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Chinese Cinematography: The Cultural (R)evolution

The history of Chinese cinematography first started in 1905. It was the year when the opera The Battle of Dingjunshan, staged successfully at the Beijing Opera, was recorded for the very first time.

The centre of Chinese film, at the time, was Shanghai, where the first movie theatre was built in 1908. During the 1920s the first movie production companies, based exclusively on the native capital, were founded in Shanghai. One of them was Mingxing Film Company founded by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan. Its most prominent hits were Zhang Xinsheng (1922) and Orphan Rescues Grandfather (1923), both made by Zhang Shichuan. The films produced at that time were mostly melodramas, family dramas and screen versions of Chinese legends.

The situation in the whole country and, therefore, also in the Chinese cinematography changed in 1927 when Kuomintang came to power in the country. The main subject, of the films, became the class warfare and the awakening of the Chinese national spirit against the foreign menace. Moreover, it was also the time when sound first appeared in the cinema, which complicated film production and decentralised the film business. The Cantonese speaking directors moved to Hong Kong which has been a mainstay for the commercial cinema, independent from the government’s dictate ever since.  The directors creating in Mandarin, the official language stayed within the circle of the official authorities and their directives. The national socialistic movement brought such movies as Spring Silkworms/Chun can (1933) and To the Northwest/Dao xi bei qu (1934) by Bugao Cheng or Goddess/Shen nu (1934) by Wu Yonggang.

The years 1933-1937 are called the first „golden era” of Chinese cinema. Shanghai, the capital city of the Chinese film industry, was also the leader in its film production. Many actors gained the status of a film star (Ruan LingyuHu DieJin Yan). The most celebrated Chinese directors of that time were Mu-jih Yuan (Street Girl/Malu tianshi 1934) and Wancang Bu (A Spray of Plum Blossoms/ Yi jian mei 1931).
One of the main factors at that time (1931 – 1945) was the Japanese occupation of China. However, it didn’t prevent Chinese filmmakers from making films, though many of them escaped to Hong Kong. Amongst those who stayed on the Solitary Island, as Shanghai was called in the late 1930’s, the nationalistic mood intensified and the works of filmmakers were a response to the Japanese dictatorship. It was then when the Lianhua Film Company was founded, one of the most important film companies of the 1940’s. Classics such as Spring and Sparrows/Wuya yu maque (1949) by Junli Zheng and The Spring River Flows East/Yi jiang chun shui xiang dong liu (1947) by Chusheng Cai and Junli Zheng were produced there. Considered as one of the most important Chinese films ever made Spring in a Small Town/Xiao cheng zhi chun (1948), directed by Fei Mu, was the last „apolitical” film before the communists took over.

In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed under the leadership of Mao Zedong. The country split into three separate states: the PRC, Taipei and Hong Kong. The cinema in the PRC became one of the propaganda tools. Independent production was eliminated, and the influx of foreign films was severely restricted. Once the communist party took control of both the mass media and the cinematography they started to speak only the language of the legal authorities. War films and adaptations of classic Chinese operas and novels became the dominant genres. One of them was The Tragic Story of Shanbo Liang and Yingtai Zhu/Liang Zhu hen shi ( (1958) directed by Tie Li, a film, which got to the canon of Chinese cinematography.

In 1956 the Bejing Film Academy was founded. Many excellent filmmakers graduated from it and gained worldwide recognition and regard. Before it happened though, China experienced the biggest cultural collapse in its history. The Cultural Revolution swept across the country and ruined both the economy and the culture. Many people of science and culture were imprisoned in the labour camps, and many works of art were destroyed en mass. During this period the cinematography came to a standstill for many years, and watching films was strictly forbidden.

The early part of the 1980’s brought a change. The artists, the ones who had survived, were freed and the Bejing Film Academy, closed during the Cultural Revolution, was opened again. The post-revolutionary film landscape was co-created by two generations of filmmakers. The older ones who had started before the Revolution and were forced to fall silent for several years, such as: Wu Yonggang and Wu Yigong, directors of Evening Rain/Ba Shan Ye Yu 1980 as well as Xie Jin, the director of Legend of Tianyun Mountain/Tian yun shan chuan qi 1980 and Hibiscus Town/Fu rong zhen 1986 and the young generation who had graduated from the Bejing Film Academy in 1982 and is called the Fifth Generation of Chinese directors. Thanks to the Chinese cinema crossed the borders and gained worldwide fame and renown. The most prominent of them are indeed Zhang YimouChen KaigeZhuangzhuang Tian and Zhang Junzhao.

The Fifth Generation filmmakers contributed to creating a new quality within the Chinese cinema. Their artistically sophisticated films rejected standing conventions and were the attempts of settling accounts with the past. Perhaps because of this many of these films were not permitted to be distributed. However, they were highly regarded at the international film festivals. Chen Kaige made Yellow Earth/Huang tu di (1984), for which he was awarded the Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. This incident began the triumphant procession of Chinese cinema abroad. Kaige created the masterpieces of  Ba wang bie ji/Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Jing Ke ci Qin Wang/The Emperor and the Assassin (1998). The dramatic fresco Farewell, My Concubine, tells the story of the emotional relationship between two actors of the Chinese opera, linked with the stage parts of a king and his concubine. The story is said against a background of the 50 years of Chinese history. In 1993 the film was awarded the Golden d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival ex aequo with The Piano by Jane Campion.

Zhang Yimou grew into the megastar of Chinese cinematography. His film output consists of Hong gao liang/Red Sorghum (1987), Da hong deng long gao gao gua/Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao/Shanghai Triad (1995), Ying xiong/Hero (2002), Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Thanks to a long-term collaboration with him Gong Li became the biggest star of modern Chinese cinema, while others Jet LiMaggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi became immensely popular, both in China and abroad.

Over the last years, the audience has taken a particular liking to wuxia pian films referring to the very popular, in China, kung-fu mythology. The stories tell of fearless and perfect sword masters and their adventures. Sword fighting is viewed as a carrier of a philosophy and a way of living. The most well known Chinese wuxia films are Ying xiong/Hero (2002) and Shi mian mai fu/House of Flying Daggers (2004) by Zhang Yimou as well as Wu ji/The Promise (2005) by Chen Kaige.

The youngest generation of the Chinese filmmakers grew up in the new reality, both politically and economically. As capitalism reached China with all its worries and problems and the people began to forget about the time of ruthless communist dictatorship slowly. New independent film companies were founded, in which young filmmakers started making films criticising the new social relations and showing the Chinese reality, behind the back of censorship.

One of these filmmakers is Zhang Ke Jia, a director of moving social dramas like Xiao Wu/Pickpocket (1997) showing the Chinese country from the point of view of a petty thief; Sanxia haoren/Still Life (2006) about the erection of the Three Gorges Dam; or Shijie/The World (2004) about the provincial workers thrown into the metropolitan crucible. Zhang Ke Jia’s contemporary is Quanan Wang, a director of the loud film Tuya de hun shi/Tuya’s Marriage (2006), for which he was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and of Fang zhi gu niang/Weaving Girl (2009) a moving drama of a woman dying of cancer. The other directors of this generation called the Sixth (or even the Seventh) are Guo XiaoluAnn Hui and Chuan Lu. Lu directed i.a. big war drama Nanjing!Nanjing!/City of Life and Death (2009).


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Magda Olchawska is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and screenwriter. She writes not only about making films and writing but also about financially independent and sustainable lifestyle. Her current projects include Ecotopia Universe and School Runs.

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