Wednesday 31 October 2012


This is the second in a six-part series looking at the history of Chinese cinema. Each post will focus on one of the "six generations" which compromise the chronological basis for most histories of Chinese filmmaking - here is the first part.


In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria in Northern China. The same year, the Kuomintang government implemented new censorship measures to assert government control over the ideological content of Chinese films.

Article 2 of the Film Inspection Law banned the screening of films that were deemed to "impugn the dignity of the Chinese race", "damage the culture of virtue and public order", "advocate superstitions" or otherwise violate KMT ideology.

Throughout the 'Nanjing Decade' (1928-37) Chiang Kai-shek sought to appease the Japanese forces, and filmmakers who tried to rouse audiences against the Japanese could find themselves at the sharp end of government censors.

Yet, by suppressing "superstitious" films, the KMT helped those who were trying to move Chinese cinema in a realist direction, away from kung fu films, ghost stories and recreations of traditional opera. This contributed to the first "golden age" of social realist cinema in China - the so-called New Cinema Movement of the 1930s - which is chronicled in Laikwan Pang's 'Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement, 1932-1937'.

In September 1931, the newly-founded Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists' Association drew up a list of their major goals, including ones that pertained to film - what Pang calls "the first left-wing collective strategic involvement in cinema":

"Besides writing film scripts for, and sending our members to different film companies, we should also prepare funding to produce our own films. At the moment, in order to escape government censorship, our scripts should continue to reveal (rather than criticise directly) social problems... We should also organise a Film Research Group, bringing in progressive performers and technicians in order to establish a solid ground for the forthcoming Chinese left-wing cinema movement."

Ever since the right-wing of the KMT had tried to exterminate the Communists in Shanghai in 1927, the CPC had retreated from urban centres into the countryside, remote from the rapidly changing heartlands of Chinese film. Recent scholarship therefore suggests that the connections between the left-wing cinema movement and the CPC were more tenuous than was previously supposed.

One of the factors behind the movement was the crisis that befell Chinese cinema at the beginning of the start of the 1930s - the late 1920s had seen a rapid growth in the number of studios and move theatres, because it was seen as a commercial growth centre and a safe bet for investors.

But the occupation of Manchuria and political unrest damaged the Chinese economy and dampened audience demand. Given the high start-up costs in the industry, struggling producers felt they had no choice but to adapt to changing public tastes, and to seek out new audiences.

In the illustrious output of the New Cinema Movement, these two imperatives were combined - social realist films catered to the more sober concerns of moviegoers, whilst bold technical and aesthetic innovations were pursued in order to elevate the status of cinema as a "serious" artform in its own right.

As was mentioned in the previous post, traditional aesthetic assumptions shaped the reception of film as a medium in China. In particular, early films were criticised for seeming to combine the worst in Chinese opera and painting: classical Chinese paintings were viewed on scrolls, a section at a time, to give the impression that the viewer was moving through a continuous landscape. In this sense, China had "moving" pictures before the advent of film (a subject explored in more detail here).


But films based on traditional Chinese stories and plays were inevitably discrete, lapsing forward through time between acts and scenes. Early Chinese film critics tended to judge them as if they were paintings, and disapproved of the lack of continuity.

The left-wing filmmakers who wanted to use cinema to highlight pressing social issues - organised crime in the cities, governmental and warlord corruption, poverty, gender inequality - saw in the groundbreaking work of Soviet cinema the means to address cultural conservatism in film criticism and to get inside the heads of the masses and move them to act together: montage.

Two key groups were formed in the early 1930s - the Film Critics Group and the CPC-organised Film Group. The latter was a short-lived grouping of the remnants of the CPC's urban agents and cultural insiders - Pang argues it was "more a reaction to, or a product of, the left-wing film movement, than it was its cause" -  that operated underground, aiming to infiltrate cinema with Party propaganda.

By contrast, the Film Critics Group intended to create a public forum for debating cinematic theory and technique. It was active into the 1940s, importing Soviet films such as the works of Eisenstein, and translating theoretical works including Film Technique and Film Acting by V. I. Pudovkin.

Here is a picture of its author.

Pudovkin was one of the pioneers of using montage in Bolshevik cinema to stir his audience and instill proletarian virtues in them. He once wrote: "The foundation of film art is editing." As in China, this technique had emerged in response to a more prosaic concern - namely, the shortage of film available in Russia.

