshuai Wang

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The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu