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A Mainland Chinese Cinema Primer

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always preferred films from Hong Kong and Taiwan to those from mainland China. This is in part because movies from the mainland have traditionally been subject to stricter censorship laws and have also been more likely to fall under the heading of propaganda. In the 1990s especially, my formative years as a budding cinephile, the films of so-called “5th generation” directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige seemed simultaneously bloated, self-important and aesthetically safe, while the most exciting filmmakers from Taiwan (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang) and Hong Kong (Wong Kar-Wai, Johnnie To, Stanley Kwan) seemed to be making vital state-of-the-planet addresses that were also on the cutting edge in terms of form. In more recent years, however, I’ve made a concerted effort to expand my knowledge of mainland Chinese movies, both new and old, and have come to admire many more of them, a lot of which are more artistically daring than I ever would have imagined. The following dozen titles encompass the silent era up through the present day.

The Goddess (Wu, 1934)

goddess

Ruan Lingyu is the most famous Chinese actress to have only worked in the silent era and, among her films that survive today, The Goddess is generally regarded as the best. (Although she starred in many movies until her death in 1935, they were all silents; as with most countries, sound film production began much later in China than in the U.S.) The Goddess tells the story of a noble single mother who prostitutes herself by night in order to raise her young son in relative comfort. Director Wu Yonggang offers both effective melodrama and potent sociological analysis as the ironically-named title character must contend with the physical assaults of a brutal pimp as well as the prejudice of the parents of her son’s classmates. Ruan’s emotive performance is both realistic and heartrending; one memorable scene was recreated exactly in Stanley Kwan’s superb Maggie Cheung-starring Ruan biopic Center Stage.

Song at Midnight (Ma-Xu, 1937)

songatmidnight

Song at Midnight is what might result if you crossed Ozu’s Floating Weeds with The Phantom of the Opera. It concerns a traveling opera troupe that sets up shop in a spooky, old small-town theater. One young singer is having trouble performing but receives coaching from an unlikely source: a local former opera star who is hideously disfigured and haunts the shadowy theater like a ghost. A lengthy flashback reveals the origins of this “Phantom” character, which then ties back into the present-day plot, as the same villain sows trouble in both stories. This influential film (it spawned both a sequel and a remake) is good early Chinese horror crossed with a romantic drama; it boasts an intriguing and sympathetic monster-hero, wonderful make-up and a poetically creepy atmosphere. Well worth a look for aficionados of the genre.

Street Angel (Yuan, 1937)

streetangel

Any plot synopsis of Street Angel would make it sound like a typically serious “social problem” picture: two sisters living in Shanghai eke out an existence as a prostitute and a teahouse singer, respectively. The younger sister, the singer, catches the eye of a local gangster, who conspires with her landlord to force her into prostitution as well. A charismatic trumpet player and street magician named Young Chen comes to the rescue by providing refuge to both sisters, but the gangster eventually finds their whereabouts . . . Incredibly, this scenario is played mostly as exuberant comedy, some of which gets downright slapsticky (e.g., Chen’s interactions with his “street friends”) and the whole thing is full of wonderful cinematic conceits from start to finish (from the montage of Shanghai nightlife that opens the film to the use of a sing-along bouncing ball above the Chinese subtitles during the musical numbers to the impressively fluid camerawork throughout). A one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

The Spring River Flows East (Cai/Zheng, 1947)

spring

Movies don’t get any more devastating than this epic tragedy about the lives of ordinary people torn apart by war. The premise is that, after the Japanese invade China, a man, Zhang (Jin Tao), leaves behind his wife, Sufen, and their young son, to fight at the front. The family ends up separated for years, during which time Zhang eventually moves to Shanghai and marries another woman, while Sufen and their son endure one hardship after another. Zhang is reunited with his original family when, through a series of cruel twists of fate, Sufen gets a job as a maid in his new bourgeois home. Among the narrative arts, I’ve always felt movies can convey the passage of time — and thus scenes of reunion — exceptionally well. The heartbreaking reunion scene that concludes this film is worthy of being ranked alongside the finale of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.

