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East Asian Cinema
By David Carter
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2007 David Carter
All rights reserved.
THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
CINEMA IN CHINA: A LITTLE HISTORY
In 1895 China signed the first of a series of treaties which led to its division between several foreign powers. It is against this historical background that one must view the first recorded screening of a film in China: on August 11, 1896, when a foreign projectionist showed a film by the Lumière brothers, only a year after they had patented their 'cinématographe' machine. It was shown as part of a variety performance. With the suppression of the Boxer rebellion against foreign influence in 1900 by the combined forces of Britain, the USA, France, Japan and Russia, the Qing dynasty was in rapid decline, with many secret societies set up by disaffected Chinese, both at home and abroad, working to hasten its demise. This did not deter Liu Zhushan from bringing a projector and films to Beijing in 1903 and essentially inaugurating China's film industry. In the year 1905, when the traditional Confucian examination system that governed access to the imperial government was being dismantled, the first truly Chinese film was made by the Feng Tai Photography Shop. In November of that year they filmed a performance of Dingjun Mountain by the Beijing Opera. For the next decade the film production companies were foreign-owned, and the focus of the new industry was clearly shifting to Shanghai.
SHANGHAI AS CENTRE
After the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911 by revolution it took a few years for the domestic film industry to be set up in earnest. The first independent Chinese screenplay, The Difficult Couple, was filmed in Shanghai in 1913, directed by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan. It then became difficult to obtain supplies of film stock because of the advent of the First World War. When stocks became available again Zhang Shichuan set up the first Chinese-owned film production company in Shanghai in 1916. In the 1920s the technical crews in Shanghai were very much trained by technicians from America, and American influence continued throughout the 20s and 30s. The first truly successful home-grown Chinese feature-length film was Yan Ruisheng, which was released in 1921, the year the Chinese Communist party was established, and it immediately spawned imitations. In 1923 the Nationalists under Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek established links with the Soviet Communist International (the Comintern), hoping, amongst other things, to gain help in warding off Japanese expansionism. After Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, there was a power struggle in the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT), with Chiang Kai-shek favouring a capitalist military dictatorship. During this period the film industry was mainly dominated by martial arts films and romantic dramas. Almost none of these films have survived. From 1926 on, Chiang attempted to put an end to the growing Communist influence, and in 1927 his troops massacred about 5,000 Communists in Shanghai, with the help of the backing of Shanghai bankers, foreigners and armed gangsters. By the middle of 1928 he had established a national government in Beijing, but only dominated about half the country, the rest of which was run by local warlords. After the massacre of 1927 the Communists eventually came to support the views of Mao Zedong who advocated rural-based revolt. In 1929 the Kuomintang decided to crack down on the film industry and introduced censorship. By 1930 the Communists had managed to build up an army of about 40,000 men, and Chiang's attempts to exterminate them failed. The Communists continued to expand their territory. This doubtless gave encouragement to many left-wing minded workers in the film industry. In 1930 Luo Mingyou set up the Linhua Company, which became a centre for leftist film production, less committed to commercial success than provoking thought. The year 1931, when Japan annexed Manchuria, yielded several landmarks in the Chinese cinema: a league of left-wing dramatists was established, including several filmmakers who had connections with the Communist party; the Mingxing Company produced the first sound film, Singsong Girl Red Peony, and the first feature film was made using film stock produced entirely in China. When the Japanese bombed Shanghai in 1932, on the pretext of countering Communist demonstrations, the Communists declared war on them but the Kuomintang sought appeasement. The bombing disrupted film production for some time in Shanghai. With the Japanese attempting to extend their territorial control in the north in 1933, more films began to appear with leftist slants, notably Cheng Bugao's Spring Silkworms. With Chiang's fifth campaign of large-scale extermination, which began in October of that year, the Communists started to suffer some heavy losses, and by October 1934 they were facing possible defeat. At this juncture Mao decided to march north to a Communist stronghold in Shaanxi. There was in fact not one 'Long March' but several that year, with various Communist armies in the south making their way to Shaanxi. Major films produced in this period with a left -wing message were Sun-yu's Big Road, Wu Yonggang's The Goddess, and Cai Chusheng's Song of the Fishermen. The latter film was the first to win an international award for China at the Moscow Film Festival in 1935. Due to the emergence of several talented directors at this time it is often referred to as the first 'Golden Period' of Chinese cinema. The first true film stars in the Chinese cinema also appeared in the same decade, such as Hu Die, Zhou Zuan, Jin Yan and Ruan Lingyu. Two other major films in this period were Street Angel and Crossroads(both released in 1937). In 1936 the Communists and the Kuomintang had formed an anti -Japanese alliance, but this did little to halt the Japanese who, in 1937, launched an all-out invasion of China, taking over Shanghai and culminating at the end of the year in the infamous Nanjing Massacre, still a bitter memory for all Chinese. The Chinese film industry was dispersed, and all production companies except Xinhua closed down, with some members following the Kuomintang in their retreat eastward to Chongqing, others fleeing to Hong Kong, and some joining the Communists in Yan'an. A few actually stayed in Shanghai in the 'safe haven' of the foreign concessions, and there were a number who agreed to work with the Japanese. When the Second World War began in Europe in 1939, the Japanese set up their own film industry in Manchuria and took over the Shanghai film industry. They produced films for both their own soldiers and for the local Chinese population. The Communist army also obtained its first 35mm camera and started to make its own documentaries. During the war, in 1942, Mao laid down his prescription for a truly Communist art, in 'Talks on Literature and Art at the Yan'an Forum', emphasising the necessity of subordinating art to political ideals. This was to become the guiding principle in film production with the advent of the People's Republic.
