Directory of World Cinema: China

Directory of World Cinema: China

by Gary Bettinson (Editor)

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Commended for their social relevance and artistic value, Chinese films remain at the forefront of international cinema, bolstered in recent years by a new generation of talented young filmmakers. Directory of World Cinema: China presents an accessible overview of the definitive films of Hong Kong and mainland China, with particular attention to the achievements of prolific industry figures, the burgeoning independent sector, and the embrace of avant-garde practices of art cinema. Spanning a variety of characteristic genres, including horror, heroic bloodshed, romantic comedy, and kung-fu, reviews cover individual titles in considerable depth and are accompanied by a selection of full-color film stills. A comprehensive filmography and a bibliography of recommended reading complete this essential companion to Chinese cinema.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841505589
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 06/15/2012
Series: IB - Directory of World Cinema Series , #12
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Gary Bettinson is a lecturer in film studies at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, and coauthor of What is Film Theory? An Introduction to Contemporary Debates.

Read an Excerpt

Directory of World Cinema China Volume 12

By Gary Bettinson

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-558-9


Farewell My Concubine, Tomson Films/China Film/Beijing/The Kobal Collection.


From the very first Chinese motion picture created in 1905 to renowned contemporary films, the influence of Chinese opera can be felt throughout multiple periods of film production across the three Chinas. It is both a cinematic genre (Huangmei opera films popularized by the Shaw Brothers studio are among the best known), and a recurring narrative theme that affects the content and aesthetics of recent award-winning films such as Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Zhang Yimou, 2005) and Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993). Chinese Opera also provided the foundations for Chinese genre cinema, including horror and martial-arts films, both of which rely heavily on the carefully calculated rhythms, movements, and folklore that originated on stage.

With origins dating back to the third century CE, Chinese opera is still seen today in theatres across Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China. Performances feature music, heavily codified gestures, acrobatics and martial arts within the narrative scope of classic Chinese literature and folktales. Chinese opera movements, costumes, and stories are infused with a rich use of Confucian, Buddhist and folkloric symbolism. The meaning of each gesture or movement acts as a vehicle for the narrative, while costumes (their colours and embroidered motifs) convey the nature and status of the wearer. Over time, numerous regional styles of Chinese opera developed into distinct branches, creating Beijing opera, Cantonese opera, and Sichuan opera to name a few.

The first motion pictures to be developed in North America and Europe during the late nineteenth century documented scenes of everyday life, including popular stage arts. Dance-hall routines were soon immortalized on camera in Thomas Edison's vaudeville films, such as Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894). Similarly, in 1905, the first Chinese film captured a well-loved form of entertainment, the Beijing opera The Battle of Mount Dingjun. Tan Xinpei, a well-known opera performer, and the Fengtai Photo Studio of Beijing collaborated to film action sequences from the opera in Shanghai, under the direction of Ren Jingfeng. Now lost, the film marked the birth of Chinese cinema in both its source material (The Battle of Mount Dingjun is based on the epic fourteenth century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and its production crew. American influence soon established itself in the newly formed Shanghai-based film industry, but Chinese opera remained a popular performance art in Chinese communities and did not take long to make a more prolific transition from live theatre to the cinema screen.

While many copies of early Chinese opera films of the 1920s and 1930s are now lost or destroyed, extant sources from the period suggest that Beijing opera and Cantonese opera productions were filmed with increasing frequency and were well received in both Hong Kong and Mainland China. This trend continued until the outbreak of World War II when film production largely came to a halt.

It was the 1950s that gave birth to the golden era of opera films, chiefly adapting the Huangmei style of opera for the screen. Shanghai Film Studio worked with the Anhui Huangmei Opera Troupe to create The Heavenly Match (Shi Hui, 1955), the very first Huangmei opera film. Its huge success at the box office spurred the film adaptations of The Female Prince Consort (Liu Qiong, 1959), The Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden (Cen Fan, 1963), and other Huangmei operas in China. It also inspired director Li Hanhsiang to helm Diau Charn (1958) for Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, which led the studio to steadily produce Huangmei opera films until the late 1960s. Compared to the brightly painted faces featured in Beijing and Cantonese opera, Huangmei opera is a simpler, less decorative form of performance that originated in rural tea-picking songs from Huangmei County in Eastern China. Its naturalism made Huangmei opera the perfect vehicle for screen productions that developed a system of recognizable stars, real faces to whom audiences could relate.

The Shaw Brothers features, unlike the Huangmei opera films made in China, were generally more polished, shot on Eastmancolour and filmed on elaborately-constructed studio lots that integrated traditional Chinese architecture and natural landscapes. The combination of complex decor and opera's aestheticized codes of behaviour led to a formulaic camera approach. Transitions between scenes, for example, rely heavily on wide-angle shots to provide literary exposition. Painterly landscapes illustrate well-known folkloric motifs in anticipation of the narrative action, such as two Mandarin ducks seen floating on a lake – a traditional symbol of marital harmony. Medium shots are also seen with great regularity to capture dance movements for the hands, arms and face typical of Chinese opera. Despite the lush realistic sets, the films maintain something of a theatrical flatness with few camera movements circling the performers from behind. Aerial shots and side angles add something to the operas that would be unattainable in live theatre, but lack of dimensionality and few travelling shots are consistent features of Huangmei opera films.

