The Roles of Movies


A Century of Chinese Cinema

China produced its first film in 1905, 10 years after the Lumière brothers projected a
moving picture to a paying audience for the first time. In the intervening 100 years,
at least 7,000 movies have been produced in China, some deeply affecting people’s
lives and outlooks. At one time, movie viewing was the most common form of
entertainment for Chinese people, with 30 billion cinema visits a year. But in recent
years, numbers have dwindled. Efforts are being made to develop the film industry,
with more international cooperation on projects and new operational mechanisms that
cater to a more open market. After 100 years of filmmaking in China, it’s still
only the opening credits for this growing industry.


SCREEN WARRIOR: The 2002 blockbuster Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, is produced with joint domestic and foreign investment

“Finally we turned losses into gains! Now I don’t have to be sorry for this century-old cinema,” Wang Zhanyou said with a sigh of relief.

Wang, the 12th manager in the long history of Beijing’s Daguanlou Cinema, decided to temporarily close the historic building in June for a thorough renovation. The facelift was partly intended for the centennial celebration of Chinese movies, but also to encourage recent box office success.

Under Wang’s management, the cinema had begun to make a profit again, drawing the crowds that had long disappeared.

Daguanlou Cinema, which means “Grand Shadow Play,” has a history as long as Chinese cinema itself. It opened in 1903 and was renovated to show movies in 1906. The cinema’s first manager, Ren Qingtai, was a cutting-edge photographer who studied in Japan and invested in the production of China’s first movie, Conquering Jun Mountain.

Ren had the sensibility of an artist as well as an entrepreneur. He found that 10 years after being introduced, foreign short films had lost their original attraction to Chinese audiences. He turned his eyes to Beijing opera, the most popular art form at the time, and invited Tan Xinpei, then known as the “King of Beijing Opera,” to perform in Conquering Jun Mountain. It proved to be a great success.

Different from the films of the Lumière brothers, which featured scenes from daily life, early Chinese movies involved traditional art. Later, incorporating traditional culture into contemporary movies became common practice for many Chinese filmmakers.

Cinema’s Teenage Years

COMMEMORATIVE STILL: An old movie poster shows a scene from a film about the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, once a popular subject for Chinese filmmakers

Unfortunately, a big fire destroyed the film stock for Conquering Jun Mountain in 1909. Around this time, China began to be recognized as the world’s largest cinema market, with its 400 million population.

In Shanghai, American-Russian businessman Benjamin Brodsky established Asia Film Co., China’s first film company. With the capital and facilities provided by Asia Film Co., Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu, two figureheads in early Chinese cinema, directed The Difficult Couple in 1913. It is considered the first Chinese fiction film.

At the time, women were not allowed to star alongside men in plays and movies. But less than one year later, Yan Shanshan turned China’s arts community upside down by performing in a male-dominated film, playing the role of a maid in the Hong Kong movie Chuang-tzu Tests His Wife. Brodsky later took this film to the United States, making it the first Chinese movie played in a foreign country.

In 1923, after 10 years of development, Chinese cinema still had not found its own niche. Most movies followed a Western style, and how to better engage Chinese audiences became a common problem for people working in the industry.

That year, however, Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan directed Orphan Rescues His Grandfather, a milestone in early Chinese cinema. The movie brought audiences to tears. It tells the story of how a rich man’s grandson saved his grandfather and corrected an injustice committed against his mother--a typically Chinese theme. The movie drew attention to the educational role of movies, alongside a dramatic story. It tried to show ethical conflicts that reflected social reality, reflecting traditional culture while catering to the distinct tastes of the Chinese audience.

STARRY EYES: Movie star Gong Li draws attention on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival

“When I was young, my craze for movie stars was no less than my granddaughter now. I once went to see the movie Orphan Rescues His Grandfather six times, successively,” said Li Zier. The 88-year-old grandmother from Shanghai still treasures her movie pictures and press clippings of leading actress Wang Hanlun. The influence of such movie stars had already leapt beyond the screen when Li was young, to radio, posters and advertisements in the streets.

