Retracing the history of Chinese cinema is like retracing the history of contemporary China.
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Cinema is a mirror of the events and the traumas of a country that has passed from the scarcity of resources, which had described its long history, to the sudden abundance within a few decades.
Chinese cinema during its long and troubled history has produced a multitude of excellent films, introducing numerous cinematographic techniques, especially in Hong Kong, which have come to heavily influence world cinema, touching on the most disparate themes, from wuxia pian to auteur cinema, from horror movies to films set in the mythical past of ancient China, through comedies, romantic films, etc.
Note: by following the links you will find more information on the movies (photos and trailers, details, cast, etc.).
The origins of Chinese cinema
Perhaps the most purely Chinese cinema is that of martial arts films, which together with the Chinese opera movies have characterized its origins.
The first Chinese film is The Battle of Dingjunshan (a.k.a. Dinjun Mountain, 1905) by Ren Jingfeng which is a recording of a Chinese opera based on the Battle of Mount Dingjun of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
In 1913 the first independent Chinese screenplay, The Difficult Couple by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan, was shot in Shanghai.
The first feature film was The case of Yan Ruisheng by Ren Pengnian made in 1921, which related the case of a murder of a famous prostitute in a neighborhood of Shanghai. The film was considered too crude to be successful.
Mingxing, founded in 1922, was the first film production company in Hong Kong. The company opened a base in Shanghai.
In the same year, Mingxing produced the earliest surviving film from the last century in China, Laborer’s Love.
The Chinese classics, from the first cry of Chinese cinema, were one of the main sources of inspiration. Romance of the West Chamber (1927) by Li Minwei and Hou Yao, produced by Mingxing Film Company (aka China Sun) was based on the eponymous novel by Wang Shifu. Only 5 of the 10 reels of which the film was composed remained.
Later Mingxing merged with three other studios to establish Lianhua (United China Film Company, a.k.a. United Photoplay).
One of the oldest Chinese film works is a sort of precursor of today’s TV series, a 27-hour movie shot in various episodes in 1928, which has now been lost, entitled The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple by Zhang Shichuan.
The golden era of the 30s
The first important productions came only in the 30s, with the advent of the progressive and leftist movement.
These films were characterized by social themes and depicted the class struggles and reaction against external threats, such as the Japanese invasion, and the lives of ordinary people, especially in cosmopolitan Shanghai.
The three main companies of the time were Lianhua (United China), Mingxing and Tianyi.
Tianyi later moved to Hong Kong, where after some evolutions, became Shaw Brothers Studio.
The maturation of Chinese cinema in the first half of the 1930s, however, was abruptly interrupted by the civil war and the bloody Japanese invasion. During these years some of the darkest episodes of the Sino-Japanese war took place, where Japanese armies were guilty of heinous crimes against the population, such as the Nanjing massacre or the experiments conducted by unit 731 in north-eastern China.
The Japanese occupation involved the closure of all the studios, with the exception of Xinhua Film Company (New China), and many directors fled to Hong Kong, Chongqing, the capital of nationalists and other places.
All these episodes ended up influencing Chinese film production, at least from a content point of view, since these themes have been told and recounted hundreds of times by TV series, television films and more or less memorable film productions.
The second golden age of Chinese cinema
In this period Shanghai managed to maintain and develop a new bourgeois social class that soon became the muse and recipient of local cinema.
After the defeat and the expulsion of the Japanese forces following the end of the Second World War, the film production resumed.
In 1945 the director Cai Chusheng returned to Shanghai to revive Lianhua with a new company, which was later renamed Kunlun Studios, merging with other studios.
In this period a series of classics were produced such as The Spring River Flows East (1947) by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, Myriad of Lights (aka The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes, 1948) by Shen Fu and Crows and Sparrows (1949) by Zheng Junli.
All these films showed a certain degree of disapproval of Chiang Kai-shek‘s oppressive policies. In particular, The Spring River Flows East, which told the struggles of the population during the second Sino-Japanese war, achieved great success.
The production company Wenhua Film Company (Culture Films) differed from the social productions that had characterized the local cinema of the time, preferring to explore other dramatic and universal genres.
Long Live the Missus! (1947) by Sang Hu, with the screenplay by Eileen Chang and Spring in a Small Town (1948) by Fei Mu are among the most representative films of the genre. In particular, Spring in a Small Town is considered one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema.
The film shot at the dawn of the communist victory was soon forgotten due to the lack of political themes, and Fei Mu was accused of being a right-wing reactionary. In 2002 the film received a remake of Tian Zhuangzhuang (Springtime in a Small Town).
