BFI Century of Chinese Cinema

Text by: Struan Robison / 撰文:Struan Robinson
Translated by: Harry Liu / 翻譯:劉競晨

Noah Cowan, previously co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) put together the selection of films to be included in the program to reflect this. He writes: “We have aimed to achieve a balance between the canonical and the unjustly neglected, the historically vital and the thematically intriguing, and we have tried to cover as wide a spectrum of the key genres as possible”.

The selection spans the classic 1920’s martial-arts films (wuxia pian, or ‘chivalrous combat films’) to the 1980’s Hong Kong New Wave movement which reinvented them; the Golden Age of Shanghai Cinema to the post war films of the mid century; from household names of the Pre-Cultural Revolution to the Mainland cinema of the Sixth Generation. The centenary travels the breadth of China’s cinematic history and is planned to generate discussion just as much as it is to look back and remember, as Cowan outlines: “Just as we seek to trace a dialogue between cinema traditions, our series is designed to encourage discussion, not close it down”.

2014年6月到10月,英國電影協會BFI( British Film Institute)舉辦了以中國百年電影發展為主題的放映季,整個活動期間包括了各種論壇、講座以及電影放映活動,來回顧和探討這一百年間中國電影的發展歷程。 對於西方觀眾來說,中國這一百年間的電影發展是在國際電影藝術發展史上失落的一環,由於這一百年間戰爭和不停息的社會變革,中國電影的聲音被淹沒在政治的喧囂與社會的動盪不安之中,是次英國電影協會也正是希望借此次《中國百年電影》放映季來為西方觀眾梳理和展示中國與衆不同的電影發展歷程。



The first Chinese film was a recording of the Peking opera, The Battle of Dingjunshan, in November 1905, Beijing. One fresh new art form (film) recording another’s existence (opera). China’s cinematic beginnings are in the merging of a relatively recent medium with one already long established. So, perhaps it’s apt, therefore, that one of the most critically-acclaimed Chinese motion pictures to find popularity in the West is Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) – a film which intersperses the telling of Peking opera with the rest of the film’s narrative. When ART.ZIP interviewed Noah Cowan, ahead of the launch of the BFI’s season, he spoke of how this merging of art forms is what separates Chinese cinema from its Western counterparts, explaining: “one of the reasons Chinese cinema is so exciting is that there’s porousness between media and art forms that becomes much fussier when you’re dealing with European cinema”.

The program looks at the period of Shanghai’s golden age of Cinema, one where this new exciting art form knew no bounds, and could present a glittering idealistic vision of what life ought to be like for China’s people. Shanghai presented an anything goes attitude and was “able to shatter age-old taboos and champion utopian ideals”. The early masterpieces The Highway (1934) and Street Angel (1937) were able to “question how the art of cinema itself might be reconceived along progressive lines by experimenting with innovative visual techniques and unusual narrative structures”.




As art imitates life, it is no surprise that given the onset of the 1937 Sino-Japanese and the Second World War, several key films of this period should take the war as their subject, most notably among them, Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town. A film which would break away from its predecessors’ appeasement of the Communist Party’s demand for the inclusion of leftist subject matter and instead focus more on the inter-personal conflicts of its narrative’s characters. A new print made by the China Film Archive in the 1980’s, would see resurgence in its popularity and lead to it being named as the greatest Chinese film ever made by the Hong Kong Film Awards.