Spring in a Small Town (Fei, 1948)

springinasmalltown

My favorite Mainland Chinese movie of all time is Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, oftentimes invoked as the prototype for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. This intimate chamber drama follows the lives of four characters: a tubercular young man, Liyan, who lives in rural China with his wife, Yuwen, and his teen-aged sister, Meimei. Liyan’s childhood friend, Zhang, a city doctor who also happens to be Yuwen’s childhood ex-boyfriend, comes to stay for a visit, an event that soon plunges all of their lives into turmoil. Fei’s masterstroke was to tell this story primarily from the point-of-view of Yuwen (Wei Wei, in a remarkable performance), and the end result is poetic (it’s a portrait of “spring” as much as anything else), beautiful, highly emotional and even erotic. Tian Zhuangzhuang remade it more than 50 years later but, engaging as his film is, it can’t hold a candle to the original, which stands as one of the greatest post-war films made in any country.

Crows and Sparrows (Zheng, 1949)

crowsandsparrows

Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows has a special place in my heart; it was the first “classic” Chinese movie I ever saw (on VHS tape via the old International Film Circuit label) way back in the 1990s. This urban drama, directed by Zheng Junli (one of the co-directors of The Spring River Flows East), was completed before the Communist takeover in 1949 although Communist ideology is arguably present in the allegorical story of poor tenants banding together and standing up to their corrupt Nationalist landlord (who was also a traitor during the Sino-Japanese war). This works as a compelling drama in its own right but also functions as a fascinating window into a key transitional period of 20th century Chinese history.

Two Stage Sisters (Xie, 1964)

twostagesisters

I had been aware of this film for years but it wasn’t until I recently saw the ravishing excerpts featured in Mark Cousins’ documentary The Story of Film, as well as interviews with director Xie Jin, that I finally got around to hunting it down and watching it. The plot, spanning the years 1935 – 1950, deals with the differing fortunes of two members of an all-female opera troupe, one of whom becomes involved in the Communist Revolution while the other marries the troupe manager and ends up leading a life of Western-style materialism (i.e., decadence). In spite of its obvious propagandistic aims, this was still condemned by the government for condoning “bourgeois values” and banned — although perhaps what it really objected to were the hints that there might be something more than friendship between the female leads. This beautiful color film is what I imagine would have resulted had Vincente Minnelli been working in the PRC circa 1964. Or, as my friend David Hanley would say: “The best communist loosely-based-on-true-story period piece melodrama revolutionary musical ever!”

Yellow Earth (Chen, 1985)

yellowearth

Many Western viewers first became aware of Chinese movies with the breakthrough international successes of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou in the late 1980s. These “5th generation” directors, so named because they were roughly the fifth generation of filmmakers to emerge since the birth of Chinese cinema, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and revitalized an industry that had been lying dormant since before the Cultural Revolution. My favorite film of this movement is Yellow Earth, written and directed by Chen and shot by Zhang (who I wish had remained a cinematographer instead of becoming a director himself). This story of a Communist soldier collecting folk songs in rural China and befriending a family of peasants unfolds less through dialogue than through songs, beautiful landscape photography and patient editing rhythms, a style Chen would soon regrettably eschew in favor of Hollywood-style melodrama. Nonetheless, Yellow Earth is a landmark of world cinema that remains a treat for the senses.

The Horse Thief (Tian, 1986)

horsethief

Even more bold than Yellow Earth as a non-narrative experience is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief, a film set in a gorgeous but remote area of Tibet where the thievery of the title character, the Buddhist Norbu, causes him to be exiled from his tribe and, amidst the harshest natural elements, he must fight for his family’s survival. There is virtually no dialogue in this film, which paradoxically resembles both a documentary as well as the most lyrical of narrative silent movies. Tian, who would later be banned from filmmaking for nearly a decade following his controversial film The Blue Kite, was always the most political of the fifth generation directors and The Horse Thief is no exception: in addition to its aesthetic and spiritual value, it also serves as a potent illustration of how poverty is the root of crime.

