The Chinese Film Festival Retrospective

The Metro Film Magazine No. 124/125

by Russell McGilton (wds 1500)

Though Melbournians caught the plethora of films at the Melbourne International Film Festival in the past month, most were not probably aware of the Chinese Film Festival that screened earlier in June.

Spanning 60 years of Chinese history (1939-1999), The Chinese Film Festival gave audiences a unique glimpse into China’s collective film memory.

The anit-Japanese May Fourth Movement, Communist Propaganda and to the more liberalised and modernised films of the Fifth Generation Film Movement of the eighties (Yellow Earth, Raise the Red Lantern) are just some of the elements which influenced and shaped a once robust and proliferate film history.

In China’s halcyon days the Shanghai film industry was referred to as the ‘Hollywood of the East’ producing as many as 40 films per year for a predominantly urban audiencei. However, with the ascension of the Communist Party, the Shanghai film industry was shut down and moved to Beijing where directors, educated in the Soviet-line of social realism, produced films designed to ‘overturn centuries of feudal tradition and to pave the way for a huge programme of reforms’ii. Cinemas sprung up like a rash across the rural countryside to educate the masses, thus transforming not only film but the cultural landscape of Chinaiii.

The line-up of films at the festival reflects such dogmatism and often they are cramped in didactic terms, A New Years Sacrifice (Hu Sang, 1956) being the most obsequious. Adapted from a famous May Fourth story the film tells a simple fable of Dickensian proportions. Set in the 1920s in the mountainous Zhejiang Province, a widow is sold off by relatives but escapes to a rural town to work for a rich family. She is blamed for the death of her son and second husband and suffers at the hands of feudal oppression, superstition, and fate. On its own its it is an enjoyable period melodrama reminiscent of the famous Hollywood fifties weepy Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk). However, the epilogue reinstates the Communist Party’s dogmatic formula of liberation from feudal patriarchy and oppression more a less along the lines of ‘isn’t it grand things aren’t like this anymore’ scenarioiv.

Riding on similar lines of feudal oppression is The Lin Family Shop(Shui Hua, 1959). Made during the rapid modernisation under the fervour of the Great Leap Forward, director Shui Hua was active in the leftist drama movement during the 1930s in which the film is set. The story centres around the emporium of Mr Lin who is forced not to sell Japanese goods when Japan invades Manchuria. Struggling to survive Mr Lin bribes officials, takes advantage of refugees and eventually flees to save his daughter from being married off to the Chief of Police. Like the widow of A New Year’s Sacrifice Mr Lin and his family are victims of their feudal masters resulting in a similar outcome that instates the strength of the Communist Party ideology. Stoic and slow moving, the film offers an interesting portrayal from the effects of the May Fourth movement.

Comparatively, Xilan (Sun Sha, 1996) though more recent in its construction might as well been made during those post-revolutionary days of the fifties. Despite appearances of its so-called modernisation of China and the director emerging from post-Mao Fifth Generation of film-makers, the film carries the weight of communist zeal through its main character Xilan. The story about a young woman who marries the chief of her village and then decides to set up a collective market garden of capsicums. It seems that it an obvious allegory of the new China still trying to rid itself of the remnants of a feudal and Cultural Revolutionary past, offering yet another ‘message’ to the rural population of cinema goers.

Emblematic patriarchal constructs still present themselves through Xilan’s inability to present her husband with a son, yet this is undercut by the empowerment of Xilan’s threats of divorce to her philandering husband. Though themes of infidelity are not typically explored in Chinese cinema, Xilan continues to eulogise Communist dogma. Though beautifully shot in the winter of rural China, the narrative is undermined by the film’s attention to meaningless minute of village life and petty grievances for it to be worth watching at any great length.

