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Crows and Sparrows poster
Motion pictures were introduced to China in 1896, but the film industry was not started until 1917. During the 1920s film technicians from the United States trained Chinese technicians in Shanghai, an early filmmaking center, and American influence continued to be felt there for the next two decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, several socially and politically important films were produced. [Source: Library of Congress]

The first film was shown in Shanghai in 1896, a year after the first film was shown in Paris by the Lumiere brothers. The first Chinese-made film “Conquering Jun Mountain”, was made and shown in 1905.During the 1930s the leftist film making movement was active. Memorable films from this dark genre included Xia Yan’s “Torrents” (1933) Yuam Muzhi’s “Street Angel” (1937) and She Xiling’s “Crossroad” (1937). The film scene in the 1940s was more chaotic and fractured. Many “blue” movies and horror films were made. Among the handful of classics from this period are Cai Chusheng’s “Spring River Flows Eastward” (1947), She Yu’s “Light of a Million Hopes” (1948) and Chen Baichan’s “Crow and Sparrow” (1949).

Dominant film types were emotional dramas in the 1930s, war movies in the 1940s, politically-inspired films in the 1950s and early 1960s.The Chinese national anthem “The March of the Volunteers” comes from 1930s film “Children of the Storm”.

Early film was not well received by opera fans who felt that film threatened their favored art form. Even so film was quickly embraced and compared with the old art form of shadow puppetry and called “electric shadow play.”

The first film studio was founded by American Benjamin Brodsky. It released its first film “The Difficult Couple”, made by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichian, in 1913. The first sound film, “The Songstress, Red Peony” was released in 1931. It starred Butterfly Hu and was produced by Star Studio, Shanghai’s largest film producers. Stars like Hu and Zhou Xuan were household names.

Websites: The site, http://www.chinesefilms.cn, features news, film release dates, cast and crew details and plot outlines. There are also links to Chinese studios and the websites of film-makers, as well as independent English language reviews of movies. dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema.

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Conquering Jun Mountain,
the first Chinese film
Books: “Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers” by Micheal Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara. “Lights! Camera! Kaishi!: In-Depth Interviews with China's New Generation of Movie Directors” by Shaoyi Sun and Li Xun (EastBridge, 2009) It features interviews with Jia Zhangke, winner of Venice Golden Lion for Still Life in 2006, and superstar blogger and female director Xu Jinglei and 19 other leading directors. Sheldon Lu of the University of California, Davis wrote: “It contains illuminating interviews...with the leading directors and sheds light on a whole range of important issues such as independent cinema, censorship, film industry, and globalization.

Book; “The Chinese Cinema Book” by Song Hwee Lim and Julian Ward Basingstoke (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Commissioned by the British Film Institute, The Chinese Cinema Book provides a comprehensive companion to the cinemas of the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora, from early cinema to the present day. With contributions from leading international scholars, the book is structured around five thematic sections: Territories, Trajectories, Historiographies; Early Cinema to 1949; The Forgotten Period: 1949 — 80; The New Waves; and Stars, Auteurs and Genres. This important collection addresses film production and exhibition and places Chinese cinema in its national and transnational contexts. Individual chapters addresses major film movements such as the Shanghai Cinema of the 1930s, Fifth Generation Chinese film-makers and the Hong Kong New Wave, as well key issues, stars and auteurs of Chinese cinema.

Shanghai and the Golden Age of Chinese Film

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Rian Lingyu, the “Chinese Garbo”

Classics from the Shanghai Golden age include “New Woman” (1934), a silent film directed by Cai Chusheng and starring Rian Lingyu, the “Chinese Garbo” ; and “Song of Midnight” (1935), a Chinese version of “Phantom of the Opera”, directed the macabre Ma-Xu Weibang.

Shanghai was regarded as the Hollywood of the East in the 1920s. The people that lived there loved to go to movies and they could enjoy watching them at wonderful Art Deco movie houses. One film club founder told the Los Angeles Times, “Ninety percent of film back then reflected life n Shanghai. There was no other Chinese city capable of representing modern life.”

The Shanghai film scene collapsed when the Communists came to power in 1949. Many film people fled the country and ended up in Hong Kong, and launched the film industry there.

Great figures from Shanghai cinema include the great actress Shangguan Yunzhu, revered director Fei Mu. The prominence of Taiwanese and Hong Kong figures like director Hou Hsiao-hsien and singer/actress Rebecca Pang illustrate how much of Shanghai’s creative spirit migrated to Taipei and Hong Kong after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Fei Mu

Fei Mu’s “Spring in a Small Town” (1948) is regarded as one of the best Chinese films ever made. The film is epochal in its fusion of the personal and the historical, as well as the East and the West. The repressed emotional and sexual impulses of the main characters and the dying but irresistibly languid and romantic small town in a nation about to undergo unprecedentedly momentous change are all articulated in a language that is part literati poetry of Tang Dynasty and part Freudian unconscious.

