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The Many Faces of Modern Chinese Cinema

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Just as the country is itself emerging as one of the major players in the global economy, Mainland Chinese cinema is growing in international stature and recognition. Whilst in the past the film factory that is Hong Kong had dominated Chinese cinema, at least in export terms, in recent years many of the key productions which have earned worldwide release have in fact come from the Mainland, such as Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower.

Although these big budget epics have proved popular and have helped to greater establish Chinese cinema on the international stage, they have also been criticized for favoring excess and style over content, and for pandering to Western expectations. Perhaps more importantly, for many audiences, these films have come to wholly represent Mainland Chinese cinema, and as such they have marginalized the growing number of productions telling more contemporary tales and experimenting with modern genre forms to equally, if not more impressive effect.

The spur to the recent blockbuster movement can be traced back to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. The film's worldwide success set the ball rolling for similar productions, with the next flagship release being Hero from Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou, a respected figure of Chinese cinema who had won praise not only at home but also abroad for films such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. The next wave of releases saw a marked decline in quality, and Zhang's next effort House of Flying Daggers, Chen Kaige's The Promise, and Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet were all much vaunted productions that fell short.

Perhaps the worst crime of the Mainland Chinese super blockbuster is not so much the increasingly questionable quality of many of the films themselves, but the way that they have come to overshadow the rest of the country's cinematic output. This is particularly important since although ostensibly telling Chinese stories, these expensive prestige productions are designed for mass consumption not only by the domestic markets, but also by those of the West. As such, these films tend to bow to Hollywood conventions and Western notions of China, sticking to epic martial arts tales set in a mythical past and having little in common with the lives of everyday people.

Thankfully, although these films have grabbed the lion's share of headlines regarding Mainland Chinese cinema over the last few years, there has in their wake been a growing movement of modern productions which have been gaining recognition. These films, which tend to be lower budget character pieces or philosophical dramas about life in modern China, often with an aspect of political or social commentary, have come from an emerging Sixth Generation of directors who have stepped in to fill the shoes of the now blockbuster-fixated Fifth Generation. Many have found support at international film festivals, where there is very much still an appreciative audience for such fare, especially given the critical malaise afflicting the country's more high-profile productions.

The director who has perhaps made the biggest splash is Jia Zhangke, whose Still Life, an abstract drama about the effects of modernization and social upheaval on the rural poor, won the Golden Lion award at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. Jia has been an almost constant presence at European festivals in recent years, with The World and Unknown Pleasures having enjoyed favorable international critical reception despite going largely unnoticed at home. In many ways he is the archetypal Sixth Generation director, with his films being very much rooted in modern Chinese life, revolving around current issues and featuring the stories of everyday people rather than any kind of forced melodrama.

Other Chinese directors have also had considerable success on the international festival circuit, such as Wang Xiaoshuai, who won the 2001 Silver Bear at Berlin for Beijing Bicycle and the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2005 for Shanghai Dreams; Zhang Yuan, whose Seventeen Years won multiple awards at Venice in 1999; and Gu Changwei, whose Peacock took the 2005 Berlin Silver Bear. Director Lu Chuan also gained recognition in 2005 for Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, a moving drama about antelope poaching in Tibet which proved popular not only in the West but also in Asia, winning prizes at the Golden Horse Film Festival and the Hong Kong Film Awards. Interestingly, Lu's previous work The Missing Gun also received distribution in the West, where it was well received despite being advertised as being yet another Hong Kong-style action film.

A more controversial figure has been Lou Ye, who after winning awards at Paris and Rotterdam in 2000 for his Hitchcockian tale of obsession, Suzhou River, and a Cannes nomination for his rather confusing 2003 drama Purple Butterfly ran into trouble with his politically themed romance Summer Palace. The film was eventually withdrawn from competition at Cannes in 2006 after the Chinese censors refused to pass the film, apparently due to its use of footage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations - something which earned the director a weighty five-year ban from making films in China.

Another interesting example of a modern Chinese director is Xu Jinglei, who is notable not only for being female, but for having stretched her wings as an actress and a prolific blogger. As a director, she made her debut in 2003 with the intimate character drama My Father and I before moving onto bigger productions with her vaguely feminist adaptation of Stefan Zweig's classic Letter from an Unknown Woman (which won her the Silver Shell prize for Best Director at the 52nd San Sebastian International Film Festival) and the romantic drama Dreams May Come.

Xu's acting career has followed an interesting path, from her start in television drama to early roles which veered between modern urban Chinese dramas, such as Zhang Yuan's I Love You and Zhang Yang's Spicy Love Soup, and big budget Hong Kong popcorn outings like The Storm Riders and Heroic Duo. She has since established herself as a major star, featuring in the blockbuster Confession of Pain and landing the lead female role in Peter Chan's forthcoming The Warlords, an update of the Chang Cheh-directed Shaw Brothers classic The Blood Brothers.

