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Tag Archives: Wu Yonggang

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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