**Cover photo for this blog post in a screen cap of Spring in a Small Town, a pivotal and wonderful movie from earlier Chinese cinema**
Because of my love of movies and all things cinema, I was recently browsing articles about moving making techniques from around the world. I remember watching a lot of Jackie Chan movies as a child, but I never delved into Asian film making with any kind of zest or zeal. I decided to do a little bit of research on Chinese cinema.
Throughout my life, I have owned more than a thousand DVD’s and probably seen more than three times that number of movies. I enjoy all kinds of genres, film types, styles, actors, and themes of movies. However, when posed with analyzing another cinema outside of America, I would never know where to begin.
When I was a child, I became obsessed with martial arts movies such as Enter the Dragon, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Drunken Master, and Dragons Forever. Unfortunately, I have always been under the impression that this is the only type of genre that China ever produced. Yes, this is and was an ignorant mindset, but it’s the only type of movie from Chinese cinema to which I was subjected.
Through research and analysis, this is so far from the truth that I have been ignorant to the true nature of Chinese cinema and its glorified history.
The first thing I learned is that unlike America, Chinese cinema can be split up into three separate regions of filmmaking. These regions are the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. All three of these regions released movies with different backgrounds, origins, and political views, but they all carried the same tonal messages. The first stages of Chinese cinema can be traced all the way back to 1896. However, the first film with sound was not made until 1931 when China entered its cinema golden age. During this golden age, several key movies were made that brought forth several messages.
Women became the forefront of Chinese cinema and different filmmaking techniques took charge. During this time, Chinese cinema not only tried to stray away from a Communist point of view, but it also began to, “question how the art of cinema itself might be reconceived along progressive lines by experimenting with innovative visual techniques and unusual narrative structures.” During this golden age, the Chinese had been ravaged on several fronts by the Japanese, so it only made sense that many movies were made as propaganda and education on the pillaged lands of China.
After the golden age, the Chinese Communist Party eventually reigned supreme in 1949, which started a brand new wave of movies. Films used the same techniques of questioning social and political agendas while using more risqué forms of story-telling. Women continued to be the forefront in certain regions such as Taiwan, whereas the mainland films began producing melodramas that fell under a socialist realism using both men and women as the forerunners of the films.
Martial art movies were always prevalent throughout China’s film history, but they originated and became dominate from Hong Kong due to anti-wuxia policies and censorship in Taiwan and the mainland China. A gradual increase of wuxia films as time went on in Hong Kong are prevalent throughout the history of Chinese cinema. These movies were made from the early 1920’s all the way through the 1970’s. However, a surge of new wave movies that highlighted the pertinence of martial art movies began to appear in the 1980’s and are still made and known globally today.
As the mainland finally rose to a global economic superpower, Hong Kong finally became integrated into mainland filmmaking. Conversely, films made by Hong Kong descendants still carried vastly different tones and morals than mainland films. Films began taking on different narratives, styles, and approaches found in Western filmmaking, all while the three regions created films that somehow still told different stories. One region would release minimalistic films that teetered on the edge of ignorance, while another region of Chinese cinema would take a drastically opposite approach by releasing stylish and overly lush films.
Eventually, Chinese cinema would find itself at the forefront of global numbers and reception. The Chinese cinema is matched only by the success of Hollywood and the filmmaking processes found in the United States. Movies made in China receive global praise and reception, although the history of these films might be overshadowed by the success of certain tropes of Chinese filmmaking. Throughout the history of Chinese cinema, all types of genres and conventions can be found, but there seems to be a societal effect on the movies of each generation.
Even though there is much left to be said about the history of Chinese cinema, these basic facts paint a relatively complex picture of its history. Although I still love martial art movies today, I never understood what kind of struggles and obstacles Chinese films experienced and overcame to become the global phenomenon they are today. With that kind of history, it is clear why these movies still help envision a greater world.
If you’re interested in watching some of the movies that helped shape and form Chinese cinema, give these a try:
Spring in a Small Town
A Chinese Ghost Story
In the Face of Demolition