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Chinese Cinema: Then and After

April 1, 2012 | By

The phenomenal burgeoning of Chinese Cinema particularly in the last two decades has been a cause of intrigue amongst the cinephiles.

The dynamics of Chinese Cinema had unceasingly intrigued critics and scholars with renewed inquiry. A nation ripped off by subsequent political upsurges underwent cultural rehabilitation at various intervals with transformed impetus. One such major cultural movement occurred towards the turn of the last century ushering a new phase in the history of China.

The demonstration at the Tiananmen Square around 1917, advocated a new modernity which was liberal, reformist tainted with western connotations while being critical and subversive towards the stifling orthodoxity of China’s inherent Confucian Culture and traditional belief system. Moreover these liberals lamented for the nation’s precarious circumstances and held traditionalism as sole responsible for such a debacle. On the hindsight what is worth reckoning with is that in the process of propagating this westernized modernity which was urban centric concentrating mostly in the coastal cities, the remote pockets were precluded. These corners were repudiated perhaps to encounter modernity at the expense of the Japanese imperialist aggression.

Furthermore to reinforce this drive for national reconstruction few trends were ossified in various streams of art. For instance the traditional theatre form ‘xiqu’ was dismissed considering it to be pre-modern, therefore ‘anti-progressive’ , instead western operas were introduced. This shift was also witnessed in films which henceforth virulently developed enduring realist fervor over other forms of popular culture. The films of the 30s and over the 40s considerably substantiate its validity. Such a trend could aptly be considered as the responsiveness to the Hollywood imports but gradually acquired a new dimension both at the thematic and formative realm.

Often the central tenet of these films would be to explore the contemporaneous concerning issues such as rampant unemployment, hurdles confronted by the natives in a city, interminable exploitations at the hands of the warlords, youth’s overwhelming vigor for revolution and of the patriotism, etc. Not to mention that these themes replenished by reality were augmented with overlaps of melodramatic elements. That is to say as theorized by Vivian Shen in ‘The Origins of Left-wing Cinema in China 1932-1937’, that,

‘given China’s social reality of the 1930s, the leftwing filmmakers, like Peter Brook’s Dickens, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Faulkner, Hugo, Balzac and James, “needed the model of reality made significant and interpretable furnished by theatricality and particularly by what we have discussed as melodrama”.’

He further continued to argue that these left-wing films often oscillated between being melodramatic and realistic or are rather a confluence of both the elements with political connotations.

chinese cinemaThe left-wingers took recourse to a technique of filmmaking which would employ real location shooting, capturing in real time, naturalistic characterization depicting the common masses and weaving it with the undercurrent of political uncertainties. All these coalesced to expose the socio political criticism, therefore reinstating the realist tendency. Moreover a closer scrutiny of these films reveals the profundity of the newfangled Western modernity. The characters’ behaviorism and conducts ratifies the insurmountable influences. At this juncture one is reminded of the sequence in Crossroads, 1937, where amongst several job seekers thronging in the city, the male protagonist gets through at the printing press. The preparations undertaken by him deserves a mention. The manner he dresses up in a formal suit underlines the inundating acquiescence of the foreign culture in the cities effacing the indigenous ethnic ones. However these socialist realist films were replete with an overriding sense of sacrifice, loss and unaccomplishment for the salvation of the nation. It is a sacrifice of individuality, selfhood, and private space making it subservient to collectivity. Vivid in almost every films of the time. For example the six determined road builders in Sun Yu’s Big Road 1935, are documented as an unified whole consecrated and motivated to build the road in view to espouse the national defiance. Minimal scopes are delivered to develop their individual space thereby valorizing the collective force. The inscription of the female characters too is worth consideration. In Daybreak 1933 by Sun Yu, an innocent girl arrives at the city with dreams of greener pastures but eventually under adverse circumstances is compelled to sacrifices her chastity and life to benefit the revolution.

Although the trend lingered but such an impulse of radicalism inevitably harks back to the string of thoughts I began with. That is, this professed model of modernity was to a great extent insured by the urban elites tendentially insulating the traditional yokel’s aesthetics from its ambit. Post 1949 in view to reconcile the erstwhile fragmented nation the communist regime enabled the insertion of the folklores into the mainstream. Moreover sources divulge that besides being a political ploy it was Mao Zedong’s personal kink that facilitated in subsuming the folk culture. As recalled by the captain of Mao Zedong’s bodyguards,

“Later, getting in touch with him for a long time, I found that he liked all Chinese folk literature and arts, [but] he was not interested in foreign literature and arts very much.”