Aside from movie stars, directors also played a vital role in achieving box office success. The movie Twin Sisters, directed by Zheng Zhengqiu, and Song of the Fishermen and Spring River Flows East, directed by Zheng’s student Cai Chusheng, all had name recognition and became popular.

In 1935, Song of the Fishermen received the Honor Award at the Moscow Film Festival. It was the first Chinese film to win an international award.

Starting in the 1930s, Chinese cinema entered an era of heroes. A large number of cultural elites began to engage themselves in the movie industry, helping to form cultural and artistic trends. Their style, which looked squarely at society and the desperate conditions of daily life, are connected with the films of Italian neorealism born 10 years later. French film historian Georges Sadoul held that neorealism came from Chinese films in the 1930s.

In addition to exploring their own cultural and traditional resources, Chinese filmmakers tried to learn foreign techniques and theories. They were inspired most by Hollywood techniques and the Russian theory of montage. Directors such as Wu Yonggang combined German Expressionism and French Avant-Garde with a typical Chinese style. The Goddess, the first film Wu directed with an emphasis on close-ups, was highly acclaimed as the peak of the silent film era.

In 1937, the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression broke out, disrupting the natural development of Chinese cinema. Patriotism and national salvation became the main cinematic themes. The theme song of the patriotic film Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm, March of the Volunteers, became the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Coming of Age

UNRUFFLED FEATHERS: Chinese director Gu Changwei (left) poses for a picture with other awardees at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. Gu’s film, Peacock, wins the Jury Grand Prize

A soldier at death’s door suddenly awakens for one last look at the red flag, shouting to his fellow soldiers, “Hurry! You withdraw, I’ll cover the force…”--a typical scene in domestic films produced after the New China was founded in 1949. Almost all middle-aged Chinese moviegoers still clearly remember the details and lines from these films.

From 1949 to 1966, the vitality of the new People’s Republic and enthusiasm of the people were projected on the screen, with Chinese cinema reflecting the events of the time. Filmmakers working in the state-owned studios produced new films and created a number of classic stories that are culturally and artistically rich. These films provided people with spiritual power in a material-deficient period. Even today, the old films can still move audience members who saw them decades ago.

“It’s all because of you that I become who I am,” said scientist Xiu Ruijuan to Qin Yi, a movie star Xiu liked. When Xiu was 12, her father took her to see a movie in which Qin acted as a heroine in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. The heroine deeply affected little Xiu and influenced her life.

In 1962, the Hundred Flowers Awards were established by China’s Popular Cinema magazine. The awards represent the opinion of the general film-going public as they are selected by ordinary voters. The Red Detachment of Women won the prizes of best feature film, best director, best actress and best supporting actor at the first awards ceremony.

Growing Mature

MOVIE ROMANCE: The film Sky Lovers, a love story set in rural China, wins an award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 2002 Tokyo International Film Festival

When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the problem facing Chinese filmmakers was how to rebuild culture in the wake of a purge.

Romance on Lushan Mountain, produced in 1980, was described in an Agence France-Presse article at the time as being representative of a new trend in Chinese fashion and moviemaking. In fact, this movie was not a great breakthrough, but in the eyes of China’s culturally starved audiences, Romance on Lushan Mountain was a feast. The heroine in the movie changed her clothes dozens of times on the high mountain.

“The young women in Shanghai at that time were very fashion-conscious. Some even brought their tailors to the cinema and asked the tailors to turn out clothes exactly like the heroine’s,” said director Huang Zumo, still proud of his movie’s influence.

Apart from clothing, Romance touched the heart of the people by way of a little kiss. Dressed in bathing suits, the young female character, with a wild look in her eyes, said to the young man, “You are such a fool, but so adorable,” and pressed her lips slightly onto his face. It was breaking news at the time, for while kissing had been prevalent in the movies of the 1930s and 1940s, after 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, kissing became extinct from the screen. Romance brought it back.

Before Romance, the movie Reverberations of Life, released in 1979, had tried to break the taboo of kissing in movies after the Cultural Revolution. However, the director didn’t dare to let the kiss be fully exposed to the audience. As the two young characters are about to kiss each other goodbye, the director deliberately arranged a scenario in which the mother of the young woman suddenly opens the door, putting an abrupt end to any kissing. By doing this, the director also avoided criticism.