Another film by Fei Mu, A Wedding in the Dream (1948), taken from a Chinese opera, was instead the first Chinese color film.
The relative freedom of Shanghai in previous decades was destined to end rather abruptly with the flight of the Kuomintang forces.
Chinese cinema 1949-1978
While Hong Kong cinema matured and found its original way to narrate the stories and inner turmoil of the characters, Chinese cinema entered a sort of limbo made of propaganda films praising the triumphs of Maoist China.
Since 1951, all Hollywood and Hong Kong productions were banned by the Chinese Communist Party and began a film-based production that focused its attention on the masses of peasants, soldiers, and the working class, with movies such as Bridge (1949) by Wang Bin.
One of the main production companies was Changchun Film Studio.
The private studios of Shanghai were all closed within two years and were accused of conveying feudal values, as accused of an anonymous article of May 20, 1951, later attributed to the same Mao Zedong, who appeared in the People’s Daily who accused the film The Life of Wu Xun (1950) by Sun Yu of being anti-revolutionary.
Between 1949 and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, 600 films were made, mainly documentaries and newsreels, sponsored by the regime.
In this period Chinese filmmakers were trained in Moscow to study Soviet realism.
In 1956 the famous Beijing Film Academy was officially founded.
Among the main films of this period are Shi Hu‘s This Life of Mine (1950), which follows the life of an old beggar who reflects on his past as a policeman under different regimes.
Since 1960 some animations based on Chinese shadows and puppet theater have also begun to be produced, such as Havoc in Heaven (aka The Monkey King, inspired by Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West, an unlimited source of inspiration for the Chinese cinema, animation and TV series) by Wan Laiming from 1961.
Between 1956 and the early 1960s, with the launch of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, a new period of purges began in the world of cinema. The author, and member of the CCP, Lü Ban was prevented from making films for the rest of his life, having made the first (and probably only) satirical film of this era, Before the New Doctor Arrives (1956) which mocked the lower hierarchies of the party. The Unfinished Comedy (1957) was branded as “poisonous weed” by censorship officials and was banned before its final release. Lü Ban died marginalized in 1976.
His destiny is one of the reasons why many Chinese artists applied self-censorship and kept quite distant from certain themes, preferring to focus on the lives of the model citizens of the socialist regime.
Between 1957 and 1964, however, some films were made that marked evolution from the technical point of view of Chinese cinema. We are talking about Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (1957), The Red Detachment of Women (1961) and Two Stage Sisters (1964).
The communist regime established a fleet of mobile projectors that could travel to remote Chinese regions to guarantee access to this media even to the most isolated population. In 1965 there were more than 20,000 mobile units.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese film industry suffered yet another setback. Almost all the films were banned and only the production of “revolutionary works” was allowed.
Behind this label were hidden choreographed musical films such as The Red Detachment of Women (1970) by Pan Wenzhan and Fu Jie.
Chinese cinema after Mao’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four: the Fifth Generation of Chinese directors
All this lasted at least until Mao’s death and the consequent fall of the Gang of Four, which marked the beginning of a new era in China, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, who gradually opened the country to trade and cultural foreign influences.
The annual production of films went from 19, in 1977 to 125, in 1986, the year in which the film industry was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Radio, Cinema, and Television.
Chinese cinema opened up to the outside, to new genres and new talents.
Pop music and films from Taiwan and Hong Kong began to enter China through the black market, which paradoxically contributed to spreading culture and awareness in the country like no other legal tool.
In the 80s some criticism of some past policies implemented by the communist regime was even encouraged by Deng Xiaoping.
Despite the openings of Deng, after the Tiananmen Massacre, this kind of cinema was abandoned and The Blue Kite itself was banned at home and Tian Zhuangzhuang was prevented from making films for 10 years.
During this period, a new generation of directors and actors was formed around the Beijing Cinema Academy in the capital, which was able to renew Chinese cinema from a technical and content point of view, telling facts and events, sometimes uncomfortable, concerning the more or less recent past, recounting the excesses of the cultural revolution, of the civil war, or of the Sino Japanese war, of feudal China, the miseries and injustices suffered by the population, alternating sometimes delicate narratives with extremely brutal and realistic paintings. The most important directors of the period are Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Feng Xiaogang, Li Shaohong, Wu Ziniu, Zhang Junzhao, Hu Mei, Zhou Xiaowen, etc.. Between the late 80s and 90s, they established themselves internationally, winning prestigious awards at all the main film festivals.
During the 1980s this handful of directors produced a series of fundamental films such as One and Eight (1983) by Zhang Junzhao, Red Sorghum (1988, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival), Ju Dou ( 1989), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992, Golden Lion) by Zhang Yimou, Yellow Earth (1984), King of the Children (1987), Farewell My Concubine (1993, Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) by Chen Kaige. Almost all of these films are played by Gong Li, who naturally became the face of this generation of artists.