The female lead, played by Wei Wei (now residing in Hong Kong) recounts her story in the Jia Zhangke “I Wish I Knew” about how Fei told her to help the then-inexperienced male lead feel more comfortable in his role by convincing him that she was really (off-screen) in love with him. It worked, but with unintended consequences — the young man was so smitten that he would not stop his pursuit even after the film shoot ended, resulting in her emigrating to Hong Kong just to be free of him. In telling this story, Jia intercuts between video of the actress remembering and sepia-toned black and white footage excerpted from Fei’s movie, fusing reality and artifice into something that falls magically in between.

Revolutionary Themes in Shanghai Films From the 1920s and 30s

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1935 education film
“Films by pioneering Chinese directors of the 1920s and 1930s still dazzle, with their opulent sets, the metropolitan glamour of Shanghai, not to speak of their melodramatic stories of love and distress, passion and agony,” Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz wrote in China Beat. “Imagine, for example, the following opening shots: The camera zooms in on the supple thighs of a young woman. A few seconds later, you — the viewer’see her charming smile. She is wearing a simple short sleeved shirt, both arms exposed, and clad in shorts with one of the seams torn. In full view now, you are able to admire her slender body. She is in a playful mood. Such are the opening shots of Sun Yu’s 1931 film Wild Rose (Ye meigui), set in an idyllic countryside. But this dream world will not last; misfortune will soon befall the female protagonist and the man she loves. Painful separation seems inevitable. Will the couple eventually reunite? What will lead them back together? Just a hint (spoiler alert!): they both sign up for a vaguely defined revolution.”[Source:Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz, China Beat, August 30, 2010]

“The intertwined themes of romance and revolution have recurred throughout the history of Chinese filmmaking and continue to have remarkable appeal today. Call it cliché, but early Chinese silent-era filmmaking produced a good number of such stories and audiences never tired of them. Neither did we. In the films of the 1930s we viewed, women took center stage — from the innocent Xiao Feng (played effectively by Wang Renmei) in Wild Rose (1931) to the seductress Li Huilan (played nicely by Xue Lingxian), a woman who seeks men for pleasure and money in A Dream in Pink (Fenhongse de meng, 1932, d. Cai Chusheng). The viewer first marvels at how the materialistic new woman Zhang Tao (played by the vivacious Li Lili) ultimately repents in the film National Pride (Guo feng, 1935, d. Zhu Shilin), and then feels emotional distress as Xiao Mao (played again by Wang Renmei) loses her only brother to malnutrition in Cai Chusheng’s famous Song of the Fisherman (Yu guang qu, 1935).” [Ibid]

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1935 farmer film
“It is the women, played by Shanghai’s top film stars, who command the audience’s attention. Not only are their lives inevitably entangled with issues like imperialism, violence, and poverty, but they are able to endure mountains of heartache along the way. The directors’some of the most creative artists in Shanghai’s highly entrepreneurial cultural marketplace — identify a wide array of modern women, and dwell on the complexities of the social and personal problems these resilient women faced in their daily lives. The fact that quite a few of these problems’self-sacrifice, marriage, temptation, vanity, and love — remain unresolved in present-day society points to the contemporary relevance of these films. While directors generally proposed reconciliation as the solution to most problems, the viewer is easily touched by the earnest attempt of the male directors to openly discuss the plight of women, especially in Spring in the South (Nanguo zhi chun, 1932, d. Cai Chusheng) and A Dream in Pink. One of our favorite films is Shen Xiling’s Boatman’s Daughter (Chuanjia nü, 1934), a seamless and powerful narrative about modern-style exploitation and violence woven into a quasi-traditional Chinese love story about a boatman’s daughter (played beautifully by Xu Lai) and a laborer.” [Ibid]

“Despite their immense popularity with audiences in the 1930s, many of these films were criticized by reviewers, including leftists, for failing to provide further insight or understanding of such hot-button political issues as spiritual pollution. [Ibid]

The City as an Evil Place in Shanghai Films From the 1920s and 30s

“A second theme that caught our attention is the depiction of the big metropolis, that is, Shanghai modern and its irresistible allure,” Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz wrote in China Beat. “Take A Dream in Pink, complete with a street lined with tall trees, an art deco interior, women in bright qipaos dancing in the marbled mansions of the French Concession. Similar images appear on screen in almost all the films we viewed. It seems that many movies from the 1930s were bathing in the glitz and glamour of the modern metropolis.” [Source:Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz, China Beat, August 30, 2010]