THE SECOND GOLDEN AGE
When the war against Japan ended in 1945, civil war broke out in China between the Communists and the Kuomintang. In 1946 progressive filmmakers were now able to return to Shanghai, taking over Lianhua again. They were determined to resist the power of the Kuomintang, and set up the new Kunlun studio as their base. Many of the films produced at that time revealed disillusionment with the dominance by Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists, classic examples being Myriads of Lights (1948), San Mao(1949) and Crows and Sparrows(1949). When the Russians retreated from Manchuria in 1947, the Communists took over control of the area and set up the Northeast Film Studio at Xingshan. In the same year a famous war epic, A Spring River Flows East, was produced in Shanghai, directed by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli. This is a three-hour-long film in two parts, depicting the problems of ordinary Chinese people during the war with Japan. Audiences were able to identify with the social and political issues in the film, and it became very popular. Another important production company formed by left-wing filmmakers in Shanghai was the Wenhua Film Company, which was responsible for several recognized masterpieces. Particularly famous is Springtime in a Small Town(1948), directed by Fei Mu. There was a remake in 2002 by the Fifth Generation Chinese director Tian ZhuangZhuang.
By 1948 the Communists had recruited so many Kuomintang soldiers that they equalled them in both numbers and supplies, and after the Kuomintang had been defeated in three battles, hundreds of thousands of their soldiers defected to the Communists. On 1 October 1949, in Beijing, Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to what was then still known internationally as the island of Formosa (later Taiwan). He took the entire gold reserves of the country and what remained of the air force and navy. There were altogether about two million refugees on the island. To ensure its security and prevent an attack by the mainland forces, President Truman ordered a US naval blockade of the island. With the establishment of the People's Republic, the Northeast Film Studio moved to Changchun and started to make its first feature film, Bridge, and a film industry was set up on Taiwan, based around some documentary filmmakers who retreated there from the mainland. After the establishment of the People's Republic, the government regarded film as an important art form for the masses and as a means of propaganda. In 1950 any American films remaining in China were withdrawn from circulation, and there was a crackdown against counter-revolutionaries in 1951. Based on the Soviet model, the government set up the first Five Year Plan in 1953, which was generally successful in raising production in most areas of industry. It also nationalised the film industry and took steps to extend film distribution beyond the major cities, using mobile projection teams.
Writers, artists and filmmakers were subject to strict ideological control during this period, following the guidelines drawn up by Mao in the Yan'an manifesto. In response to the easing of some controls during the early years of the Five Year Plan, the writer Hu Feng criticised the use of Marxist values in judging creative work. He was accused of being employed by the Kuomintang, and a nationwide witchhunt began for similar writers. Mao and some other influential figures felt, however, that party control had been successful enough to allow some critical voices to surface. He famously proposed 'letting a hundred flowers bloom' in the arts and 'a hundred schools of thought contend' in the sciences. His ideas were officially recognised in the spring of 1957. This so -called 'Hundred Flowers Campaign' led to some liberalisation in literature and the arts and, in the film industry, to the production of satirical comedies and the publication of articles, which openly criticised some previous films for failing to have popular appeal. Many writers took advantage of the new freedoms to criticise the Communist monopoly and its abuses of power. The Communist party soon realised that some restraint was urgently needed and a campaign against right-thinkers was launched. Within six months about 300,000 intellectuals had been identified as right-wing, dismissed from their jobs, and in many cases imprisoned and even sent to labour camps. In the film world satires were now banned and Communist orthodoxy prevailed.
THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD AND THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
There followed a period of disastrous economic experiments known as 'The Great Leap Forward', introduced by Mao. There were also calamitous droughts and floods, with an enormous ensuing famine, in which, at a conservative estimate, 30 million Chinese starved to death, and perhaps as many as 60 million. By the late 1950s relations with the Soviet Union were in decline. Mao did not approve of the USSR's policy of peaceful coexistence with the USA, and the USSR went back on its promise to provide China with a prototype atomic bomb. In 1960 the Russians removed all their foreign experts working in China. In the arts the general anti -Soviet feeling led to a rejection of the so-called 'Soviet Socialist Realism' and in the cinema essentially more Chinese ideals were to be pursued: the 'combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism'. Film production was enormously increased, but the resulting products were mainly rather crude revolutionary documentaries. In some of the more subtle films the pure, ideal proletarian hero was replaced by more ambiguous central characters.
Mao had been losing influence and power within the party, and in 1966 he launched what was in effect another kind of 'Great Leap Forward'. Again he wanted to create new socialist structures overnight. It became known as 'The Cultural Revolution'. He also started a personality cult around himself, with the aid of Lin Biao, the Minister of Defence and head of the People's Liberation Army, who had also published the collection of Mao's sayings known as 'The Little Red Book'. With the aid of his wife Jiang Qing, a former Shanghai B-grade film star, Mao launched a purge of the arts. The production of feature films stopped altogether, and Jiang Qing, the ex-starlet, used the opportunity to settle a lot of old scores. Many important figures in the film industry were sent to work in the countryside or imprisoned, and many died or committed suicide.
Some measure of political stability was restored by 1968 through the interventions of the People's Liberation Army, but only after it conducted its own reign of terror. By 1970 the production of feature films was at least able to start up again, but they were mainly recordings of stage productions of Jiang Qing's model revolutionary operas, notably Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy (1970). Another notable film from this period is the ballet version of the revolutionary opera The Red Detachment of Women (1970).
In 1973 Chinese politics remained very factional. There were the moderates, with Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, recently restored to influence, and on the other side the radical Maoists, led by Jiang Qing. Although it was under strict censorship at this time, the regular production of feature films started again. One such film of the period was Bright Sunny Skies.
By 1976 several significant members of the old guard had died, Zhou Enlai in January and Mao in September, and Mao's successor Hua Guofeng had Jiang Qing's 'Gang of Four' arrested in October. Film production fell for a while but was soon able to return to a level comparable to that before the Cultural Revolution. By the middle of 1977 Deng Xiaoping had come to power and was appointed vice-premier, vice-chairman of the Party and Chief of Staff of the People's Liberation Army. In 1978 the famous Democracy Wall was set up, enabling some measure at least of expression of opinion. Some criticism of the Cultural Revolution was now possible in films. The Beijing Film Academy reopened and took on a whole new class of directors, later to be known as the 'Fifth Generation'.
THE FIFTH GENERATION
In 1979, after rehabilitating some important people from the period before the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party decided that there was a limit to the extent of freedom of speech they could allow and closed down the Democracy Wall in December. At this time the film industry started to make more innovative films, using techniques such as zooms and flashbacks which had been rare in Chinese films. Notable in this respect are the films Troubled Laughter (1979) and Xiao Hua (1980). In 1980 Hua Guofeng was replaced by Zhao Ziyang who had won favour for carrying through effective economic reforms in Sichuan. A notable film which appeared in this year was The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, which criticised the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958. In 1981 the film Bitter Love, which provided negative criticism not only about the past but also about present conditions, was banned. 1982 marks a significant development, for it was in that year that the so-called 'Fifth Generation' of filmmakers graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. These were basically the first new generation of filmmakers to produce films since the Cultural Revolution and they made a conscious decision to reject traditional methods of storytelling, opting instead for freer, more liberal approaches.
In 1983 the government started a campaign against what they called 'spiritual pollution', and under this policy any films containing too much violence or vulgar behaviour were banned. The Xian Film Studio came to prominence at this time, with its director, Wu Tianming, pursuing a policy of subsidising new experimental films through income from deliberately commercial films. Many of the 'Fifth Generation' filmmakers thrived there, and the success of the enterprise made Xian a successful rival to the Shanghai Film Studio.
With Deng Xiao Ping at the helm China now began to make significant economic progress. The so-called 'Responsibility System' introduced into rural areas in 1984 allowed agricultural households and factories to sell any goods in excess of quota on the open market. And in coastal areas special economic areas were set up, most notably at Zhuhai, near Macau, Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, and at Shantou and Xiamen, close to the Taiwan Strait. Economic growth was soon to rise dramatically. In this same year the first of the 'Fifth Generation' films was produced, One and Eight, but it was banned from being exported. In the following year however a film was released that, though ignored within China, was to attain great success internationally. This was Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth. In 1988 the film Red Sorghum, directed by Zhang Yimou, was not only the first 'Fifth Generation' film to be successful in China, but it also won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.
Excerpted from East Asian Cinema by David Carter. Copyright © 2007 David Carter. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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