The works produced by the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers are characterized by a wise use of the cinematographic medium, articulated narrative structures, extensive use of color, and panoramas to tell and explore stories to bring to the big screen.
The Sixth Generation of Chinese directors: the success of Chinese alternative cinema
The solemn and formally perfect films by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige contrast with the realistic cinema of Jia Zhangke and the next generation of Chinese filmmakers (Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yang, Zhang Yuan, Lou Ye, Zhang Ming, etc.), who preferred instead to tell the lives and vicissitudes of restless souls, often losing or relegated to the margins of society, or in any case without a real hope for improvement.
After the Tiananmen massacre, a group of directors was formed in China which, in the absence of funding and state aid for the production of films, began using 16 mm films and digital cameras, non-professional actors, to create a series of film with an almost documentary cut, inspired by Italian neo-realist.
These productions with a paltry budget and often from Hong Kong, Japan, or from alternative cinema circuits, nevertheless managed to establish themselves at international festivals.
Films such as Rainclouds over Wushan (1996) by Zhang Ming, The Days (1993, with a budget of 10,000 USD) and Beijing Bicycle (2001, Grand Jury Prize in Berlin) by Wang Xiaoshuai, Beijing Bastards (1993) by Zhang Yuan, Xiao Wu ( 1997), Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasure (2002), Still Life (2006, winner of the Golden Lion), by Jia Zhangke, East Palace, West Palace (1996) by Zhang Yuan, Suzhou River (2000) and Summer Palace (2006) by Lou Ye, Shower (1999) and Quitting (2001) by Zhang Yang told the lives and sufferings of a new generation of young Chinese, poised between a cumbersome past and an uncertain future: these directors brought to the screen stories so far unseen for Chinese cinema, such as drug addiction, the desire to discover the world, existential boredom, etc.
While Chinese cinema grew, matured and imposed itself internationally for the visual power of its imagination, Hong Kong cinema had for years become one of the major centers of world cinema productions, able to rival Hollywood for the number of productions at the year.
The sixth generation of filmmakers was followed by an even more niche movement, which mixed documentary and film elements, or the so-called gGeneration, which made use of smaller budgets and means. The most important films of this group of directors are Taking Father Home (2005) and The Other Half (2006) by Ying Liang and Oxhide (2004) and Oxhide II (2010) by Liu Jiayin.
Since the opening of the market, Chinese productions have progressively begun to achieve commercial and critical success both at home and abroad. Ang Lee‘s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had the merit of introducing Chinese cinema, especially the wuxia genre to a new international audience.
Other great successful productions over the years have been The Horse Thief (1986) and The Warrior and the Wolf (2010) by Tian Zhuangzhuang, Romance on the Lu Mountain (1980), Shaolin Temple (1982), The Dream Factory (1997 ), Big Shot’s Funeral (2001) by Feng Xiaogang, Spicy Love Soup (1997) by Zhang Yang, Crazy Stone (2006) by Ning Hao, Let the Bullets Fly (2010) by Jiang Wen, Lost in Thailand (2012, the first Chinese film to collect RMB 1 billion), So Young (2013) by Zhao Wei, Monster Hunt (2015, the first Chinese film to collect over RMB 2 billion), The Mermaid (2016, the first Chinese film to collect over RMB 3 billion), The Wandering Earth (2019) by Frant Kwo.
In recent years there have also been some films such as The Fourth Wall (2019) by Zhang Bo and Zhang Chong, The Enigma of Arrival (2018) by Song Wen, Meili (2019) by Zhou Zhou, An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) by Hu Bo, who had the merit of making films for the sake of telling stories rather than pursuing exclusively commercial results.
In the last twenty years, while the Hong Kong cinema has started to dramatically decrease the number of films produced, Chinese cinema has conquered new market segments year after year.
But as almost always happens, this abundance of films made to be seen and digested rather quickly does not reflect an improvement in Chinese cinema, which perhaps today is experiencing one of the most difficult moments.
The themes are increasingly frivolous, the stories seem to be recycled from a shared collective imaginary, and are increasingly empty.
Alongside a multitude of film comedies and insignificant romantic films, numerous propaganda productions have been made that are anything but memorable and that enhance the military performances of the Chinese army and navy.
At the same time, as the global quality of the local cinema has fallen in recent years, we have instead witnessed a gradual improvement in Chinese documentary cinema, whose eye perhaps still remains the most lucid tool for telling contemporary China.
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