The craze for Shaw Brothers Huangmei opera films peaked with The Love Eterne (Li Hanhsiang, 1963), which was screened for 186 days in Taiwan and held the box-office record there and in Hong Kong for two decades. Often cited as China's Romeo and Juliet, the film is based on the classic story, The Butterfly Lovers, a tragic tale of arranged marriage that tears apart two lovers who are reunited in death as a pair of butterflies. With their mythic fables of Confucian loyalty and harmony set in an idealized remote past, Huangmei opera films were a nostalgic reminder of the homeland that many members of displaced Chinese communities yearned for in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

Many of today's established Chinese directors, such as Ang Lee, cite Huangmei opera films as an important influence on their own work, having grown up during the pinnacle of the Shaw Brothers' Huangmei opera period. The Love Eterne featured an 8-year-old Jackie Chan, then a promising Beijing opera student, an experience that would later mark much of his own film-making style. Several celebrated martial-arts film directors, such as King Hu and Zhang Che, made their directorial debut with Huangmei opera features. Static poses and brisk tumbling passages accompanied by rhythmic percussions are evidence of Chinese opera's influence on their early martial-arts or wuxia films in the 1960s. Some still stand as hallmarks of the genre today, including Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966). During one scene in this film, a fight in an inn builds in waves of suspense as the protagonist, a swordswoman, takes her time to size up the bandits that surround her, turning their own tricks on them and defeating them. Silence is woven into the percussions that accompany this scene, creating a deliberate rhythmic pattern of stillness and action. King Hu, who had worked on several Huangmei opera films while at Shaw Brothers, later left for Taiwan and created some of his best works, including Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and the Cannes prize-winner A Touch of Zen (1971).

When the popularity of Huangmei opera films started to decline, Shaw Brothers began incorporating new elements into the Huangmei fold, including brief moments of nudity or intensifying the supernatural elements of folk stories that already recognized ghosts and shape-shifting humans as a normal literary device. These efforts led to new genres in Chinese film-making, including the Shaw Brothers' prolific soft-porn era of the 1970s. Their burgeoning work in the horror and fantasy realm with Lady Jade Locket (Chun Yen, 1967) helped pave the way for later films like Ching Siu-tung's A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).

While Huangmei films were at the height of their popularity across the Chinese diaspora, Mainland China was becoming increasingly isolationist under communist leadership. Mao Zedong's insistence that art must serve proletarian ideology limited the population's entertainment options and traditional opera was banned. It was replaced with a new form of theatre known as Revolutionary opera, modeled on the technique of Beijing opera without the painted faces or lavish costumes and stories. Jiang Ching, Chairman Mao's wife, fostered a series of performances known as the 'eight model plays' – operas and ballets with communist themes that were soon turned into films. These works became classics in their own right, mainly due to the repetition with which they were screened, as few other productions were permitted during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Among the best known films in this genre are The Legend of the Red Lantern (Cheng Yin, 1970) and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Xie Tieli, 1970), tales that demonstrate the triumph and courage of selfless peasants. Little appreciated today as anything more than curious relics of the Mao era, some scholars have recently encouraged a new reading of Revolutionary opera films, asserting their value as an original genre that merges social realism and romanticism.

While few screen adaptations of Chinese opera have been made since 1980 (with several notable exceptions, including Yonfan's The Peony Pavilion in 2001), Chinese opera continues to exercise a great deal of aesthetic and thematic influence over contemporary film-making in the three Chinas. Elements of Chinese opera's stories and symbolism provide modern film-makers with a structure to address contemporary issues or comment on historical events of the past.

Chen Kaige's internationally renowned Farewell My Concubine uses the backdrop of Beijing opera as a tragedy to illustrate modern China's political upheaval and its impact on the lives of two performers. From the encroaching Japanese invasion to the communist regime's growing importance, these politically-charged events are marked as intertitles within the film, distinguishing them like acts in an opera. The film's two protagonists become famous for their interpretation of the opera The Hegemon King Bids Farewell to His Concubine, a play that describes a courtesan's love for her ill-fated king who is defeated by the Han Dynasty's founder. The narrative of this opera closely mirrors the personal and political drama of the film's present day, blurring the edges between theatre and reality. The opera school's courtyard, where much of the film's action unfolds, and Cheng Dieyi's trial in the courtroom become substitute theatres. Chinese opera props, rich with symbolism, such as swords, handkerchiefs and fans, are regularly used during the film's real-life scenes to mark courtship and servitude, underlining the dramatic scope of changes in China's modern history and its profound influence on the country's artistic heritage as well as on the lives of its individual citizens.

