A Century of Chinese Cinema
China produced its
first film in 1905, 10 years after the Lumière brothers projected
moving picture to a paying audience for the first time. In the intervening
at least 7,000 movies have been produced in China, some deeply affecting
lives and outlooks. At one time, movie viewing was the most common
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
cater to a more open market. After 100 years of filmmaking in China,
only the opening credits for this growing industry.
By TANG YUANKAI
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
Cinema’s Teenage Years
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.
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
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.
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.”
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”
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.
“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
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
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,
1934 China’s first
talking film, Plunder of Peach and Plum, was produced.
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
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.
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
1993 The State Administration
of Radio, Film and Television introduced reform in the film
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
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.