Chinese films are now a regular fixture in cinemas, where Hollywood block-busters used to be the norm. From a niche viewership of martial arts aficionados, Chinese cinema has expanded to appeal to the tastes of everyone, from casual movie-goers to the most sophisticated of film critics.
For a time, casual movie-goers would associate “Chinese movies” with Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and martial arts flicks produced by Golden Harvest Productions. But times have changed. Today, films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers have become the norm.
No surprise there. China has struggled for years to carve for itself a place in international filmmaking. With creativity at an all-time high and the changing tastes of moviegoers, Chinese cinema is no longer limited to backflipping, crescent-kicking martial artists suspended on wires. Independent films and “art films” are now gaining rave reviews in the international community.
Chinese Cinema: the early days
The Chinese movie industry has been around for a long time, with the first motion pictures introduced to Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1920s, American film technicians arrived in China to teach the locals filmmaking. The first motion picture made in the mainland was a recording of Beijing opera The Battle of Dingjunshan, which was made in Shanghai in 1905. In 1916, the first wholly Chinese-owned film outfit was established in the port city.
The film industry thrived in China when the Beijing Film Academy was opened in 1956. However, the growth of the industry was hampered and even abruptly halted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Artistic freedom and creative expression were discouraged, although the bulk of films presented during the time were propaganda and revolutionary films extolling the Party leadership.
It was not until the 1980s that the Chinese film industry made a mainstream impact on world cinema. Before that, most people knew very little about films made half a world away. Hollywood pretty much lorded it over, until the dragon that is the Chinese movie industry bit back.
Wuxia: The Way of the Iron Fists
Chinese cinema today is usually associated with martial arts, or wuxia (swordplay) films. When one speaks of “Chinese films,” one automatically thinks of action films set in ancient China, where battles, often involving gymnastic maneuvers, are fought between the good guys and the bad guys. Many of China’s most popular actors, like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-Fat, are global action stars.
Before becoming an icon, the late screen legend Bruce Lee was already a star in his own right. He was a martial artist and karate world champion. Many still watch the films of “The Dragon” and a complete set of Lee’s films are considered a collector’s dream. In movies like Fist of Fury, Enter the Dragon, and Way of the Dragon, Lee showed not only his talents, but also his amazing feats of strength and athleticism.
His tragic death in 1973 gave rise to one of China’s most celebrated actors, Jackie Chan. Chan is one of the most enduring examples of how Chinese cinema has truly risen to global status. While he was groomed to be “the next Bruce Lee,” Jackie has come into his own in films like Rush Hour, Mr Nice Guy, and Armour of God. He is also very well known for his comedic antics; unlike many action stars, Chan combines awesome stunt-work with a talent and flair for comedy.
Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat are two of the most popular actors in the Hong Kong film industry. Movies like The Mummy and The One have made Li an action star for a new generation. Yun-Fat, another big name, has Crouching Tiger and The Replacement Killers under his belt.
From Indie to Hollywood:Beyond “Wire-Fu”
“Action” is still associated with Chinese cinema, although more recent films have been moving away from the “fight between good and evil” formula. At the forefront of this movement is the director and cinema auteur Wong Kar-Wai, whose films like Chungking Express and Ashes of Time veer more towards the artistic and the aesthetic. Compared to the low-budget action flicks usually associated with movies from the mainland, Wong Kar-Wai’s films are celebrated all over the world as examples of taste and cinematic grace.
The films of movie director Zhang Yimou are hailed by critics as fine examples of the neorealist, “documentary” approach to life and drama in China. In Not One Less, Zhang explored the crushing poverty of a rural village in China, where a young substitute teacher sets out to find a boy who ran away from school to find work in the big city. The Road Home, another one of his movies, deals with the story of a boy and a girl falling in love during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang is also a celebrated wuxia director, with films like Hero and Flying Daggers.
Actresses like Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh are big stars both in China and abroad. Ziyi, one of China’s most popular actresses, starred in Hero and Flying Daggers. Her best-known role to date is her performance as Sayuri in the Academy Award-nominated screen adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia but traces her roots to China, became James Bond’s girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger, and played Mameha, Sayuri’s mentor, in Memoirs.
Documentaries are also becoming favorite subjects among China’s directors and filmmakers. Director Wang Bing made a critically-acclaimed nine-hour documentary entitled Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks in 2003. Another famous documentary director is Li Hong. One of her most popular films is 1997’s Out of the Phoenix Bridge, which tells the story of four rural women who go to Beijing to find work.
Future of Chinese Cinema
All the industry’s accolades are not enough to shield it from the scourge of movie piracy. Despite making a significant headway in the international arena, Chinese cinema is in a losing battle against illegal duplication. Pirates either take spoilers from a shoot for release to consumers, or use machines to copy and mass-produce films for a fraction of the price of an original video release. The Chinese government, in collaboration with film distributors, producers, and the international community, is doing its best to prevent pirates from leaking out footage to their wide line of distributors. Still, many bootlegged VCDs and DVDs make their way to the market.
Pilferage, fortunately, did little to stunt the industry’s growth towards more versatility, talent, and avant-garde movie making. With its strong following, China, no doubt, will soon join heavyweights Hollywood, Bollywood, and even other Asian and European filmmakers, in providing movie addicts all over the world with good pictures for years to come.
Print ed: 11/08