Yet it facilitated extraordinary bursts of imagination and creativity. Here is how Jonathan Jones describes Pudovkin's method in his obituary:

"Pudovkin theorised that actors on screen do not really act; it's their context that moves us - something established, through montage, by their relationship to exterior objects... 'The Mother' (1926) is full of shots of the Russian landscape. At first these seem almost random; only in the final march on the prison does the full power of the imagery hit home. As the mother and comrades march towards the prison [to free her son, imprisoned for anti-Tsarist activities], it's spring and the snow is starting to melt. Cut to an immense frozen river, its surface cracking, splitting. This is a piece of Marxist poetry. The river is history, flowing unstoppably, breaking out of the carapace of ice under which it has been trapped through the long tsarist winter. It's awesome, scary."

Here is that final scene from 'The Mother' (the full film is available here):

In 1928, Pudovkin co-authored, with Eisenstein, 'A Statement on Sound'. As a theoretical response to the inauguration of "talkies" in Hollywood, it strikes a cautiously optimistic note; sound is a positive development, as long as it is used to heighten, rather than cut against, the montage.

Sound, "exactly corresponding with the movement on the screen", interrupts the flow of the montage because the camera must linger:

"To use sound in this way will destroy the culture of montage, for every adhesion of sound to a visual montage piece increases its inertia as a montage piece, and increases the independence of its meaning...operating in the first place not on the montage pieces, but on their juxtaposition."

However, if it is used in a contrapuntal way, in "distinct nonsychronisation with the visual images", then it promises to solve the problem of subtitles acting as a drag on the flow of images.

For all their theoretical sophistication, these Russian filmmakers were technologically behind developments in Hollywood - but the Chinese were even further behind. Pang writes:

"Only after the commercial movie industry had become stable and had succeeded in attracting a larger number of spectators did other interested parties discover the power of cinema and begin to experiment with the medium. In Europe and the Soviet Union, this change took place in the 1910s and 1920s, and many artists and intellectuals began to participate in the making of and the theorisation about cinema; in China, the left-wing progressive cinematic movement did not take place until the 1930s."

Twin Sisters (1933)
Still, the 1930s isn't regarded as the first "golden age" of Chinese cinema for nothing. When Japan bombed Shanghai in 1932 (destroying, amongst other things, seven movie theatres and eight studios), the tone of the New Cinema Movement became increasingly critical of the KMT's weakness, though they still had to attack proxies to circumvent the censors.

An example of this is Zheng Zhengqiu's Twin Sisters (1933), which is ostensibly a critique of injustice under warlord rule, not KMT rule, but would have rung true with its disillusioned audience. Even so, according to Pang, Zheng fell on the liberal/moderate end of the reformist cinema scale: his films end with "reconciliation, not confrontation."

In response to the leftists, the modernist writer Liu Na'ou published an article in April 1933 called 'Questions about the depth of expression in Chinese cinema', which triggered a highly-publicised "Hard-cinema" vs. "Soft-cinema" debate. Liu criticised early leftist films for being overly functional and utilitarian, for saturating the characters and story with political messages. He argued, by analogy, that film was a soft element, and hence better suited to "soft" subjects, principally arts and entertainment.

But the industry's bias for sentimentality only served to provoke the left into new ways of marketing their message; of making it accessible, moving and entertaining at the same time.

In 1934 two seminal pictures in Chinese film history were released: The Goddess and New Woman. Both films featured Ruan Lingyu in their lead role, and she quickly became the most internationally famous Chinese film actress.

Here is The Goddess in its entirety. Ruan gives an mesmerising performance as an urban single mother forced into prostitution and sucked into the mafia underworld - it's a wonderful example of how much of an inner life can be communicated through silent film.


After Chiang Kai-shek officially declared war against Japan - the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) - filmmakers had greater freedom to use their medium to issue stirring patriotic appeals; not merely exposing Japanese oppression, but inciting audiences to rise against it, and heroising those who did.

It must be remembered that the mercurial political dynamics of this whole period make entirely clean-cut chronological categories redundant - for example, the patriotic Children of Troubled Times was released in 1935, and first featured the song that would become the national anthem of the PRC - 'March of the Volunteers':

When the KMT government retreated to the inland city of Chongqing, much of the film industry went with it. Only Shanghai remained, surrounded on all sides by the Japanese forces - hence this period is referred to as the "Solitary Island" period in Chinese film.

No history of second-generation Chinese cinema would be complete without Yuan Muzhi's Street Angel (1937), which falls on the other end of the spectrum from the more moderate morality plays of directors such as Zheng (Yuan actually joined the CPC in 1940, though his sympathies are abundantly clear throughout the film).

Stylistically, we can observe from the credits sequence alone the progress Chinese film has made over the previous decade: a cacophony of effervescent neon lighting, rapid cuts of the summits of tall city buildings, and even slumbering lions (reminiscent of the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin).