When marking China’s cinematic centenary, the absence of film is just as significant as its presence. Cowan talks of how the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 “paralysed cultural and intellectual life” in China and would lead to a multitude of films that could never and would never be made. Film and its content became censored with motion pictures such as Breaking with Old Ideas (1975) requiring storyline approval from government officials and characters being rewritten if thought inappropriate. The idea of film as entertainment was superseded by the idea of film as a vehicle for propaganda. Feature film production ground to a halt with virtually no films made between 1967 – 1972, that was until “the mainland emerged from the shadow of this cataclysmic event” with so called ‘scar films’ of the pre-Cultural generation film makers: the Fourth Generation.
Under the title ‘New Waves’, the BFI looked at the Fourth Generation’s attempts to make sense of the ordeal their country had faced in the preceding years. The ‘scar films’ (simple, affecting dramas which focus on individual tragedies) were analysed alongside a Q+A by one of their most well recognized pioneers Xie Fei. Screenings of his films accompanied the discussion such as Black Snow (1990), the story of a petty criminal (Jiang Wen) who returns to Beijing at the onset of the Mainland’s entry into the global capitalist market and falls for a cabaret singer. It paved the way for Sixth Generation luminaries Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke in its portrayal of new China at its most contradictory. There were screenings of one of Wu Tianming’s most well regarded films, The Old Well (China, 1986), a piece of work that would help reshape Chinese cinema.




The season looked at key Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui’s film Boat People (1982), the last of her “Vietnam trilogy” recounting the plight of Vietnamese refugees after the communist takeover following the Fall of Saigon, and Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work The Terroriser (1986) and A City of Sadness (1989). Together the pair put Taiwanese cinema on the international map with work that explored the island’s rapidly changing present as well as its turbulent, often bloody past with Yang’s The Terroriser a complex multi-narrative urban thriller that reflected the pressures and uncertainties of city life.

The ‘New Directions’ section of the BFI’s program looks at Chinese cinema’s most recent work: exciting and daring films made from 1993 to 2006 by acclaimed filmmakers such as Sixth Generation auteurs Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai, Hong Kong Second Wave directors Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan, and Taiwan’s Second New Wave filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang. Films by the Mainland’s directors Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai reflect on marginalised individuals in contemporary urban and provincial life, and the negative impact of China’s social-economic changes. The Second Wave that appeared in the late 1980s in Hong Kong – led by Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan – created lush, highly stylised films that introduced a powerful new aesthetic to international cinema. Wong’s offbeat, post-modern Chungking Express (1994) depicts urban loneliness and unrequited love.



So, what of Chinese cinema in the next one hundred years? Cowan muses that “In the near future, there’s going to be changes to funding structures and the government’s approach to filmmaking in the mainland as well as further changes in Hong Kong that are going to encourage more independent production”. So, will this mean a Chinese film industry that will retain its own sense of national identity or is there still a risk that Chinese filmmaking may become more Americanised or European? Cowan believes that “Chinese cinema has done a very good job at resisting outside influence, except when it wants it. Hong Kong could have just made Hollywood remakes and it would have been fine in terms of its local box office for 50 years [but] it chose to go down a different pathway”. In fact, in some instances it’s been the reverse: Chinese films have been remade by Hollywood, such as Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), a thrilling story of an undercover cop and criminal infiltrating one another’s gangs, which would later be rebranded to an American audience as Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed The Departed (2006). So, if the present is anything to go by – and Cowan remarks that “the Chinese film-industry is on fire right now” – then the next one hundred years look fruitful for Chinese cinema.


那麼,未來中國電影的方向是在何方?考恩考慮了一下回答道:“在不遠的將來,中國電影的資金結構將會發生改變,大陸政府對待電影的態度和管理方式也會發生變化,香港將會更多地鼓勵獨立電影的生產。”這麼說來,中國電影將會繼續保持他獨特的中國特色,還是說中國電影產業也會有步上歐美電影產業雷同化的後塵?考恩相信:“中國電影產業在保持其獨立性方面做得非常好,香港在50年內其實都可以僅靠模仿好萊塢的電影就可以獲得不錯的本地票房,但他們選擇了走一條不一樣的道路。”事實上,很多情況下,這種狀況已經出現了反轉,一些中國電影已經被好萊塢翻拍并展現在大屏幕之上,比如劉偉強和麥兆輝2002年的《無間道》講述了一名臥底警察和警察團隊中內鬼之間發生的驚心動魄的故事,後來被翻拍為美國觀眾熟悉的,由馬丁·斯科塞斯主演的美國版《無間道(The Departed)》。對於如何評價當下的中國電影,考恩說到:“中國的電影產業,毫無疑問,當下正是在如火如荼一般的發展!”


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