A Brief guide to Chinese cinema

James Oliver 30 November 2021

The brilliance of Chinese film often doesn't get enough credit, especially in the West. Here's a rundown of some of the best features to come out of the country

What's been the most successful film at the worldwide box-office this year? Granted, cinemas have lost some ground to the plague but we've still had some heavy hitters. James Bond has raked in a lot of change, as has Dune. And the Marvel logo remains a license to print money.

But none of them have taken as much as The Battle at Lake Changjin, a film that's made over $800 Million so far, all the more impressive since it's basically only played in one country so far. And that country is China.

When we hear about China in the news these days, the stories are mostly about politics and economics. Less is said about Chinese cinema which is a shame because there's a lot to say: it's now the biggest market for movies. What's more, you can learn a lot about the country from the films that get made there, films that often give us a better idea about the people of this remarkable land than we can get from television pundits.

So as The Battle at Lake Changjin gets released in this country, we thought we'd offer a brief guide to cinematic China.

The Early Days

China is an ancient country (as they so often point out, they'd already had centuries of civilisation while we were still prancing about in woad) but for our purposes, we'll be starting in 1949. That's when the communists under Mao Tse-tung bested Chang Kai-shek's nationalists. Film was not a priority for the reds, and many filmmakers fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

And if the 1950s were bad, there was a great leap backwards in the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Chairman Mao decided he didn't like the arts and film production (and much else) ground to a halt.

Intriguingly, Mao's wife Jiang Qing was a former actress who sometimes appeared in movies. For her, the cultural revolution was personal. Now with significant power, she used it to purge directors who had slighted her and actresses who'd beaten her to parts she wanted. That's show business....

A statue of Chairman Mao—the Chinese leader grounded much film production in the country during his reign

A Fresh Start

 

Mao only died in 1976 and it took a while for film production to get going again. When it did, though, the results were impressive indeed: a new generation of filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige wowed the world in the 1980s with films like Red Sorghum and Yellow Earth—films which emphasised visual beauty and passionate emotion.

Among the best known films of this era are Raise the Red Lantern (directed by Zhang) from 1992—a study of an imperial concubine, gorgeously shot with the most striking colours; and Chen's Farewell My Concubine from 1993, a story which tackled some of the hardships of the cultural revolution. It was joint winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes (with The Piano). So far, it's been the only Chinese film to take the top prize. That will change.

Going Global

While Chinese filmmakers were making beautiful, stately art-house films during the 1980s, their cousins in British-controlled Hong Kong favoured more populist fare—wham-bang Chopsocky or stylish shoot-em-ups. When the UK handed Hong Kong back to Beijing, the Chinese film industry got a huge shot in the arm.

Bigger and more commercial films started to be made—things like Hero, a martial arts movie directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Hong Kong superstar Jet Li, or House of Flying Daggers (Zhang again) which cast singer and actor Andy Lau.

 

And the old Hong Kong heroes remained as popular as ever. After 1997, Jackie Chan went to Hollywood to try his luck but he was never as popular there as he was in China. So he went home and remains one of the biggest box-office draws in the world, even though few of his films make it beyond Chinese borders these days.

Fun fact! Jackie Chan is currently trying to join the Communist party! But they won't let him because he was a bit of a playboy in his younger days.

Artistic Ambition

 

Chinese filmmakers have produced some of the best films of the last ten years or so, although they are a touch on the long side. If you have a spare three hours, you ought to check out the heart-rending family drama So Long, My Son, which explores how the political intertwines with the personal, and does so with great sensitivity.

And with that under your belt, you can move on to An Elephant Sitting Still, which follows intersecting lives in the aftermath of a tragedy. It is audacious, compelling and very nearly four hours long. That's not too demanding for a work of genius, is it?

The Other Side of Prosperity

The glittering cityscape of Shanghai

The official story is that China is booming, prosperity is rising and the citizens are seeing their living standards rise. Some films, however, tell a different story.

Jia Zhang-ke is one of China's most acclaimed modern filmmakers but he got into a spot of hot water over his film A Touch of Sin. It was banned for showing the consequences of the economic boom: the corruption and crime that flourishes throughout the country.

There's crime in The Wild Goose Lake as well, although that didn't get banned; it's a thriller—the old plot about a crook trying to escape his former life (and failing dismally)—but shot at street level, it shows a very different country than the skyscrapers and penthouses the government likes to emphasise.

 

The most lacerating of these films, though, is Blind Shaft, one of the most cynical films ever made (in China or otherwise); it concerns coal miners with a dastardly plot but there are striking parallels to free market capitalism (of the sort enthusiastically embraced by the Communist [sic] party). Unsurprisingly, it too was placed on the naughty step.

Wu-hoo!

 

Fans of Hong Kong cinema might remember Jacky Wu: a young, second string kung fu performer of the 1990s. They might not realise he's now just about the biggest star in the whole wide world.

He's gone back to his original name, Wu Jing, but he still specialises in action pictures. His biggest hit was Wolf Warrior 2 (which made over a billion dollars in China alone), which saw him as a former special forces operative battling mercenaries in Africa, with action scenes that show Hollywood how it should be done.

He also showed up in the sci-fi film The Wandering Earth, which is rubbish, but which also broke the billion buck barrier. And he's back in The Battle at Lake Changjin, a film on course to exceed even his biggest hits. Unlike Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, he's not made any move on Hollywood. Why would he? It would be a step down.

Message movies

But wait! Let's look again at Wu Jing's career. The Battle at Lake Changjin is set during one of the crucial battles of the Korean war, where Chinese forces engaged the Americans and it doesn't take the Americans' side. In fact, it's as rah-rah patriotic as any US action flick of the 1980s.

Wolf Warrior 2 goes even further. Nothing—no political speech, no academic treatise, nothing—better explains how modern China sees itself than this film; the title character protects orphans and defeats a (symbolically) American bad guy who “dissed” China. At the end, a Chinese flag even seems to acquire divine power, stopping the shooting in a war zone.

The Western Kow-Tow

 

Because the Chinese market is so large, it will come as no surprise that Hollywood has taken an interest. It's led to co-productions (like the dismal The Great Wall or the live-action remake of Mulan) but it's also led to compromises.

China has strict censorship laws and isn't going to allow anything into their country that violates them. The studios have responded by rolling over and doing what they're told: anything contentious is painlessly removed in case it offends Beijing.

Will Hollywood grow a spine? Who knows: certainly friction between the US and China is growing. But the future is a question for Sinologists; everyone else has to take things as they are. And right now, at least, Chinese film is some of the most exciting there is.

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