Those who have had the fortune to study film academically will know that a large portion of the syllabus concerns itself with the universal history of film and its links to changes in society. It covers how German Expressionism channeled the country’s isolation following the First World War, and how the New Hollywood movement fed on the idea of America’s counterculture. However, there was one notable region of cinema that was, at least in the case of this writer’s education, ignored; a whole archive of cinema, which came from a country rich in history and continually ripe with social and political change. I talk of Chinese cinema.
Though many of the country’s earliest films were lost in the political and social revolutions that consumed the country, others have survived to highlight the growing changes in both China and the cinematic medium. Throughout history, China has been engulfed by many fascinating and influential periods of cinema, from the Golden Age of 1930s Shanghai to the new wave and new directions of modern China, which began in the 80s & 90s and can still be seen in the films released today.
Like the German Expressionist era and the New Hollywood movement, Chinese film is an integral part of cinema’s rich tapestry that deserves the admiration of anyone blessed with a true passion for film. Over the next five months, the BFI will be giving you an opportunity to see some of the very best films that have survived from this beautiful and complex country with their major new season ‘A Century In Chinese Cinema’. Throughout June & July films from the first 3 sections of this 5-part season will be covered, exploring China’s Golden Age of cinema, it’s new directions midway through the 20th century, and the development of genre films throughout China’s cinematic history.
This fantastic new season offers great opportunities to discover a world of cinema you may not have had the chance to experience before, and here’s a taster of 10 films we believe are integral to the start of your journey through Chinese cinema.
Red Heroine (Dir. Wen Yimin, 1929) – 18th June
Martial arts are part of Chinese cinema’s very foundations, both technically and narratively developing as a genre throughout history. Though the archetypical narrative structure here will be familiar to most, Red Heroine is particularly distinguished for its titular hero; instead of masculine central character, it is driven by a heroic female lead. Even for those with just a passing interest in the genre, Red Heroine is an undoubted must-see!
Spring In A Small Town (Dir. Fei Mu, 1948) – 19th June to 15th July
Considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films ever made, Spring In A Small Town marks the unequivocal highpoint of Shanghai’s Golden Era, as well as the end of it. Driven by an astonishing performance from Wei Wei, this heartbreaking study of suppressed longing is quietly devastating and richly rewarding
Shangrao Concentration Camp (Dir. Sha Meng & Zang Ke, 1951) – 14th June
Celebrated as one of the most important films to be shown as part of the BFI’s season, this bold and brutal movie investigates the harsh realities of life in a Nationalist prison. With hypnotic cinematography and unassuming central performances, this film offers the opportunity to discover more about one of China’s most substantial and controversial political eras.
Parents’ Hearts (Dir. Chun Kim, 1955)– 15th & 16th June
Named on Time Out’s list of the greatest Hong Kong films ever made, Parents’ Hearts tells the story of a Cantonese opera actor who’s forced to make a humiliating career choice in order to provide for his family. What follows is a poignant account of how the Cantonese opera scene fell in decline and how if affected those involved in the movement.
China Behind (Dir. Cecile Tang, 1974) – 29th & 30th June
Banned for over a decade by the Hong Kong government, China Behind is a chance to experience a piece of politically challenging cinema. Painting an austere image of China’s ideologies, the film concerns itself with a group of students trying to escape the effects of the country’s Cultural Revolution.
Fist of Fury (Dir. Luo Wei, 1972) – 5th & 8th July
Even now, over 40 years since his death, Bruce Lee remains the iconic face of Kung Fu cinema. In only his second starring role, Lee plays a martial arts student who must battle to defend his country’s honor. Though Enter the Dragon may be considered the pinnacle of his career, Fist of Fury is quite possibly the best showcase of the man’s extraordinary talents.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1978) – 6th & 10th July
Considered by many of the genre’s aficionados to be the greatest martial arts film ever made, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin marked a turning point in the career of its director Lau Kar-Leung & star Gordon Liu. Thrilling fight sequences are fused with an engaging fiction about San Te, to create a versatile masterpiece that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
A Chinese Odyssey (Dir. Jeff Lau, 1995) – 18th, 19th & 22nd July
Visually alluring and narratively enthralling, this is an opportunity to see both parts of Jeff Lau’s highly lauded Chinese Odyssey. With comedian Stephen Chow in the lead role, Lau’s films are enhanced by an infectious lightness of touch, which effortlessly complements the immersive time-travelling story.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Dir. Ang Lee, 2000) – 24th & 27th July
For the many who remained ignorant to the genius of Chinese ‘wuxia’ films, Ang Lee’s incredible Oscar-winning epic was more than just a wakeup call. With its period setting, soulful performances, and sensational swordplay, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a contemporary monument of Chinese cinema that continues to influence different generations of filmmakers.
Infernal Affairs (Dir. Andrew Lau, 2002) – 27th & 29th July
Without doubt the crowning achievement of the Hong Kong crime genre, Infernal Affairs proved to be so enthralling that it was remade by one of cinema’s undisputed masters Martin Scorsese. It remains an extraordinarily difficult task to try and pick a favorite between the two, but whichever you prefer there’s no escaping the quality of the blistering original.
If none of these capture your imagination (and if that’s the case, what is wrong with you), there are plenty of other films showing as part of the season throughout June & July. Check back later in the summer for our second selection of films to see from the forth & fifth part of this amazing cinematic program.