Chinese Cinema

Chinese Cinema


Chinese Cinema, historical development of the cinema in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Although the cosmopolitan port city of Shanghai held projections of films from unidentified Western companies in 1896 and 1897, China’s capital Beijing had to wait until 1902 for its first glimpse of the new medium. There was also a disastrous attempt to screen films for the Empress Dowager Cixi in the Forbidden City in 1904. The earliest known Chinese production was Dingjun Shan (Dingjun Mountain, 1905), a record of the Peking Opera star Tan Xinpei in scenes from the stage opera of the same title, made by staff of the Fengtai photographic store in Beijing. The short comedy Tou Shao Ya (Stealing the Roast Duck), also based on a stage opera scene, was shot in Hong Kong in 1909 by the theatre director and sometime actor Liang Shaobo, with financial backing from the American entrepreneur Benjamin Polaski.

By 1920, Shanghai was established as the centre of Chinese film production, with a modest amount of ancillary activity in Hong Kong. However, the Chinese market for films was surprisingly small (a United States government trade official noted that there were fewer than 100 cinemas in 1922, almost all of them in the treaty ports of the east coast), and the bankruptcy rate among film companies was high. At the time, 80 to 90 per cent of all films screened in China and Hong Kong were American imports. China’s own production in the 1920s divided neatly into two types of film: those derived from Hollywood models (chiefly melodramas, comedies, and romances) and those drawn from sources in Chinese popular culture (chiefly historical and legendary stories from the opera stage, and martial arts fantasies from pulp fiction). Very little Chinese cinema from this period survives today.

Chinese cinema reached remarkable creative heights in the 1930s, partly because the medium began to attract young artists and intellectuals, such as the American-educated writer-director Sun Yu and the Japanese-educated Communist screenwriter Xia Yan, and partly because the growing threat of a Japanese invasion provided the impetus for films to become the voice of patriotic resistance and national identity. Formal innovations, generally derived from experimentation in Hollywood and Soviet silent cinema, meshed with an agenda of Communist-inspired themes, including women’s rights, social inequality, and national defence. Technique, however, lagged behind; silent films and part-sound hybrids remained in production until 1935.

The combination of under-investment, poor distribution, and political censorship by the Kuomintang (KMT) government guaranteed that many production companies were short-lived, but the industry was dominated by two “majors” in the 1930s. One was the MGM-like Star Company (Mingxing, founded in 1922 by pioneer directors Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu); the other was United Photoplay Service (Lianhua, founded in 1930 by Luo Mingyou). Both companies averaged one release per month. United, which had the star Ruan Lingyu (“China’s Garbo”) under contract, made such outstanding films as Wu Yonggang’s Shennü (1934; The Goddess), probably the world’s first non-moralistic film about prostitution, and Sun Yu’s startlingly erotic patriotic thriller Da Lu (1934; The Highway). Star peaked with such sophisticated films as Yuan Muzhi’s Malu Tianshi (1937; Street Angel), a tough-but-romantic vignette of life, love, and social injustice in Shanghai’s “lower depths”.

This golden age in Shanghai cinema was abruptly curtailed when the city fell to the Japanese in 1937. Few directors stayed to work under Japanese supervision; most fled to Hong Kong or inland to Wuhan, using severely limited resources to make agitprop films for the war effort. When production resumed in Shanghai in 1946, much had changed. The approaching civil war between KMT Nationalists and Communists sharpened the political climate, forcing all film-makers to take sides. Some left-wing directors fled to Hong Kong to avoid persecution; they were followed by many right-wing directors after the Communist victory in 1949. Shanghai films of the late 1940s relied more on dialogue and theatrical-style staging than had the pre-war films, but included a number of titles now internationally acknowledged as classics, such as Fei Mu’s searching analysis of post-war depression Xiao Cheng zhi Chun (1948; Spring in a Small Town) and Zheng Junli’s parable of working-class solidarity Wuya yu Maque (1949; Crows and Sparrows).

Joey Wong


The establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 split Chinese cinema into three kinds. In China itself, the Communists set about reinventing cinema as a popular medium for the vast rural hinterlands, which had never seen films before; most films became vehicles for government propaganda, challenging feudal traditions and superstitions, offering ideological education, and publicizing national movements and campaigns. Soon after 1949, foreign film imports were limited to titles from other Communist countries. New state-run film studios were opened in many regions, while distribution and exhibition were expanded to reach the furthest-flung parts of the country. Some 600 films were produced in the years between 1949 and 1966, which marked the start of the hugely disruptive Cultural Revolution and the enforced shutdown of the film industry for six years. Some films from the first 17 years of Communist rule did their best to revive the old Shanghai traditions of entertainment value, style, and sophistication; the best were Xin Juzhang Daolai zhi Qian (1956; Before the New Director Arrives), a Gogol-esque satire by the ex-actor Lü Ban, and Wutai Jiemei (1964; Two Stage Sisters), a sumptuous melodrama about the theatre world by Xie Jin.