A departure from the political melodramas is the enjoyable light-hearted comedy A Beautiful New World (Shi Runjiu, 1999). In this ‘country boy comes to the big smoke’ story, Bao Geng (Jiang Wu) arrives in Shanghai to collect his lottery prize – an apartment which has not been built yet. Forced to eke out a living and live with his money-obsessed Aunt Jinfang (Hong Tao) the film examines the new capitalist ideology in full tilt. At times it is overwhelming embracing of Western culture as Bao’s fantasies of his finished apartment flip into a veritable film clip, rock music searing through the mise-en- scene. Unlike its predecessors where binary principles are played out against each other of the leftist (good) against rightist (bad), A Beautiful New World enters an ambiguous and less defined contractv. Bao represents the wholesome values of rural life; hard work and honesty, yet celebrates the crassness of his new city life arms akimbo ‘it will be all mine one day’ and is reward. Interestingly, Aunt Jinfang is not overtly punished for her greedy and idle ways but instead we are left with some sense that she too has been rewarded. The so-called villains of yore so often portrayed in Communist Party films have gone markedly grey from their black ‘feudal/Imperialist models.

Escaping to a historical biography is the ambitious Genghis Kahn (Sai Fu and Mai Lisi, 1997). This ‘rites of passage’ story focuses on the formative years of the notorious 12th Century warlord, Tumen, better known as the title of the film. Born into an era of inter-tribal retributions Genghis sets upon a quest to gain his rightful role of Chieftain after his father is betrayed by a trusted friend.

Visually stunning shots of the winter and spring months in the vast prairies of northern China, Genghis Khan, suffers from some obvious flaws. The lead actor looks like he is approaching his late forties rather than the tender age of twenty-eight he is supposed to be playing. The battles scenes, though technically proficient are badly choreographed to the point that we see hordes of extras running through shot but not apparently fighting anyone. More interesting is his relationship with his mother, his pregnant wife and the values of patriarchal kinship between and within the tribes.

Classic of the 1930s, Crossroads (Shen Xiling, 1937) is a social realist piece about the lives of four recently graduated students trying to survive in industrialised Shanghai under the threat of encroaching Japanese occupation. At times, the film has the Hollywood charm of It Happened One Night (Colbert and Gable) as Bai Yang and Zhao Dan irritably explore their romance through the walls of a rooming house. Though there are comic moments, a cloud of dysphoria and nihilism about the future of the group pervades this social document of thirties China. Unusual camera angles and the use of montage helps locate Crossroads as a forerunner to experimental film techniques of its time.

Suffering the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, Early Spring (Tieli Xie, 1963) reminisces of a bygone era – the May Fourth Movement of the 1920svi. Based on the novella by Rou Shi the film tells the story of Xia Jianquie takes up a teaching position in rural Eastern China only to be embroiled in local gossip surrounding his goodwill to a widow. Slow paced and similar to the internalised hysteria of A New Year’s Sacrifice, Early Spring is a melodrama that mostly transcends the ‘message’ of party politics and succeeds in portraying the character of Jianquie as a troubled and perplexed protagonist in search of a meaningful existence. At times, it is perversely comical from a Western reading of the film. As friends talk about the values of nationalism and the collective spirit, the sister of the host blurts, ‘Actually, I’m for individualism’ which leaves them all disturbingly quiet after such a faux pas. Winner of the Jury Prize of the Fagaladafuz World Film Festival in Portugal in 1983, Early Spring delivers a carefully constructed and fulfilling narrative.

Overall the festival lacked variety as most of the films were of a melodramatic content. With that said most audiences would have appreciated the historical and cultural context though at times disengaged by the generally slow pace and didactic nature of the films. Though A Beautiful New World and Genghis Khan show a certain ‘freeing up’ of the Ministry of Culture’s influence on the Chinese Film industry, it will be interesting to see what kind of films China offers at the next festival and whether a new generation of film-makers will be allowed or choose to make films that they will want to make as the rapidly changing face of the Chinese culture emerges.

i Poshek Fu, ‘The Ambiguity of Entertainment: Chinese Cinema in Japanese-Occupied Shanhai, 1941 to 1945’, Cinema Journal 37, No. 1, Fall 1997, p67.

ii,Tony Rayns, ‘Breakthroughs and Setbacks’, The Origins of Chinese Cinema, p105.


iv Nick Browne, ‘Society and Subjectivity on the political economy of Chinese melodrama’, p44-55.

vIbid, p44

vi Chow Tse-tusng, ‘Definition of the Movement’, The May Fourth Movement, President and Fellows of Harvard College, Massachusetts, 1960, p2.