Chinese Movies in Early Days
East Asia contains some of the most dynamic film industries in the world.
Its populous societies often economically vibrant and with rich cultural heritages have mostly taken to cinema with enthusiasm and produced work of great distinction.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Chinese made great efforts to bring cinema to their vast rural population.
In all countries the cinema reflects the society and that’s nowhere so true than in China.
Yellow Earth (1984) directed by Chen Kaige, created a sensation when shown at foreign film festivals.
Set in the 1930s, besides the story even more startling was its look. The bare landscape is filmed in static long shots, often empty of figures, a style which some critics have traced back to traditional Chinese landscape painting.
Instead of the conventional framing and lighting of previous Chinese cinema, Fifth Generation films often show characters off-centre, the lighting dark. Not every shot has a clear narrative function.
The Fifth Generation was the first group of Chinese film-makers systematically exposed to the masters of European modernism such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and it showed in their work.
Other, equally daring films followed.
Hu Mei’s Army Nurse (1985)directed by a woman explores the distinctively female point of view of its protagonist by means of voice-over and other subjective techniques, to the point of explicitly presenting her desire for a male patient.
Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (1986) is set among Tibetan nomads. Visually stunning but narrative elliptical, it caused a stir, especially when the director, stung by criticism that the film was not popular, claimed to have made it for “audiences of the next century”.
If Chinese audiences and officials were not always sympathetic, abroad the films of the Fifth Generation were a hit.
Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a film of visual splendor, but also, unusual in earlier Chinese cinema, of transgressive female desire.
Zhang’s subsequent films Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) both successfully shown in the West, form a kind of trilogy with Red Sorghum.
Each is set in the 1920s, concerns a forceful young woman married to an older man and stars the beautiful Gong Li.
Ju Doutakes place in a dye factory, which gives the occasion for Zhang’s brilliant use of color in the story of how a young wife deceives her elderly husband.
In Raise the Red Lantern Gong Li is the fourth wife of a rich man and has to struggle for power and position, symbolized by the red lantern which is hung outside the room of whichever wife enjoys the husband’s favor that night.
Two films at the end of the 1990s show Zhang pulling back from the forthright and sexually assertive female characters of his earlier work.
In Not One Less (1999) working with a largely non-professional cast Zhang paints a charming rural tableau, one that shows traditional Chinese virtues overcoming hardship and poverty.
The Road Home (1999) contrast the present (in monochrome) with the past of the 1950s (in glorious colors), in a story of a young country woman who falls in love with a visiting teacher. Again, Zhang produces a sympathetic portrait of rural life.
In the 1990s the chill winds of economic liberalization began to blow through the film studios. Now they films had to perform at the box office. Unfortunately few in China had experience of such a regulatory mechanism and the studios were soon in trouble.
Seeking to find a formula for popular success, the studios began making entertainment films in well-established genres such as kung fu or comedy, though the government continued to insist on a certain number of politically approved productions such as war films or stories of model workers.
The Fifth Generation directors were still making “art” films aimed at the international market. At the same time a new sort of cinema began to emerge, underground film-maker carried on outside of officials channels.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993) follows the relationship of a couple of unsuccessful artists dreaming of striking it rich while eking out a humdrum existence.
The protester film is shot in black and white against a wintry Beijing background and an even bleaker north-eastern countryside.
Wang’s later films Frozen (1996) and So Close to Paradise (1998) are equally about marginal characters, though Beijing Bicycle (2001), made with official approval, is more mainstream, a kind of Chinese version of neo-realistic classic Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di bibiclette, Vittorio De Sica, 1948) which nevertheless contains implicit criticism of the continuing divide between rich and poor.
Also to note more recently Chongquing Blues (2010); 11 Flowers (2011).
In the same vein, Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun (1994) debunks the Maoist rhetoric surrounding the Cultural Revolution, as the hero looks back on the fights and sexual escapades he experienced.
Another innovative young director is Zhuang Yuan. Mama (1992) is a grim look at the difficulties of a single woman trying to care for her handicapped child. “Beijing bastards” (1993) takes a look at contemporary urban youth, drugs and all, incorporating performances by the radical rock star Cui Jian. Most challenging to the official line was Zhang’s East Palace West Palace (1996) in which a gay man’s interrogation by a policeman develops distributing sado-masochistic undertones. It led to the authorities tightening up on the production of unofficial films.
At the same time, China has been opening up its cinema screens to Hollywood, to an extent that would have previously been unthinkable. Imports during 2001 included Michael’s Bay’s Pearl Harbor.
Hong Kong meanwhile, has produced a quite exceptional cinema; its films have been exported all over the world, while at home Hong Kong was long one of the few countries where domestic output dominated the box office.
From 1970 Hong Kong produced at least 100 films a year and in the early 1990s twice that, its production equaling Japan –a country with a population twenty times as large- and often outstripping that of mainland China.
The large Chinese Diaspora in south-east Asia and elsewhere provides a ready market, but at the beginning of the 1970s there was also a boom in exports to Europe and the United States.
The explanation can be given in two words: kung fu. This variant of Chinese unarmed combat was adapted into an individual style by the actor Bruce Lee in films produced by the newly formed Golden harvest company.
Fist of Fury (1972), titled The Chinese Connection in the United States to cash in on the smash-hit The French Connection (1971), was a great success internationally, leading to the rapid production of Way of the Dragon/Return of the Dragon (1972)directed by Lee himself, and Enter the Dragon (1973) financed by Hollywood.