The retreat of KMT Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949 laid the foundations for film production on the island. The KMT’s own Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC) was the first (and for many years the biggest) producer, specializing in anti-Communist propaganda films, historical dramas, and middle-class melodramas. The CMPC’s example gradually brought other producers into the field, and a thriving subculture of low-budget features in Taiwan’s own dialect took shape alongside the “prestige” productions in Mandarin Chinese. However, the most prominent directors—Li Hanxiang, King Hu (Hu Jinquan), and Li Xing—were all ex-mainlanders dedicated to upholding pre-Communist cultural traditions.

The most prolific centre for the production of Chinese films after 1949 was Hong Kong, where the many companies producing films in the local Cantonese dialect were joined by as many new companies producing films in Mandarin. Production in Cantonese remained extremely prolific until the advent of broadcast (as distinct from cable) television in 1967: averaging 125 features a year throughout the 1950s, production peaked at over 200 films a year in 1960 and 1961. Mandarin production got off to a hesitant start (6 features in 1946, 15 in 1950), but was up to nearly 80 films a year by 1970. Both film industries had dissident left-wing factions determined to raise difficult social questions, but both were dominated by Hollywood-style entertainment films with a Chinese twist. The single most popular genre was the swordplay/martial arts film, which, in its early 1970s incarnation as the kung fu film, gave Chinese cinema its first palpable international successes and made Bruce Lee the first globally famous Chinese star.


Like their contemporaries in North America and Europe, the major Chinese film companies (Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest in Hong Kong, CMPC in Taiwan) gradually lost touch with the tastes and interests of audiences seduced by the newly available medium of television. By the late 1970s, the industries in Hong Kong and Taiwan were in a slump; at the same time the state-run studios in China were struggling to find a role in the new political and economic climate after Mao’s death. These developments created the conditions for the arrival of successive “new waves”, which transformed Chinese cinema and gradually won it a substantial international audience.

The first “new wave” broke in Hong Kong in 1979, when Ann Hui (Xu Anhua), Tsui Hark (Xu Ke), Yim Ho (Yan Hao), and other young directors—most of them trained in European or American film schools—moved from television into film production, generally working with small, independent production companies and bringing a strong engagement with social realities into their films. Taiwan soon followed suit: the CMPC began producing portmanteau films with episodes by hitherto untried directors such as Edward Yang (Yang Dechang), Hou Xiaoxian, Wang Tong, and Wan Ren. And a ‘new wave’ reached China in 1984, when recent graduates from the Beijing Film Academy began making films with innovative structures and tones, asking questions rather than providing pat political answers. Through such films as Huang Tudi (1984; Yellow Earth, Chen Kaige), Daoma Zei (1986; Horse Thief, Tian Zhuangzhuang), and Hong Gaoliang (1987; Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou) this group (nicknamed the “Fifth Generation” film-makers by Chinese critics) transformed the image of Chinese cinema at home and abroad.

But the early creative momentum of these “new waves” proved impossible to sustain. As the interest of domestic audiences waned once again in the 1990s, many of the leading directors were forced into commercial or political compromises. Thanks to investment from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, those in China initially weathered the storm better than their contemporaries. Films such as Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou (1990) and Dahong Denglong Gaogao Gua (1991; Raise the Red Lantern), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lan Fengzheng (1993; The Blue Kite), and Chen Kaige’s Bawang Bieji (1993; Farewell, My Concubine) won festival prizes, Academy Award (Oscar) nominations, and widespread distribution. However, the Chinese government’s attempts to reform the film industry by privatizing the studios and tightening the rules around censorship and foreign investment halted most of such production in its tracks. Meanwhile audiences in Hong Kong and Taiwan were en masse transferring their allegiance from local films to imports from Hollywood and elsewhere. The economic depression of the late 1990s and early 2000s intensified the problems.

All three Chinese film industries are currently shadows of their former selves. Production levels have fallen sharply, and mainstream Chinese films no longer dominate the distribution circuits of East Asia. Paradoxically, though, commercial decline has spurred creativity. Individual film-makers in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (many working through their own independent companies) continue to produce outstanding work and win both festival prizes and foreign sales. In Hong Kong, this field is led by Wong Kar-Wai (Wang Jiawei), whose Hua Yang Nian Hua (2000; In the Mood for Love) is one of the most profitable Chinese films ever released in Western Europe. In Taiwan, the most high-profile exports have been Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000; A One and a Two…) and Hou Xiaoxian’s Hai Shang Hua (1998; Flowers of Shanghai); younger directors such as Tsai Mingliang have also made their mark, and the Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee gave Chinese cinema its first multiple-Oscar winner with Wo Hu Zang Long (2000; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

There has also been a surge of low-budget “non-professional” film-making throughout the region, most visibly in China, where young directors unable to find support in what remains of the film industry have taken matters into their hands by making independent films outside the law. In the 1990s, Wang Xiaoshuai, He Jianjun, Zhang Yuan, and other “indie” film-makers effectively displaced their peers in the industry as upholders of artistic excellence and the spirit of innovation in Chinese cinema. Thanks to the example of Jia Zhangke, director of Xiao Wu (1997), Zhantai (2000; Platform), and Ren Xiao Yao (2002; Unknown Pleasures), more of these “outlaw” film-makers are appearing in China every year. The irony of their success abroad is that their films cannot legally be distributed in China itself. See also New Wave.

Reviewed By:
Tony Rayns

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