Chen Kaige revisited these themes again in a less dreamlike fashion with Forever Enthralled (2008), a biographical film of the celebrated opera star for whom the film is named. Like the fictional character of Cheng Dieyi in Farewell My Concubine, Mei Lanfang was renowned for his interpretation of female roles in Bejing opera. Notions of gender identity continue to resurface in Chinese opera-inspired cinema due to the country's longstanding tradition of cross-gender stage roles. With women barred from performing in Chinese Opera until the mid-twentieth century, all female characters were interpreted by men. Interestingly, recent Chinese films often choose to reverse the gender swapping and use women as male impersonators. Tsui Hark's political satire Peking Opera Blues (1986) pays tribute to Chinese opera through its original title, meaning 'knife horse actresses,' a Beijing opera term for male actors playing female warriors. In this film, Tsui stages operatic sequences both in and outside the theatre, following the actions of a band of misfits, including several cross-dressing characters whose adopted genders either open new opportunities or lead to serious complications.

Far from the slapstick action featured in Peking Opera Blues, some cross-gender portrayals offer serious social commentary on how women have been unjustly barred from certain aspects of society. King of Masks (1996), directed by Ting Ming Wu, follows the life of a young girl given up for adoption and disguised as a boy to increase her chances of finding a home. An aging master in the art of bian lian or changing faces, a Sichuan opera tradition in which layers of silk masks are peeled away one after the other in quick succession to reveal newly painted faces, seeks to adopt an heir who will inherit the guarded secrets of his theatrical trade. Fooled by the young girl's boyish appearance, the master adopts her and teaches his new disciple in earnest until he learns the truth about her gender. Females are forbidden to study or perform bian lian, and the young girl finds herself abandoned on the streets once more until she intervenes in a criminal mix-up to save the falsely accused opera master. The filial piety and tenacious determination shown through her acts echo the Confucian codes outlined in Chinese opera. Realizing the girl's potential, the old master puts tradition aside and trains the talented youth in the age-old secrets of his art. The masks' rapidly changing colours and expressions serve as a reminder of the evolving attitudes about gender and class in modern China.

Zhang Yimou's film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles features Nuo opera – a style of masked performance – at the heart of its narrative about a long solo journey made in honour of a loved one. The story of a Japanese father's quest to film a Chinese opera star that his dying son admires parallels the famed opera that the father seeks to record, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fable about long travel and family loyalty. Nuo opera was traditionally believed to drive away demons and ill health. In this vein, the film culminates in Takata's catharsis through opera, relieving him of the painful past he shares with his estranged son. Opera props, such as cloth banners, featured in many forms of Chinese opera, take on a particular importance in the film when Takata uses a contemporary version of them to achieve his goals. His difficulty with communication and expressing emotion are reflected in the masked theatre of Nuo. The demons on stage represent the family's own façade, which throughout the film is peeled away and finally revealed, alongside the much sought-after opera performer.

While Chinese Opera is considered a national treasure in Mainland China and continues to thrive as a live performance art in Taiwan and Hong Kong, its deeply-rooted artistic traditions will continue to influence Chinese film-making as directors repeatedly call on its distinct traits to express something essential and unique to Chinese culture. Whether used to embrace national identity or to depart from tradition, Chinese opera films and their contemporary descendents are vital components of China's rich cinematic heritage.

Marisa C. Hayes



In 1985, the judges of Taiwan's annual Golden Horse Awards, the island's most prestigious film event, decided not to give any award in the documentary category. They believed that none of the submissions could qualify as 'documentary,' but instead should be classified as 'industrial film' or 'information film' (Li 2006: 72). The judges' verdict did not only embarrass the government because almost all nominees were government funded and/or produced projects, but also stimulated heated discussion among filmmakers and film scholars in Taiwan.

This controversy prompts me to choose the year 1985 as a watershed in examining the development of documentary films in Taiwan. I shall argue that prior to 1985, there were few documentaries made by private individuals for two reasons: (1) documentary was generally not regarded as a commodity with commercial value in Taiwan; and (2) the cost of making a documentary was too high to be easily affordable by independent filmmakers. Hence, over three decades since the 1950s, the majority of Taiwan documentaries had been produced by government-funded film studios and national television companies (Yang 2004: 17). While it may be overly simplistic to condemn all the officially sanctioned newsreels, educational films and documentaries as propaganda, many of these nonfictional films tend to be conservative and institutionalized in terms of subject matter, content, viewpoint and aesthetic style.


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Table of Contents

Introduction by the Editor

Chinese Opera and Cinema
Taiwanese Documentary
Hong Kong Action Cinema
Three Action Heroes
    David Chiang
    Chow Yun-fat
    Ti Lung
Three Female Stars
    Grace Chang
    Esther Eng
    Brigitte Lin
Hong Kong New Wave
    Allen Fong
    Ann Hui
    Patrick Tam
Directors: Mainland China
    Chen Kaige
    Lu Chuan
    Tian Zhuangzhuang
Directors: Taiwan
    Chu Yen-ping
    Hou Hsiao-hsien
    Tsai Ming-liang
Directors: Hong Knog
    Fruit Chan
    Wong Kar-wai
    John Woo
Drama: Mainland China
Drama: Taiwan
Kung Fu and Wuxia Pian (Swordplay Film): Hong Kong and Taiwan
Action Cinema and Heroic Bloodshed: Hong Kong
Independent and Art Cinema: Hong Kong
Comedy/Musical: Taiwan and Hong Kong
Documentary: Mainland China and Hong Kong

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