Whilst these Sixth Generation filmmakers and their meaningful works have found recognition worldwide, providing an alternative face for modern Chinese cinema, it is important to realize that these are no more wholly representative of the nation's cinematic output than the big budget epics. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume that all non-blockbuster films from China are of the poetic, philosophizing arthouse variety, as the country has in recent years been producing a good number of what might be termed "genre films", such as mysteries, thrillers, and horrors. These films, though unmistakably Chinese in character and theme, are influenced by traditional international cinematic conventions and as such are designed primarily for entertainment rather than social commentary, being aimed at the domestic market rather than for export.

Although director Feng Xiaogang has now made the move into blockbuster films with The Banquet and his forthcoming The Assembly, his previous works, frequently starring actor Ge You, have mainly been modern set dramas or comedies which tackle issues faced by everyday Chinese people. This can be seen in his earlier efforts such as Sorry Baby through to the deeply cynical dark comedy Cell Phone, a film which unflinchingly depicts the lies and deception often inherent in life and relationships in modern China. Feng eased gradually into the blockbuster form with his 2004 hit A World Without Thieves, a glossy though moving slice of action drama which boasted the star presence of Hong Kong legend Andy Lau.

It's ironic to note that with The Banquet, a film cynically manufactured for mass market appeal and international export if ever there was one, he now seems to have moved into the kind of productions he mocked in his comedy Big Shot's Funeral, bowing to the pressures of commercial demand, though time will tell if this is indeed the case. As well as acting in the likes of Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, Feng has also served as a producer on a number of films including Huang Jianxin's Gimme Kudos and Zhang Guoli's The 601st Phone Call, both of which are modern urban comedies not too removed from his own works.

Another director known for comedies and dramas is Zhang Yang, though his films have tended to be warmer and less cynical than those of Feng. His excellent 1999 film Shower, a down-to-earth and unashamedly sentimental tale of change in modern China, enjoyed some success on the international festival circuit. Arguably one of the most interesting directors working in Chinese cinema today, Zhang has continued to gently explore the stories of ordinary people and the effects of economic and social upheaval through to his latest film, Getting Home, a somewhat darker piece which follows a migrant farmer who tries to bring his friend's dead body back home.

The rise in genre filmmaking in Mainland China can also be seen in the likes of Ning Hao's Crazy Stone, a madcap thriller about an incompetent bunch of thieves' attempts to steal a valuable gem, which proved to be a runaway box office hit in its home country. Working wonders on a small budget, Ning creates a film which is exciting, fresh, and vibrant, proving that China is every bit as capable of producing this kind of entertainment as any other country in the world. Another notable recent thriller is Curiosity Kills the Cat, a taut mystery from director Zhang Yibai starring Carina Lau. It was actually one of the films in competition for China's 2007 Oscar bid, and though it lost out to the more grandiose Curse of the Golden Flower, it would arguably have made for a more interesting choice.

The genre of suspense has also of late become more popular in Mainland China, despite the fact that government censors still frown upon depictions of the supernatural. This movement began in earnest in 2005 with Zhang Bingjian's Suffocation, a not entirely successful effort starring Ge You that was erroneously billed as being "the first Chinese Psycho movie". More recent examples have been The Door, which saw director Li Shaohong turning to scares after the surreal comedy of her earlier Baober in Love and the drama of Stolen Life, and Teng Huatao's The Matrimony, a romantic chiller which features the big name cast of Leon Lai, Rene Liu, and Fan Bingbing.

Of course, this list of films barely scratches the surface, though hopefully it serves to highlight the fact that modern Mainland Chinese filmmaking is by no means characterized solely by the big budget period epics publicized in the West. It will be interesting to see whether the Chinese industry and market will be able to support these different facets of filmmaking, and whether the blockbusters and smaller productions will sit happily side by side as necessary components of the same system as they do in the West.

Indeed, although it is valid and correct to criticize recent Chinese films such as The Banquet for their excess and export-friendly design, it is important to see such productions in context as exercises in broad entertainment, mass appeal, and money making rather than artistry or education. Certainly, as can be seen by looking at the majority of Hollywood blockbusters, vacuity is often a by-product of the form. As such, it misses the point to deride a film such as Curse of the Golden Flower for aiming for sex appeal rather than historical accuracy in its costume design.

There is no doubt that the cinema of Mainland China has some interesting times ahead, which will hopefully see film flourish in all its forms. Until then, perhaps what can be hoped for is that blockbuster filmmakers will turn their focus to subjects other than historical intrigue, or at the very least pay more attention to finding better scripts.

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Published April 16, 2007

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