During the initial years under communism, China was shunned from the celebrated inflow of the foreign aesthetics aiming to propagate the ethos of homogeneity. But it was these years of restriction and recluse that left ambivalent and conflicting thoughts among the youths evincing an impending uproar within a decade or so. Nevertheless the restoration of traditionalism as a culture for national unification was married with severe political overtones. These were revived but with a compromise as it were less an art for art sake and more a ploy for disseminating their political ideologies.

From 1950 onwards until the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution 1966-76, multiple propagandist films flooded the Chinese market. ‘Model Revolutionary Plays’ in particular were in vogue and continued both during and after the Cultural Revolution. Though the intrinsic form of xiqu was dying out for reasons whatsoever but its extended forms like ‘jingju’ and ‘kungu’ emerged to be more mass appealing. Films like ‘The Red Detachment of a Woman, 1971 is a convincing example in this context. Crafted in the conventional Soviet style ballet, employing high and low key lighting for heightened impact, this cinematic rendition of the high art foregrounded the ubiquitous class struggle relegating the discourses of gender imbalances. Themes of obliterating gender identities pervaded in almost every revolutionary model ballets of the time such as White Haired Girl, 1950, The Red Lantern, etc. These cinematic inscriptions of the revised popular narratives recurrently underscored the metamorphosis of an innocent girl into a potential comrade. Concurrently the regime was patronizing other forms like the shadow plays, puppetry, traditional paintings, as a measure to engraft the marginalized. Although, these were later jettisoned during the Cultural Revolution to deracinate the traditional feudal remnants of the society; thereby engendering discordance within the domineering creed. As I have discussed earlier, initially the traditionalism was invigorated to consolidate their entity but later these were suppressed considering as radical. However the indelible promulgation of the politicized images of the working class evading the typical conventions of traditional costume drama such as the use of the exorbitant costumes with painted faces, the revolutionary model ballets invariably evolved as perhaps the only accepted genre of the time. But the motifs of transforming the underprivileged by the communists, later was put under scrutiny in the narratives of the eighties. What then seemed to have been an act of deliverance was eventually questioned in the films of the Fifth Generation filmmakers. They were conscientiously reviewing and reasserting the concurrent dominant policies. Unleashed from the decade’s coercion, the economic reformation under Xiaoping fostered the revitalization of the Chinese film industry. Consequently in the wake of such relative liberalization the narratives grew more discursive insinuating the fissures of the ideological apparatuses. The preceding ceremonial acceptances of the socialist representations were now contested. Since as argued by Yingzin Zhang:

‘Socialist Cinema was, after all, developed as a political weapon and the filmmakers status as state employees fixed them squarely in the propaganda machinery (metaphorically as bolts and nuts) and made their dream of artistic freedom ultimately nothing but a dream.’

Thus the idea of a modern nation state concretized by the Communists was now viewed through the prism of skepticism. The avant-gardes debriefed the core of the dominant political thrust thereby creating an ‘ideological vacuum’. A vacuum which was tendentially replaced by remythification and reinstating the erstwhile competing concept of the ‘Great Chinese Culture.’ Holding this thought, I here intend to ponder on the several allusive references punctuating the narratives of the eighties.

The film Yellow Earth made in 1984 by Chen Kaige in conjunction with Zhang Yimou unfurls the journey of a soldier from Yan’an to the distant poverty stricken northern regions in search of folk songs. These were compiled to rekindle the true Chinese spirit amongst the troops while confronting the intruders. The film is a perfect confluence of instances of ritualism sutured with Yan’an legacy. In the course the film unveils the impertinence and inapplicability of the Communist ideologies. It is indeed ironical to perceive that the habitations in the vicinity of the Yellow River often referred to as the cradle of Chinese Civilization is untouched by the new tide of change. The film obtrusively establishes an inextricable link between Communism, the great land and the peasants. The dilapidated condition of the Yellow land and the peasants’ dour faith in the laws of nature projected through various rituals particularly the last sequence where peasants succumb to the Gods to combat the excruciating draught; the film unmasks the failed promises of conciliating the greater land under a single unified national identity.

chinese-cinemaThese subtle references to the Communist’s unfulfilled project resonated in every new wave texts. Red Sorghum, 1987, by Zhang Yimou is another persuasive example of the trend. The film scrupulously offers euphoric portrayals of instinctual, bizarre often eccentric flow of events. Through such rustic representation of various rituals waning every sophistications and moral dimensions, the film evokes a sense of questioning towards the Communist’s indoctrinations vis-à-vis the origins of Chinese Culture. There are moments of ambiguity in the tale narrated which defiantly underlines the suggested ambivalence about the inception of the Chinese Culture. For instance the narrator mentions about the indiscriminate growth of the wild sorghum which symbolically entails a perennial search for the roots. Further he incurs a speculative tone while talking about his grandfather’s identity. However this sense of culture emanating from the ruins makes the film more unique. The film harbors an overriding tendency of returning to the basics; therefore we see a euphoric display of male bodies redefining virility through the series of instinctual activities impregnating the narratives. It is indeed a glorification and poeticization of the wild primitiveness eschewed from the contemporary socio-political resonances. Moreover the story revolves around the winery which plays a significant role in the process of unification. The wine is symbolic of the collective force and coherence of the private with the public. As theorized by Yingzin Zhang:

