The Old Well

dir. Wu Tianming

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Future Fifth Generation standard bearer Zhang Yimou stars in the most celebrated film of Fourth Generation figurehead Wu Tianming.


Though not well known in the West, the prominent Fourth Generation filmmaker Wu Tianming is a key figure in the history of Chinese cinema. In the period following the Cultural Revolution, he directed several important films that would help reshape Chinese cinema. As chief of the Xi'an Studio, which become the home of the Fifth Generation, he oversaw the production of the early masterpieces by Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou, the latter of whom starred in Wu's most celebrated film, The Old Well. The film is a fascinating hybrid: its first section, in which a proud young man returns from his urban education determined to better his hometown, feels akin to the work of the younger Fifth Generation with its vast landscapes, hardy peasants, and pronounced symbolism; but when the man and his former girlfriend get trapped inside the eponymous well in the film's second half, it begins to feel far more like the Fourth Generation "scar films." Intimate and highly personal, The Old Well quietly yet devastatingly exposes the horrors of the past and questions the possibility of individual effort in the face of history.