China Cinema Part I

By | September 9, 2021

According to, China is a country located in eastern Asia. The Dianying, or “electric shadows”, appeared in China in 1896: a documentary Lumière nell’intermezzo of a variety show in Shanghai. They arrived in Beijing later, in 1902. The country opened up as a large market to Western businessmen: a Spaniard set up the first theater in Shanghai in 1908, other exhibitors were a Portuguese and an Italian, the films screened first French then American. The first Chinese film, a documentary on the Peking Opera, dates back to 1905; to 1913 the first feature film, the medium- length film An unhappy couple by the pioneers Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqui. In the 1920s, cinema proliferated in Shanghai, which was its capital, in an exaggerated and chaotic way: new companies were born at the rate of two a month, but bankruptcies were also commonplace. Foreign genres and actors were frantically imitated; in serial productions, whether historical or fantastic, eroticism, supernatural and terror prevailed. Japanese aggression (1931) stimulated patriotism, while the politicization of intellectuals in the League of Left Writers led by Lu Xun transformed cinema into an instrument of civil denunciation and progressive struggle. Chinese neorealism, born in this decade at the time of the Kuomintang, precedes the Italian one and is not inferior to it in terms of artistic results: it is a great chapter in the history of cinema which has remained almost ignored in the West and which deserves to be rediscovered. The desperate search for a job, the humiliation of women, the crises and enthusiasms of youth, the moral degradation brought by foreigners and favored by a corrupt regime, the resistance to the Japanese and then to the Kuomintang: these are the themes developed by the directors and by Chinese scriptwriters before the liberation. In fifteen years of hard battle in a troubled China, the voice of progressive filmmakers was always present. Chinese historians divide this fifteen years into three periods: from 1933 to 1937, which was the moment of impact with reality, of strong social denunciations, of the revelation of combative screenwriters (Xia Yan, Tian Han, Hong Shen), of directors of talent (Cai Chusheng, Yuan Muzhi) and films such as Rushing Stream, The Silkworm of Spring, The Fisherman’s Song, The Disgrace of Graduation, Crossroads, Road Angels, New Women; from 1938 to 1945, in which themes of anti-Japanese armed resistance predominated (The Great Wall of Shi Dongshan, Hurricane at the border of Ying Yunwei, Sons and daughters of China by Shen Xiling); from 1946 to 1949, in which a progressive front with the directors Cai Chusheng, Yang Hansheng, Shi Dongshan and the actors Bai Yang and Zhao Dan was recreated, but this time in a direct anti-Kuomintang function, and the most complete works came out: The Spring river descends towards the East, Eight thousand “li” of clouds and moon, The light of a thousand hearths, The crow and the sparrows, the latter finished after the liberation of Shanghai.

Historians also give birth to the cinema of the People’s Republic from that set in Yenan by the VIII Army (with the first camera donated by J. Ivens in the name of American progressives) and organized during the war by Yuan Muzhi. It is a cinema born from the militant documentary. His first successes – Daughters of China awarded at Karlovy Vary in 1950, The White Haired Girl, Liang Shanbo, in color, and Zhu Yingtaifostered an exciting diffusion of the film show, but made the problem of quality choices more serious every year. and ideological. Evoking the revolutionary path, the films of the new China achieved excellent results, although often following the same celebratory patterns. In the 1950s, the Soviet model was mainly present, and not always with acceptable effects. Among the best films: The letter with the feathers, The New Year’s sacrifice, The Mother, New Story of an Old Soldier, The Tempest (the latter two due to veteran directors). Cai Chusheng, president of the Union of Cinematographers, also returned to directing in the 1960s, but the Cultural Revolution soon exploded, which blocked and condemned the addresses of the older generation: the same production of feature films with a subject was interrupted for several years. A film like The Demarcation Line (1964) also anticipated in the title the hard ideological struggle that opposed the old intellectual progressivism, considered “aristocratic and individualist” in supporting an art “of the whole people”, the class line that wanted a cinema “at the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat “. Not even the figure of the director was saved, resized in favor of the “collective”, and he relied on the subjects already elaborated by the theater, especially the Peking Opera. Thus, ballet films were released, such as The Red Female Detachment, arrived at the Venice Film Festival in 1971. Then they made old films in a new perspective. Finally, subjects written directly for the cinema but influenced by the “struggle between the two lines” (revolutionary and revisionist) were admitted. Between 1974 and 1976, production stabilized on six or seven annual films: some of them also notable, such as Yu Yanfu’s I pioneers (1975), presented at the 1978 Pesaro Film Festival, on the same theme of the battle for oil in the Northeast treated in a chapter of How Yukong Removed the Mountains (1973-75), the eleven-hour documentary by J. Ivens.

China Cinema 1