‘In the film’s two praying scenes, drinking is not done as a social event, but virtually performed as a serious rituals, thus acquiring a mythic dimension which outweighs any isolated individualistic aspects of configuration.’

It is through such acts of primitive rituals engulfed by mysticism that the film revisits and rediscovers the intrinsic national culture subverting the propagated ideologies. Besides, the era was marked by both stylistic and narrative breakthrough. Here the locus of interest shifted to the individuals subjugating the erstwhile ethos of collectivity. This is evidently true for Yellow Earth where enlightened by the wave of reformations on the lives of women in South; the girl aspires to join the army. But finally we see her drowning in the iconic Yellow River denied of the pleasures of the ‘changes’ guaranteed by the Communists. Unlike the socialist films where the comrades become the agent of salvation here the status of the comrade is subtly denounced and diminuted to a mere witness to the degeneration of the common man’s trust.

Nevertheless such alternative approaches soon became the epicenter of criticism for their commercial equations with the foreign lands. There were further criticisms regarding the ‘Chinese-ness’ of the Fifth Generation films. It was a point of debate that to garner international attentions the flip sides of the society were at display. It is indeed dialectical as these filmmakers born out of a relatively radical and liberal socio-cultural milieu they projected an image which was both essentially indigenous yet unseen. That is, as advocated by Berenice Reynand:
‘The dual nature of Chinese Cinema underlines this contradiction: produced by and for Chinese, it also belongs to an international film history through which China and the West have constructed exotic spectacles for each other’.

Therefore given the premise at this juncture, one needs to count that the eventual spur of the historical costume dramas re-invoking the idea of the Great Chinese Empire in films like Raise the Red Lantern 1990, The Hero 2002, etc., were precisely a gesture of rebuilding an alternative imaginary nationalism bypassing the Communist culture. Such approaches indeed appeased the West facilitating several transnational productions but often the alluring exotic grandeur superceded other ideological aspects. A further interesting bent perceived was the resurgent articulation of the female psychologies. For example, the film Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou set in 1920s, centers on the lives of four mistresses of the Chen dynasty. It is a vivid exploration of the vulnerability and inevitability of the concubines. But in the course of the newly build national narrative, the gender discourses inadvertently fades away. That is, the gender question to a great extent is diluted in the insuperable spectacle of nationalism.

The nineties witnessed the transition from State instilled Communism to State endorsed Capitalism. The impetuous socio economic and political restructuring accentuated both cross border equations and transgressional sentiments. While the Fifth Generation filmmakers continued with their enchanted ethnographic explorations, the era paved grounds for the dawn of the ‘New Urban Cinema’. Bereft of Deng’s pragmatic ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, the Sixth Generation directors plunged into themes of inexhaustible shared distraught-ness and directionless-ness. These ‘social outcasts’ emerging from the fringes are neither ingrained in the globalised urban fabric nor integrated into traditionalism. Therefore the mythic historicity is deliberately expunged unlike their predecessors. Instead of revisiting the undefined mythic past these underground directors inhabit the inexorable present. The repressive patriarchy of the yesteryears is either misplaced and debilitated or at best kept obscured in their texts. As further expounded by Yingzin Zhang;

‘Regardless of their underground or peripheral modes of production, insistence on personal perspective and commitment to a new vision of ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’ characterize the sixth generation directors. To a great extent, they conscientiously distinguish themselves from their fifth generation predecessors. Whereas the latter are associated with rural landscape, traditional culture, ethnic spectacle, grand epic, historical reflection, allegorical framework, communal focus, and depths of emotion, the former are sided with an urban milieu, modern sensitivity, a narcissistic tendency, initiation tales, documentary effects, uncertain situation, individualistic perception and precarious moods’.