Symbolising the polarisation of social classes, the camera pans vertically downwards from the top of a skyscraper to the street-level, and then seems to continue, to subterranean depths - we are dealing with the social world of the urban underclass, whom one of the tragic characters describes at the end as "ants". 

We can see a kaleidoscope of international modernist influences at play in the jaunty angles of the crowds, the symbolic cut-aways (e.g. to explosions in a battlefield when a breeze through a window disrupts a domestic scene), and hallmarks of German Expressionism in the rapid dissolves and high-contrast lighting.

"It has even been described as a Chinese forerunner of Italian neo-realism. A canonised leftist film, it combines Hollywood and Soviet film techniques with traditional Chinese narrative arts."

It is a tragicomic tale of people denied medical care and legal justice because of their financial circumstances - and who ultimately find that they cannot defeat the system.
"Are you dejected? No! - we have to straight up." That is the response of Ruan Lingyu's long-suffering toymaker to her barrage of misfortune in Sun Yu's Little Toys (1933).

Ruan plays a widow who moved to the city to avoid skirmishes between rival warlords, but she ends up losing her children too, and faces impoverishment because her traditional craft production can't compete with the flashier foreign imports. Yet, as indicated, it has a more defiantly upbeat ending than Street Angel - the audience discovers her son survived, and is doing well, and Ruan's character does not abandon hope.

And yet it was this sort of against-the-odds optimism that made the Communists deeply suspicious of Sun's output - they considered it a gloss on problems that had societal roots. Films like Little Toys were thus condemned as romantic poetry that failed to directly criticise the KMT.

Unfortunately, Ruan's life story did not have a happy ending either: after being hounded by the press for a string of failed relationships, she committed suicide aged only 24. Thousands of her fans lined the streets for her funeral and she became immortalised as an icon of youth. (In 1992 she was portrayed by Maggie Cheung in a film about her life, Centre Stage, which is available here.)

One of the most important films of the late 1940s is The Spring River Flows East (1947), an epic 190mins two-part melodrama made by the renowned director Cai Chusheng and the documentarian Zheng Junli.

Cai Chusheng (1906-68)

Here we find a married couple torn apart by the Sino-Japanese war, following widely diverging trajectories. The film is notably critical of those who collaborated with the Japanese and try to avoid facing justice in peacetime (as represented by the collaborationist factory manager who escapes imprisonment through having political connections) - therefore, whilst not directly attacking the KMT, the film leaves its themes open to this wider interpretation.

The last second generation director I want to draw attenton to is Fei Mu.

Fei Mu (1906-51)

One of the last films to be released before the founding of the PRC, Fei's Spring in a Small Town (1948) came first in 2005 in a vote by Hong Kong critics for the 100 greatest Chinese films.

Coming after the New Cinema and 'Solitary Island' periods, the film typical of a short-lived batch of so-called "heart films." It is focussed squarely on intimate personal relationships, with civil war politics relegated to the background. An unhappily married couple who have lost a fortune during the war wander around their delapidated family compound, avoiding each other. Spring is coming, but the husband is chilled by his wife's cold demeanour around him. A visitor arrives, a schoolfriend of the husband who turns out to have had a romance with the wife before the war, before she settled down.

It is differentiated from the earlier leftist films by form as much as content: gone are the swift-cut montages, replaced by lingering tracking shots - including a wonderful shot that passes through a hole in the courtyard wall to find the solitary husband; characters stare in different directions out of frame, but the viewer rarely gets to know what they are seeing. These are the hallmarks of neo-realism.

To reiterate the significance of China's second generation filmmakers, here is a quote from Alison W. Conner's article, 'Movie Justice: The Legal System in Pre-1949 China':

"These early films are of special interest because, unlike almost all post-1949 mainland Chinese movies, they were produced by commercial, not government-controlled, studios. Despite increased censorship and regulation after 1931, China's first and second generation of movie producers and screenwriters remained remarkably free... [National film censorship] committee members often defied Nationalist party directives and almost all movies were produced by commercial studios... Factional struggles within the government also reduced the effectiveness of their control."

Or, to quote from another essay:

"By the end of the 1940s, film was no longer seen as pure visual entertainment, nor as mere moral preaching; it was an art form in which the artists and the audience alike confronted and negotiated pressing social issues and imagined various solutions, be they revolutionary or conservative. It is this relatively free space of imagination and contestation that would be increasingly narrowed and eventually erased in the subsequent decades."

Only a few years later, Spring in a Small Town was banned by the new regime - the Communists had very different ideas about what purposes cinema should serve.

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