In these films Lee was the stern-faced, ascetic avenger. Way of the Dragon was set, improbably, in Rome affording an opportunity for Lee and Chuck Norris, as an American hit man imported by the villains, to have a final confrontation in the Colosseum.
Apart from Lee the acting is execrable and the attempts at comedy dismal, but neither affected the film’s popularity, which turned entirely on Lee’s ability as a fighter. The films ascribe his prowess to a monkish dedication, including the refusal of sexual overtures.
In Enter the Dragon, Han’s metal hand is a clear steal from the first Bond film, Dr No (1962), whose eponymous oriental villain is similarly gifted.
Lee’s art of fighting made him a star. Sudden, violent action is compressed into split-seconds, punctuated by moments of contemplative stasis. Kung Fu became an international craze, inspiring pop songs, fashion and an American TV series.
Lee’s premature death in 1973, canozied him as the patron saint of kung fu. His mantle was inherited by Jackie Chan, whose screen persona was the opposite of Lee’s. Chan was forever the underdog, with a rueful, self-depreciating expression. Kung fu comedy was his forte in such films as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978).
As the kung fu craze waned, Chan moved into other genres with such films as Police Story (1984) a crime film in which Chan performed some astonishing stunts on a double-decker bus.
By the late 1990s he had made a breakthrough in Hollywood with the action-comedy Rush Hour (1998) and the comedy Western Shanghai Noon (2000).
Kung Fu largely replaced the earlier swordplay or wuxia films, of which King Hu was the supreme director. His masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (1960) actually made in Taiwan, is a dazzling display of editing technique and spectacular pageantry.
Like Hollywood, Hong Kong cinema has been primarily genre-based and reliant on stars, though with a narrower range of genres, mainly martial arts, crime films and comedies.
Genres, while ensuring the continuity that popular cinema requires for efficient production, also need to be constantly reinvented if the public is to stay interested. At the end of the 1970s came the so-called new Wave, which saw a new breed of younger directors reworking generic traditions. It was at this point that Hong Kong cinema really took off stylistically.
Director and producer Tsui Hark brought brilliant technical skills and artistic élan to a range of popular formats: The Butterfly Murders (1979) reworked the martial arts film; Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) updated the swordplay genre; A better Tomorrow (1986) was the film in which John Woo found his feet as Hong Kong’s supreme director of hard-edged crime movies; Tsui’s Peking Opera Blues (1986) is a dazzling recreation of the traditional Chinese theatrical entertainment, set in the early twentieth century.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-Tung, was not particularly scary horror film (its vampire-like ghosts are rather sweet), but it sparkled with spectacular swordplay and special effects, including a tree-spirit with an enormous tongue.
In Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and its sequels Tsui revived the traditional kung fu story.
John Woo’s direction of Chow Yun-fat in A better Tomorrow made both of them stars and The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992) continued the partnership.
Another new wave director, Ann Hui, Hong Kong’s best woman director, has embellished traditional genres. The Spooky Bunch (1980) is an inventive and comic ghost story; The Story of Woo Viet (1981) is a crime film, and Boat People (1982) a realist drama set in Vietnam which explains why so many Vietnamese left to become refugees or “boat people” in Hong Kong. Romance of Book and Sword (1987) is a sumptuously filmed historical action spectacular. In the 1990s Hui revitalized the melodrama in such films as Song of the Exile (1990) about a troubled mother-daughter relationship.
What characterizes all these film-makers and sets them off against Chinese cinema on the mainland and in Taiwan is a sense of playfulness, a delight, occasionally hyperactive, in the sheer visual and auditory possibilities of cinema , all in the cause of entertainment.
The most inventive talent to appear in the 1990s was undoubtedly Wong Kar-Wai, who has rapidly made himself the darling of the international festival circuit with barely more than half a dozen films, the best known of which is Chungking Express (1994). Wong Kar-wai plays with unsettling angles and bright colors, showing off a full box of technical skills.
A character in the foreground will move normally while in the background things whizz past and speed. Some shots are filmed at ultra slow-motion then stretched in the printing to bring them up to normal speed, creating a strangely hypnotic effect. And always there is music, never more memorably than in his highly successful In the Mood for Love (2000).
In the early 1980s a New Taiwanese Cinema was born.
The most celebrated of the directors is Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou’s lucid, unhurried, elegant style, the usually static camera observing the minutiae of the household and its surroundings, allows a series of loosely related tableaux to build a richly textured picture of daily life in several generations of one family.
To quote: The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983); The Boys from Fengkuei (1983); The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985).
A loosely connected trilogy to Taiwanese history City of Sadness (1989) won the Golden Lion in Venice Film Festival.; The Puppetmaster (1993); Good Men, Good Women (1995).
A director whose career has been closely linked with Hou’s is Edward Yang.
Yang’s Taipei Story (1985) actually stars Hou as an unsuccessful businessman trying to cope with the effects of rapid modernization. Yang’s The Terrorizer (1986) is a deeply impressive study of the modern city with all its complexity and arbitrary connections. A brighter Summer’s Day (1991) is set in 1960 and A One and a Two … (2000) is perhaps his masterpiece.
The films of the New Taiwanese Cinema did not always do well at the box office, but the government has supported young, unknown directors.
The belated integration of Chinese cinema into the world film history has been slow: the achievements of some of the films of the 1930s and 1940s are not yet valued as highly as eventually they will be.