Movies and Film: Two Chinas, Two Cinemas

Two Chinas, Two Cinemas

The People's Republic of China and Taiwan have been at military and cultural loggerheads since 1949, when the Kuomintang Nationalist party split with the Communist Party leadership and fled to the island with thousands of supporters. As a result, the history of Chinese cinema looks very different when viewed through the contrasting lenses of mainland and insular politics. The two Chinas have produced two cinemas, entirely distinct in their ideological orientation, style, and international success.

Second Take

The two oldest surviving Chinese narrative films, Romance of a Fruit Peddler and the three-reel melodrama Love's Labours, were both made in 1922, making it difficult to know very much about all but the last eight or so years of the nation's silent cinema.

Before 1949, of course, there was only one China and only one Chinese cinema (though its history is written very differently by mainland and insular partisans).

Historians agree that the era's films were almost exclusively sentimental, feel-good comedies and dramas that made few significant contributions to world cinema. A notable exception is The Peach Girl (1931), a classic tale of a peasant girl and the son of a rich landowner that starred Ruan Lingyu in one of her most acclaimed performances. (This is one of those "must-rent" classics of world cinema.)

It isn't until the '30s that Chinese film gets interesting with a series of left-leaning, populist motion pictures that combine tales of familial drama with in-your-face critiques of the large-scale economic and social forces affecting the lives of Chinese families. If you want to get a taste for this genre, check out Tsai Chu-sheng's well-known The Song of the Fishermen (1934), an intensive look at the daily strains of labor upon the Chinese citizenry.

Director's Cut

The great Chinese silent star Ruan Lingyu was sometimes referred to as the Greta Garbo of China. Perhaps the most idolized movie star in pre-World War II Asia, she was featured in almost 30 films before 1935. Tragically, Ruan Lingyu succumbed to the pressures of fame and committed suicide in 1935—at the tender age of 25.

Movies on the Mainland

The Communist regime that stayed put on the mainland under Mao Tse-tung has only occasionally allowed artistically innovative or politically challenging films to be released. There is probably no government on the planet that's invested more time, energy, and bureaucracy into the regulation of film content. The results of this profound and longstanding propagandism will be immediately obvious if you take a look at some of the so-called revolutionary realist films from the late '40s and early '50s, such as The Bridge (1949), one of the first feature-length examples of the genre.

At certain very brief moments in its history, China has adopted a more liberal approach to the arts, allowing more politically subversive films to be released and discussed in the nation's media. During the Hundred Flowers Campaign in the '50s, Mao even allowed filmmakers to criticize those working in his regime (though never himself). Lu Ban's comedies, for example (Before the New Director Arrives, 1956; The Unfinished Comedy, 1957) took sharp jabs at the inefficiencies of the Communist bureaucracy. For the most part, though, film content remained tightly regulated and constrained by governmental censors. Only recently has there been a significant new direction in Chinese cinema.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Revolutionary realism was the term coined by Mao Tse-tung to describe the peasant worker-oriented films that dominated Chinese cinema throughout the post-1949 era.

Top of the Fifth

Beginning in the mid-'80s, a coalition of young Chinese filmmakers emerged who immediately began to reshape the language of the cinema to create a new way of representing the nation's troubled past and envisioning its alternative futures. With their uncompromising willingness to introduce new filming techniques and innovative cinematography as well as often opaque dialogue and obscure story lines, these artists produced a series of pictures over the next 15 years that their critics pejoratively dubbed "exploratory films."

The filmmakers themselves, though, brashly referred to their own loose group of Beijing Film Academy graduates as the "Fifth Generation," a label that distinguished them respectfully from the less experimental and more humanist style of older but still active directors like Huang Jianzhong and Hu Binliu. The 20-odd well-known directors of the Fifth Generation have brought the first wide-scale international recognition to Chinese film during the past 15 years (though their work has often failed commercially at home). There are five pictures in particular that stand out as powerful legacies of the Fifth Generation. Here they are:

  • One and Eight (1984). Directed by Zhang Junzhao. The hallmark film of the Fifth Generation, this story of a Communist-imprisoned chain-gang was immediately controversial when it was released. Though heavily reworked by government censors, the film's bold innovations in the use of camera angles and space can still be appreciated; these and other techniques marked a decisive break with the humanist realism of the previous decade.
  • Yellow Earth (1984). Directed by Chen Kaige. One of the greatest Chinese films ever made, Yellow Earth combines an austere visual style with deceptively simple symbolism reflecting on the political and ideological constraints of 1980s China.
  • The Last Day of Winter (1986). Directed by Wu Ziniu. This bleak but hopeful drama, set in a prison labor camp in the far northwestern reaches of China, is a masterful example of Fifth Generation filmmaking techniques.
  • The Black Cannon Incident (1985). Directed by Huang Jianxin. One of the few comedies to emerge from the Fifth Generation directors, The Black Cannon Incident crafts a sardonically humorous look at the Chinese bureaucracy and its tedious inefficiency.
  • Ju Dou (1990). Directed by Zhang Yimou. Made in the immediate wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, this moving story of a young woman (the incomparable actress Gong Li) who rebels against a traditional agrarian patriarchy won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, scored a nomination for best foreign film at the Academy Awards, and was shown widely in Europe and America.

Hou's Who in Recent Taiwanese Film

Tony Leung starring in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's New Cinema masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989).

Tony Leung starring in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's New Cinema masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989).

Like Communist China, which has carefully regulated the content of practically all motion pictures produced and released on the mainland, the Taiwanese government has kept a censorious eye on its filmmakers and their productions, and the government has its own agency responsible for overseeing its cinema. During the past 20 years, though, the island's heavily Westernized film industry has given rise to a thriving culture of directors, screenwriters, actors, and other film artists generally referred to under the rubric "New Cinema."

The most prominent among the New Cinema directors is Hou Hsiao-hsien, the undisputed master of Taiwanese film. In a series of films released in the mid-'80s—A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), Daughter of the Nile (1987), and others—Hou became the first Taiwanese director to achieve international recognition. A City of Sadness (1989), a historical epic that treats the emergence of Taiwan after World War II through the eyes of a single family, is a modern classic of Asian cinema that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Though harder to find than Hou's films at your local video store, the work of other Taiwanese New Cinema directors offers rare treats for those of you scanning the Pacific Rim for films worth seeing. Three films to keep in mind are Edward Yang's On the Beach (1983) and Brighter Summer Day (1991) as well as Ch'en K'un-Hou's Growing Up (1983).

Director's Cut

Taiwanese New Cinema is characterized by a determined focus on Taiwan as an aspiring nation in its own right; at the same time, the nationalism of the New Cinema directors is tempered by the training many of them received at American film schools such as USC and NYU, which has allowed them to incorporate foreign techniques and perspectives into their celluloid meditations on Taiwan's fate since the split with the mainland in 1949.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at