A mild-mannered screen kiss had a huge influence on the history of movies in China. Romance formed the basis of a typical love scenario in Chinese films: when the boyfriend was hesitant to kiss, the common line for the woman to say was, “You’re a fool.” But when the man was to kiss the woman, the woman would tell him, “You’re so bad.”

SOLID GOLD: Wang Chao, who directs Night and Day, wins the Best Director Award at the 2004 Nantes Three Continents Festival in France

In 1986, Hibiscus Town, directed by Xie Jin, set a new record for the amount of kissing in a Chinese movie, with a total length of four minutes and 23 seconds. Although the movie created a fuss, in the end it was tolerated by a society that had become more open.

As a representative of the older generation of Chinese filmmakers, Xie Jin reached the peak of his career in the 1980s. Many times he created a sensation in China by his epic movies, which depicted arduous events in the country’s long history and attracted at least 170 million people to cinema.

“It is not an easy job to comment on Xie Jin and his works, as he has already become an important part of the history of the aesthetic perception of contemporary Chinese citizens,” said Yu Qiuyu, a renowned Chinese art critic and former president of the Shanghai Theater Academy.

However, when Xie Jin was in the full flush of success, a new generation of Chinese filmmakers were contemplating a stylistic revolution that would break the fixed formats of Chinese movies, including what they called the “Xie Jin format.” One of the cradles of this development was the Beijing Film Academy. “Our teachers encouraged us to go beyond [this format],” recalled Chen Kaige. Chen, along with other graduates from the academy in 1982, finally brought Chinese cinema to international attention. They are later known as China’s fifth generation filmmakers.

In 1984, the 32-year-old Chen released his maiden movie, Yellow Earth, which tells the story of a communist soldier sent to the countryside to gather folk songs for the revolution. The movie managed to convey the depths of traditional Chinese culture, and the characters deliberately spoke as little as possible. If audiences could endure the silence, heaviness and grittiness of the movie for more than an hour, they would be thrilled by the wildness of the waist-drum rhythm performed by hundreds of young men at the end. Since that film, the waist-drum beating scenario has become a core symbol of today’s China. Years later, this scenario appeared during the opening ceremony of the 11th Asian Games in Beijing in 1990, as well as on other “very Chinese” occasions.

In advance of the success of Yellow Earth, cinematographer Zhang Yimou screened an anti-Japanese war movie called One and Eight, which the fifth generation filmmakers hoped would be a complete departure from other anti-Japanese movies. “We must be different, totally different!” Zhang would remind his colleagues.

In fact, directors such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou placed more emphasis on mise-en-scene and audiovisual effects, sparing no effort in creating verisimilitude and trying to avoid common faults of many Chinese movies, such as politicization, phoniness and lack of depth.

After a rebellious childhood, the fifth generation began to mature. The directors included in this group have since received such prestigious international awards such as the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and are still active today in the movie industry.

For a long time, Chinese filmmakers didn’t have to worry about financial details thanks to the system of state-owned studios. They didn’t have to consider the box office while creating their art, which gave them more time to work. However, starting in the 1990s, even the least profit-driven film producer would not risk investing in a project that was unlikely to recover costs. And the most dedicated filmmakers could not continue to work if their movies were not attracting audiences.

In recent years, reform of moviemaking in China has deepened, showing the determination of government officials to build a market-oriented industry. State-owned studios and film companies are no longer the sole moviemaking and distribution agencies in the country. A number of independent companies are beginning to produce films.

“Now, the biggest difference between our company and those state-owned companies is that we don’t have their vast resources and dozens of years of history. But everything else is the same,” said Wang Zhongjun, President of Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment Co., a private film company that has turned out many box office hits.

Globalized Industry

“In 1997, Titanic was at the top of the box office, and my film was second, although its receipts were 10 times less than Titanic’s!” said Peter Loehr, an American film producer. In 1997, with an investment of a mere 3 million yuan ($370,000), he produced the film Spicy Love Soup, depicting urban life and love in contemporary China. To Loehr’s great satisfaction, his film earned 30 million yuan ($3.7 million).