In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang, 1994)

intheheat

My favorite mainland film of recent decades is this astonishing debut from actor/director Jiang Wen. Set in Beijing during the 1970s (though narrated by the main character from the vantage point of the present), this coming-of-age drama revolves around the shenanigans of the reckless teenage children of absentee Army-officer fathers, as they wile away an endless summer without supervision or consequences. This can be seen as a kind of mainland counterpart to Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, as Jiang puts his alter-ago protagonist, “Monkey,” through the paces of both gang-fights and the pangs of first love. But what really sets this movie apart is the voice-over narration (provided by Jiang himself), which continually and cleverly reminds us that everything we see is a highly romanticized memory. The narration, combined with the bright, slightly overexposed images and excerpts from Mascagni’s Cavaleria rusticana on the soundtrack, ends up conveying — much better than most films — what it means to be alive.

Blush (Li, 1995)

blush

Li Shaohong is one of the few women among China’s fifth generation of directors and I would say, based solely on this film (the only work of hers I’ve seen), one of the most talented. Blush is a piercing period melodrama about two women, “sisters” at the same brothel, who are forced into a re-education camp following the Communist takeover. Both eventually became involved with the same man, a former brothel client, leading to tragedy before concluding on a note of bittersweet resolution. The acting by the lead performers is terrific, and Li proves to be a director of uncommon visual sumptuousness: her extensive tracking shots, use of color and tightly packed compositions will linger with you for days.

The World (Jia, 2004)

world

Jia Zhangke is regarded by many critics as one of the key directors of the 21st century. While I can’t say I share this view of his filmography as a whole, I do regard his 2004 film The World as an unqualified masterpiece. Set in a Beijing theme park named “The World,” which boasts scale model replicas of the world’s most recognizable landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc.), and tracking the lives of the alienated workers within, this is both a powerfully realistic and ironic portrait of modern “global culture.” Jia’s use of long takes and long shots is masterful, the latter of which recalls Ozu (to whom Jia pays explicit homage by including a snatch of the Tokyo Story score on his soundtrack), and the use of animated interludes to represent cellular communication is inspired. Even if I don’t find any of his other movies on this same level, The World alone is enough to mark Jia as an important historian of the present.

This post is dedicated to my friend David Zou, a Chinese film blogger who insisted I watch In the Heat of the Sun.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

4 responses to “A Mainland Chinese Cinema Primer

  • david

    Thanks for the dedication and the shout-out for Mainland Chinese cinema, my friend!

    Mainland Chinese cinema was pretty good before 1960s, the only reason it sank was because of the Cultural Revolution. Almost all art forms was banned during the decade from 1966-1976, and people only had 8 Model Opera to watch. Simply put, it was disastrous for our cinema.

    If there is any movie on this list that is world-class, I will choose The Goddess. This is a film I watched as a double feature of Ruan(the other one is Kwan’s Center Stage) in an arthouse cinema in Beijing, in cinematic terms, it’s as good as any silent movies in that era.

    I know you are not impressed by Zhang’s works, but I do think his Raise The Red Lantern deserves to be on this list.

    When looking back at the fifth generation, I don’t think their cinema are THAT good, they just met the trend that foreigners were eager to get to know Chinese history and culture, and their good stories satisfied this kind of curiosity.

    On the contrary, I admire the cinema of the sixth generation(Jiang Wen, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye), they didn’t rely on the story that much, and they really had their own styles of making films.

    If I was to make this list, it would be much longer, but still thanks so much for letting more people know Mainland Chinese cinema on your blog!

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the response, David. I agree with your assessment of the fifth generation wholeheartedly. I think the “curiosity” that foreigners had about Chinese cinema in the 90s had a lot to do with seeing women suffering in handsomely mounted period pieces!

      I need to see many more sixth generation films. Hopefully, you’ll be writing about more of them on your site!

  • Marilyn Ferdinand (@FerdyonFilms1)

    The remake of Spring in a Small Town, Springtime in a Small Town directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang is really quite good, too.

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