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Tag Archives: Fei Mu

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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Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

bing crosby, gene lockhart & barry fitzgerald - going my way 1944

22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long takes. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

12. Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russian, 1944-1958)

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11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.


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