Loehr is general manager of Imar Films (China), the first independent film production company to break the dominance of state-owned studios. In the late 1990s, independent film production companies had to be attached to a state-owned company to run a business in China. Imar Films formed a joint venture with Xi’an Film Studio. Spicy Love Soup was said to be of mixed descent, as the investors and producers were all from foreign countries. But most Chinese viewers believed it was a domestic movie, because most of the film’s shooting crew were from China.

Alongside globalization and China’s opening-up policy, the number of jointly produced movies has continued to rise, with the names of more and more foreign companies appearing on the big screen.

With the increase of foreign investment in China, some observers have begun to worry that domestic movies will face great challenges and threats from other countries, especially Hollywood blockbusters. But many think otherwise, believing that joint productions offer advantages to both sides and are conducive to the development of the Chinese movie industry. As a matter of fact, in recent years, the majority of well-received Chinese movies are ones jointly produced by Chinese and foreign companies, or by Chinese mainland and Hong Kong or Taiwan companies. Films by famous directors Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang have also received foreign backing.

Most of the money for Big Shot’s Funeral, directed by Feng Xiaogang and released in 2001, came from Columbia Pictures. It was reported that investment in this movie was $3 million--no big deal for Hollywood, but more than 10 times the average domestic investment in a Chinese film.

A transnational production mode determined the creation of Big Shot’s Funeral: different from most domestic movies, this one was completely market-oriented, from cost assessment to production, from actors to marketing. Accordingly, box office surpassed 100 million yuan ($12.33 million), an unbelievable figure for most Chinese filmmakers.

Wang Zhongjun said he views the new openness in China’s movie industry as the right conditions for future breakthroughs. “A truly open movie industry is destined to be good,” he noted.

Milestones in Chinese Cinematic History

HELLO VICTORY: Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine wins the Palme d’Or Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the only time a Chinese film has received top trophy

1905 China’s first film, Conquering Jun Mountain, was made.

1909 Asia Film Co., the first Chinese film studio, was launched in Shanghai.

1913 The Difficult Couple, the first-ever Chinese fiction film, was released.

1913 The first Hong Kong film, Chuang-tzu Tests His Wife, was released and became the first Chinese film shown overseas.

1913 Yan Shanshan, China’s first film actress, appeared on-screen.

1922 Star Film and Theatre School, the first acting school in China, was established.

1925 Xie Caizhen, China’s first female director, released The Sad Swan.

1926 China produced its first animated film, Mess in the Paint House.

1928 China’s first film series, the 18-part The Burning of Red Lotus Temple, was released.

1934 China’s first talking film, Plunder of Peach and Plum, was produced.

CAST FOR SUCCESS: Hu Die is the most popular Chinese actress in the 1930s

1935 Song of the Fishermen won China’s first international film award at the Moscow Film Festival.

1950 China had its first international award-winning actress, Shi Lianxing.

1956 The Kite, a Sino-French joint production, was finished, becoming the first film co-produced with a foreign country.

1962 China’s first 3D film, The Adventure of a Magician, was released.

1983 China’s fifth generation filmmakers yielded their first masterpiece, One and Eight.

1988 Red Sorghum won the Golden Bear Prize for best picture at the Berlin Film Festival, becoming China’s first prizewinning film at a top-level international festival.

1989 Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film A City of Sadness won the Gold Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

CHINESE EPIC: Red Sorghum is the first Chinese prizewinning film at a top-level international festival

1993 Farewell My Concubine won the Palme d’Or Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the first-ever top film award in Chinese film history.

1993 The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television introduced reform in the film distribution section.

1993 The Shanghai International Film Festival, China’s first competitive top-level world film festival, was launched.

2002 The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television began promoting the cinema-line system nationwide, whereby filmmakers or distributors base their distribution and screening network on contracts or exchanges of assets.

2003 Six private enterprises obtained filmmaking licenses, breaking up monopoly by state-owned enterprises in China’s film industry.

2005 Legislation of the China Motion Picture Industry Promotion Law was accelerated.