AN important facet of this year's Berlin Film Festival was its emphasis on Chinese cinema, which has been making a strong impression at a growing number of filmfests around the world. A key member of the Chinese contingent at Berlin was Wu Ziniu, an articulate and affable filmmaker whose much-talked-about feature ``Evening Bell'' will have its American premi`ere on March 28 at New York's respected New Directors/New Films festival, sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Wu, who graduated from film school in Beijing in 1982, is a leading member of the ``fifth generation'' group of Chinese filmmakers - the first generation to reach cinematic maturity after the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, which caused widespread disruption in Chinese artistic and intellectual life.
``Evening Bell'' is a cautionary tale about the collapse of values in wartime. Set in 1945, it focuses on an eight-man Red Army squad that finds 33 Japanese soldiers hiding in a cave - and refusing to surrender, even though the war is officially over and they're on the brink of starvation. The film has generated much discussion over matters ranging from its cinematography, by the brilliant Hou Yong, to its use of wartime atrocities as a metaphor for human conflicts in general.
Discussing his career with me at the Berlin festival, Wu said ``Evening Bell'' grew out of his own background and experience. ``I have never been involved in a war situation,'' he said through an interpreter. ``But from the days of my youth, I went through many political struggles [including] the Cultural Revolution,'' which had devastating effects on his country.
In his films, Wu has employed war as a symbol of this emotional turmoil. ``The very tricky relationships between people have [always] reminded me of a war situation,'' he says.
Wu touched on war for the first time in ``Gezi Shu,'' his second movie, made in 1984. ``It's a narrative film,'' he says, ``set during the Sino-Japanese war in the 1940s. It focuses on the disunity of the Chinese people: When the enemy was coming in the front door, they were still quarreling among themselves.'' His next film, ``Dove Tree,'' was also about war, and was banned from distribution by the Chinese authorities. The reason, according to Wu, is that it touches on the ``very sensitive'' issue of Sino-Vietnam conflict.
``When I was making the film,'' he explains, ``there were border conflicts between China and Vietnam, and I shot the film not very far from the border where [that] was taking place.'' Still, he adds, ``the film itself doesn't have a direct relation to the war. The interest and focus is beyond any war film - it's more concerned with humanity.'' The film is also experimental in its style, Wu notes. ``It has almost no dialogue, although it does have sound effects.''
Not every Wu film has been rooted in war. The feature he made just before ``Evening Bell'' deals instead with ``the 30 years of recent Chinese history, and how politics damage human relations.''
Wu has been affected by recent developments in China, including the censorship policies of the government. Since the banning of ``Dove Tree'' four years ago, he says, ``I have suffered quite a bit creatively. I feel like there's breath in my mouth that has not [been allowed to] come out, and yet I don't think I've done anything wrong.''
Even the internationally respected ``Evening Bell'' has run into resistance. ``After the film was finished,'' Wu says, ``it was not released until two years later.... It's just in the process of being released now.''
Why did the film have to wait? ``It's because of my viewpoint on war,'' Wu answers, ``and also my portrait of Japanese soldiers. ... In war films of the past,... the Chinese are portrayed heroically as they fight the enemy and defeat them. Although this viewpoint is necessary in certain circumstances, it lacks a more global perspective, a larger perspective on war - including the viewpoint of the military personnel themselves, and objectively analyzing their reality. I have a viewpoint that, no matter what war is, it can destroy everything, including military personnel. In the end, I feel the military personnel are the victims of war.''
Although Wu's movies have generated an unusual amount of controversy, other members of the ``fifth generation'' have also stretched the boundaries of what's considered acceptable in Chinese film - often dealing with social and political situations that would have been avoided in traditional Chinese movies.
WU feels there are two points that separate ``fifth generation'' movies from their predecessors. For one, he says, ``Their viewpoints are different. China was [a closed society] for so long, and all the [earlier] films ... were made with the state's interest in mind. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because in a circumstance like what China had to go through, a nation has to make films of that sort. But if a nation continues to produce such films, there will be no progress. They will not be in line with the rest of the world!
``Secondly, no matter how violent or how much cruelty there is in my films, there is something very different aesthetically and also spiritually. I believe that humans are beautiful, although it's difficult to capture their spiritual beauty.''
In addition to these philosophical considerations, Wu feels today's Chinese films are different from their ancestors in ``the way of treating the narrative, the way the actors are directed, and camera movements.
``There are huge differences here between my films and the generation before,'' he continues. ``In traditional Chinese films, the aim is to tell the story. After the story is told, the film is finished. I believe there are many things that are more important in films than just the story.... There is also [the expression of] a strong critical viewpoint. Besides telling the story, the `fifth generation' filmmakers express their views on life, their criticisms, their own life experiences.''
China has been lauded in recent years for giving more freedom to its filmmakers, yet Wu has seen two of his movies restricted by the government. How much freedom really obtains in Chinese cinema today?
``If you're working in the more commercial area, then you're very free,'' Wu says. ``But once you go into certain sensitive territories, then you find resistance. Those are [issues] that we Chinese filmmakers have to fight for. And I see a bright future for that.''