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Chen Zhi Gong in
Swordswoman of Huangjiang
“The city-on-screen, however, is highly paradoxical. Almost invariably the modern metropolis is revealed to be as evil as it is alluring. Underneath its bright and modern veneer is a moral abyss which causes people — the young in particular — to lose their moral bearings and fall into a degraded state. In National Pride, Zhang Lan (whose name, Orchid, implies nobility and virtue) learns that big city culture will destroy young people, while rustic life and self-discipline will purify their minds. Propaganda is a conspicuous component of National Pride, which was produced for the Guomindang’s New Life Movement, but it is interesting to note that the demonization of the modern city is a common theme in Chinese films of the 1930s, including so-called leftist works. In this respect, they resonate (intentional or unintentionally) with cultural traditions that tend to favor the countryside over the city, the rural over the urban. Literature since the late Qing has depicted the prosperity of Shanghai as a symbol of hypocrisy. Ugly and immoral phenomena, including prostitution, deception, and greed, are said to corrode the simple and modest lifestyles of the past.” [Ibid]

“The danger of the metropolis is often attributed in these films to spiritual pollution — corrupt culture (especially Western culture) imported from abroad. Once again, we have a theme that feels very current. How to resist this pollution? How does its harm manifest itself? The answers to these questions vividly unfold in such films as A Dream in Pink, where the screen vamp Li Huilan literally embodies the attractions and dangers of Western culture and ultimately stands in for the metropolis itself. She is independent, fashionable and charming. She never waits for men. She talks about love but never relies on love. At the end of the film, she deserts her lover (who has divorced his lovely wife in favor of the vamp) and leaves with another man. She is a female figure who differs radically from what is often imagined to be the stock traditional Chinese woman. Director Cai Chusheng thus poses poignant questions. Is Western culture suitable for China? Is a city (like Shanghai) a safe place to be? What is substantial and good in the city [Ibid]

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Love and Duty
“Despite its potentially corrupting influence, the modern city retains its magnetic powers of attraction, a pull that was obviously well understood by the directors and permeates the films. Young women from the rural areas, for example, cannot help being fascinated by the modern, educated ladies on display in such films as Boatman’s Daughter. And in a film like National Pride, which explicitly devalues the city and Western culture, extravagant and luxurious city life is omnipresent on screen and seems to undermine the original anti-urban messages. Is this another example of unintended consequences? Similarly, while the countryside might appear idyllic (in Song of the Fisherman and other works), it is almost always shown to contain violent and life-negating elements (in Wild Rose for instance) and other negative forces. This paradox of the city, its allure and glamour alongside its pernicious influences, was clearly one of the powerful riddles that attracted Chinese films audiences of the 1930s. Eighty years later, this attraction has lost little of its allure.” [Ibid] Yap Soo Ei and Ji Xing are graduate students in the Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS). Nicolai Volland and Yang Lijun teach Chinese Studies at NUS, and Paul Pickowicz is professor of Chinese History at the University of California, San Diego.

Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Li Xianglan

Yoshiko Yamaguchi, a beautiful doe-eyed singer and actress, was featured in a number of propaganda films in China the 1930s when the Japanese occupied Manchuria. Appearing under the pseudonym Li Xianglan, she caused a sensation in erotic melodramas like “China Nights”, about a love affair between a Chinese peasant and a heroic Japanese ship captain in wartime Shanghai. Her producers at the sinister Manchurian Film Association purposely hid her nationality. Most of her fans thought she was Chinese.

Yamaguchi also (also known as Ri Koran) was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents and grew up speaking both Mandarin and Japanese. When the war was over she fell into the hands of Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, who charged her with collaborating with the enemy, a crime punishable by death. She was only spared execution when he was able to prove she was an ethnic Japanese.

But Yamaguchi's career didn’t end there. After the war she reinvented herself, first as the star of pro-American films and then as the Hollywood actress Shirley Yamaguchi, her name inspired by Shirley Temple, appearing in a few B-level movies. After retiring from film in the 1950s she did a stint as a diplomat’s wife and worked as a television talk show host and journalist, with stints in Vietnam and Palestine, and was a prominent politician in the Japanese Parliament for 20 years. Her story has been fictionalized in the novel “The China Lover” by Ian Buruma (2008, Penguin Press).

