The Growth of Chinese Cinema

By “Author Unknown”

No matter its target audience, cinema is always reflective of the local culture and historical/current social context of the area it’s produced in. One excellent example of this is the continual change, growth and development experienced by Chinese cinema over the past century. From its origins during the early 1900s to its modern incarnation as a collective body of three distinct “schools” (Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), Chinese cinema has undergone quite a transformation. However, it has always acted as a direct reflection of Chinese culture and the social conditions that were present at the time the film was produced.

Film was first introduced to the Chinese mainland in 1896 as a very basic, fundamentally “Western” form of art. Since early cinema’s subjects were nearly always based on distinctly western characters or stories (such as plays by Shakespeare or even popular fiction novels like the “Hardy Boys” series), cinema released during this time retained a “foreign” feel that could not connect to a mainstream Chinese audience.

However, after roughly two decades, Chinese interest in film began to peak; especially among private industrialists hoping to use film-making as a profitable enterprise. By 1917, the Department of Motion Pictures was founded by the “Commercial Press.” Within four years, it had completed production on the first solely Chinese-produced feature-length film. In 1923, construction was completed on China’s very first film studio. By 1932, the Communist Party formally launched the MingXing Film Company in Shanghai. For the next two decades, film’s presence in China slowly developed and expanded its appeal.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) and established China as a communist state. This marked a turning point in Chinese cinema. Films frequently depicted well-fed, jovial, and cheering peasants praising the successes of the Communist Revolution and celebrating their new, plentiful lives. These films were entirely based on the films of China’s Soviet counterparts or fellow Communists. Thus, themes of revolutionary fervor, class struggle and the illumination of Communism in positive light were consistent themes. Films from countries other than the Soviet Union were banned completely from the Chinese market. This had the unpredicted benefit of allowing for a greater flow of nationally produced Chinese films. 

Beginning with the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese film-makers including people such as Chen Kaige (who directed Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (who has produced movies such as Hero, Not One Less, To Live, and Raise the Red Lantern to name a few), mainland Chinese cinema began to appear on the world map. As a collective group, the “Fifth Generation” tried to explore new and unconventional filmmaking techniques, at once modernizing/internationalizing Chinese cinema. Because of their efforts and subsequent success at achieving their goals, many filmmakers were both disapproved of by the Chinese government and received only lukewarm appreciation from local Chinese audiences. More recently, a new “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers has sprung up. This group of directors includes names like Zhang Yuan (Beijing Bastards), Zhang Yang (Shower), and Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycles, The Days). These directors have not only showed an pointed interest in a broad range of subjects including prostitution, the lives of migrant workers (Blind Shaft), the gap between the rich and the poor, the loss of culture via China’s modernization (Shower), etc. but have also further internationalized the Chinese film industry. Interestingly, many of these directors have avoided working with the restrictive State-owned studios, choosing instead to release “Indie” films that allow them to pursue their full creative drive.

While the Mainland’s cinematic industry has only recently achieved recognition, Hong Kong has had a long history associated with film. Hong Kong’s film industry initially started up around ten years after the introduction of film in China. Development really took off between the 1930s and 40s for three basics reasons: filmmakers migrated to Hong Kong to circumvent the KMT government’s policy of producing only Mandarin Chinese films.  Film became a means of resisting Japanese aggression and financial resources for production were readily accessible in Hong Kong. After this spike in development, Cantonese film became even more prevalent due to the rise of movie stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan through the efforts of directors like Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai. Most Hong Kong films were relatively low-budget, but a few of them managed to tackle the deeper themes of westernization and nationalism. More recently, Hong Kong cinema has acquired its own individual style: a hybrid of the popular entertainment-driven cinema that originally drove the growth of the Cantonese film industry combined with more art-house, substantial fare. Despite all these good efforts, however, growth has recently slowed and may even be on a decline.

The final division which comprises Chinese cinema is Taiwanese film. Because of the split between the KMT and the Communists during the Chinese revolution, Taiwan’s film industry grew in a different direction than Hong Kong or mainland Chinese cinema. Beginning in World War II, the occupying Japanese forces founded the “Taiwan Motion Picture Association.” This later combined with another studio, the “Taipei News Picture Association,” resulting in the Taiwan Film Studio. When the KMT and Communists broke ranks in 1949, a significant number of directors, producers, and organizations moved to Taiwan – establishing a firm foundation for future growth. Over the next few decades, the film industry grew constantly, reaching a peak during the 1970s. Recently however, the industry has declined due to increasing government restrictions and rising production costs. Nonetheless, several Taiwanese directors have gained international recognition, including Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution ) and Hou Shiao-hsien. While Taiwanese directors have pursued a wide variety of topics, some frequent themes of Taiwanese film are feminist perspectives regarding the adversity women face and the beauty of country life.

As the three schools of Chinese cinema have started to gain international critical acclaim, they have also begun working together, blending together various styles to form a new unique “Chinese” feel. One such example is the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for which a Taiwanese director used Mainland and Cantonese actors.

Mainland Chinese, Cantonese, and Taiwanese films all continue to maintain their own respective subtleties, all the while expanding in terms of artistic growth. As a whole, and despite regional differences, Chinese cinema has established itself as a consistent source of good films.

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