chinese-cinema1These filmmakers explored the baleful impact of the capitalist world by exuding the ‘unrelatedness’ of the urban youths in particular. Instead of the exotic landscapes the nitty-gritty of the cityscapes are showcased. Jia Zhang-ke, one of the pivotal figures among the Sixth Generation directors, is often considered by many critics as a ‘thorough pessimist’. His films are radically incongruous to the homogenized aesthetics of the Fifth Generation filmmakers. On the contrary it is a true expression of the ‘forsaken youth’s’ marginal urban existences (dushi bianyuanren). For instance in Pickpocket 1997, at the onset we learn that Xiao Wu, the protagonist is aimlessly wandering in the city surviving on pocketing in the new global capitalist economy. Denied of any lucrative opportunities unlike his peers, he forms a racket of pickpockets which emphasizes his marginal existence. Such a character etched out of the edges is quintessentially a breed of the globalised economy. Yet Xiao Wu is an outsider to both his home and the city. He is symbolic of those forsaken children who denied of economic stability took recourse to illicit and illegal activities. As Xiaoping Lin quotes Meisner in context of the new social reality catapulted by the ‘sham capitalism’, ‘ “ The post-Maoist Chinese bourgeoisie… is a class that is in large measure composed of Communist officials, their relatives and their friends who were politically well positioned to take advantages of the new opportunities the market offered”. Meanwhile the underprivileged Other desperately resorts to illegal means in order to prosper’

Furthermore Xiao Wu’s home is kept obscured in the film, thus unveiling their sheer powerlessness, until the sudden exit of the bar girl Mei Mei from his life. But soon he is renounced by his family causing him to regain his status of being a social outcast in the post socialist economy. Thus the film conjures up an elegiac tone reprehending the global capitalism for mass destruction.

Such destruction too, is graphically enunciated in the films through demolishing the old buildings. One of the seminal aspects of the Sixth Generation films is the use of space. As I have mentioned, that here the alluring landscapes are replaced by the ruins of the demolished buildings and dingy narrow alleys where the city becomes the site of transition. Still Life 2006, another notable work by Zhang-ke chronicles a theme of search. The wife (Shen Hong) is in search of her husband and a husband (Sanming) searching for his long lost family. Both the parallel strands are interlocked by the backdrop of the demolishing squads around Yangtze signifying the unflinching economic reformations.

However these independent filmmakers inaugurated a new visual language. Compromised conditions of filmmaking cushioned with non-fictional approaches employing unprofessional actors in real time and location with bleak satirical rhetoric make the Sixth Generation films a breather amidst the outlandish nationalist narratives. Indeed the transnational ventures have succeeded in assuaging the foreign audiences breaking every commercial grounds. But the era of globalization has dilated the latitude of horizontal modes of productions inviting more independent filmmakers with private players. Unlike the preceding underground films, the latter is backed up by proper finances legitimizing for global circulations. Drifted from the themes of individual directionless-ness the latter emerged to be more evocative of the concerning social issues.

Nevertheless the phenomenal burgeoning of Chinese Cinema particularly in the last two decades has been a cause of intrigue amongst the cinephiles. The era ushered two subsequent major film movements which is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the world cinema. From the root searching ideology the films shifted their focus to the pervading disillusionment cemented by the global market economy. The Sixth Generation’s neo realist attempts of capturing the everyday life’s stark reality was also reflected in the parallel documentary movement of the nineties. Of which Wu Wenguang and Wang Bing are some notable contributors. Furthermore the advent of the digital technology with the era of globalization reassured the attempts of the amateurs who popularly constitute the d-generation filmmakers. Hence this stupendous evolution of the Chinese cinema over the decades addressing critical issues coupled with the flourishing transnational imaginaries have indeed succeeded in traversing a host of myriad cultures and mindscapes.


Manas Ghosh, ‘Theoririzing New Asian Cinema: Problems of the Historicist Approach’, Journal of the Moving Image, ed., Moinak Biswas, Kolkata, Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, Vol. 7, 2008, p.122.

Vivian Shen, ‘The Melodramatic and the Realistic’, The Origins of Left-wing Cinema in China, 1932-37, New York, Routledge, 2005,p.142.

Li Yinqiao, Zouxiang shentan de Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong walking to a Shrine), Beijing, Zhonghai Wenhua Chuban Gongsi, 1989,p.64.

Yingjin Zhang, ‘Cinema and the nation-state in the PRC, 1949-78’, Chinese National Cinema, New York, Routledge, 2006, p.224.

Yingjin Zhang, ‘Ideology of the body in Red Sorghum, National allegory, National Roots, and Third Cinema’, Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, United States of America, Indiana University Press, 1994, p.33-34.

Berenice Reynaud, ‘Chinese Cinema’, The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, ed., John Hill, Pamela Church Gibson, Oxford University Press, 1998, p.545.

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Michelle Baitali Bhowmik is Lecturer in Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Rani Birla Girls’ College. She finished her MA in the Department of Film Studies , Jadavpur University and now teaches film and media.
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