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Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

Mao-Era Films

“The film industry continued to develop after 1949. In the 17 years between the founding of the People's Republic and the Cultural Revolution, 603 feature films and 8,342 reels of documentaries and newsreels were produced. The first wide-screen film was produced in 1960. Animated films using a variety of folk arts, such as papercuts, shadow plays, puppetry, and traditional paintings, also were very popular for entertaining and educating children. [Source: Library of Congress]

Most early Communist film were poorly produced and edited stories smothered with sentimentality and propaganda. Later films were of better technical quality but still were propaganda pieces about happy workers and great Communist victories. Under Mao, China's most talented film directors directed propaganda films; famous actresses earned as little as $6 a month, barely enough to eat on; an many films featured long shots of wheat fields and industrial smoke stacks. Documentaries from the republican and Mao eras often featured a “Voice-of-God” commentary and were made for propaganda purposes.

Many popular films were stories that dealt with the Communist struggle in the Chinese Civil War and World War II. The most famous of these are “The Red Detachment of Women” (1961) and “Railroad Guerillas” (1956), a movie about a band of peasants that drive out Japanese imperialist occupiers. Of the 603 feature films and 8,342 reels of documentaries made under the Communists from 1949 to the Cultural Revolution in 1966 few are shown anymore.

No films were shot in the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1972. Between 1973 and 1976 a handful of propaganda films endorsed by the Gang of Four were made. After the Cultural Revolution the film industry began to slowly get back on its feet. In 1986 film industry control was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the newly formed Ministry of Radio, Film and Television with the goal of ‘stricter control and management...to strengthen supervision over production.” This move also brought more government money into the film industry and made it more commercially-oriented.

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s made a trip to China in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution to make the film “Chung Kuo — Cina” . The Chinese government expressed “disappointment” and displeasure with Antonioni’s depiction of China — even though he had been invited by the Chinese government, Premier Zhou Enlai specifically, to make the documentary. Chung Kuo was shown for the first time in China only in 2004. [Source: Ken Kwan Ming Hao, China Beat, October 20, 2010]

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Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai in 1954

Ying Qian, a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University said, The Mao era had infused in the population a love of cinema at a quite different register than that in the U.S. When I grew up in China’s 1980s, cinema wasn’t really seen as entertainment. Instead it was seen as a serious venue of artistic expression, and a way to think through large social problems. In recent years, the film industry in China has become more and more entertainment-oriented, but independent documentary continues the legacy of social cinema, staying connected to the society through a closer bond with historical reality."

Film in China in Recent Years

China has one of the last remaining Communist film industries. State studios still produce and widely distribute numerous patriotic, propaganda films, known among Chinese film makers as “main melody.” Communist-Party-endorsed films released in the early 2000s included “Mao Zedong in 1925"; “Silent Heroes”, about a couple's selfless struggle against the Kuomitang; “Law as Great as Heaven”, about an courageous policewoman; and “Touching 10,000 Households”, about a responsive government official who helped hundreds of ordinary citizens. .

A popular film, from the 1980s, “Long Live Youth”, directed by Huang Shuqi, was about a model high school student inspiring her classmates to better things. In the 1990s “Jia Yulu” by Wang Jixing was a favorite. It was a about a Communist official who devotes him himself to helping China despite having a serious illness.

Actions movies are very popular. “Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II” was the top-grossing film in China in 1994. In Canton, Theroux saw a poster for a movie called “Mister Legless”, in which the wheelchair-bound hero is showed blowing off the head of the man who maimed him. Rambo I, II, III and IV were very popular in China. Scalpers often appeared outside of theaters hawking scarce tickets.

Because of prohibitions, restrictions and meddling, Chinese films are often not very interesting to Chinese let alone an international audience. Chinese or Hong Kong movies that make their way to the West tend to be martial arts movies or art house films. Pornographic films — usually sold on the streets as DVDs — are known as yellow discs in China. See Sex

Movies in Villages in China


In the Mao era propaganda films were brought to rural villages by the equivalent of barefoot projectionists. Films, projectors, speakers and other equipment were loaded on to pack animals, such as donkeys, camels or horses, or on motorbikes or the backs of people and taken to rural areas where the films were shown outdoor on white canvas screen tied between trees, posts on storehouses or barns.

These days most villagers have access to DVDs and videos. Most small town and large villages have video rental shops or video rooms with scheduled video shows. Even people in small, remote villages without electricity, people can watch videos in a friend's house on a VCR or DVD player powered by a generator or car battery.

The most popular films are American blockbusters, Hong Kong kung fu films, horror flicks, pornography and action adventures with Sly Stalone, Arnold Swarzeneger or Jackie Chan. Critically-acclaimed films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Schindlers List” are usually regarded as too slow and boring.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, University of Washington; Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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