In Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city open to innovations from outside, the first public screening of a film took place in 1896. It was obviously a foreign production, just as for some years the works distributed in the country will not be Chinese. The first national film known is Ren Jingfeng’s Dingjunshan (“Mount Ding yun”), shot in 1905 at the Fengtai photographic studios in Beijing.
It is in the Chinese capital that the film industry develops and some permanent cinemas arise, substitutes for the booths placed in the parks during national or religious holidays. The industry grew rapidly, although the first feature film was produced only in 1913, Nanfu Nanqi (“Unfortunate Blow”), by Zhan Shichuan, a multifaceted filmmaker who made the transition to sound with the film Genu Hongmudan (“La cantatrice Hong”, 1930) and the creation of a production company, Mingxing, which from 1922 onwards made some of the greatest hits of the silent period. Social dramas, unhappy loves, abandoned orphans and betrayed lovers are the privileged object of Chinese cinema of the 1920s, a cinema strongly imbued with pink literature – the ” high ” of classic novels and the ” low ” of women’s newspapers – in which peasants and workers never appear, but only the Chinese of the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals belonging to the ruling class. Foreign influences are also felt in the production, primarily American. Numerous the comedians a la Laurel and Hardy and the brilliant comedies a la Lubitsch, of which you can read an attempt at
According to COMPUTERMINUS.COM, the censorship instituted by the Chang Kai-shek government on January 1, 1930 is holding back the development of Chinese cinema. A group of left-wing filmmakers, including Hong Shon and Situ Huimin, oppose the government by denouncing the serious crisis in which the industry, increasingly open to foreign financing, especially from the United States, is falling. Despite the efforts, the situation worsens and ends up precipitating due to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai between 1931 and 1932: many studios are closed and half of the city’s halls destroyed. However, the political situation produces qualitatively positive results: for the first time in Chinese cinema, social issues are addressed. In Chuncan (1933) and Kuong liu(“The wild torrent”, 1933), by Cheng Buao, the peasants make their appearance and in the following two years works centered on figures of women and workers are created.
The climate of terror reaches its peak in 1937, the year in which many filmmakers take refuge in Hong Kong, without giving up producing, as evidenced by the works of Cai Chusheng. The directors who remained in their homeland first met in theater companies and later set up production companies in the province, far from the strict control of the Japanese authorities. Particularly active are the studios in the North East and those in the city of Yan’an, where between 1938 and 1947 some twenty films and numerous documentaries were produced which today have considerable historical value. Through their films, the directors of the North East exalt the national spirit and reaffirm the need to oppose Japanese domination.
When the People’s Republic of China was born in 1949, the first step of Mao’s government was to set up two offices responsible for cinematography, one dependent on the Ministry of Culture and one directly from the propaganda section of the party’s central committee. Both institutions soon denounced their control function, while giving significant impetus to the industry. Following Mao’s idea that cinema, like the other arts, is first and foremost a means of propaganda, the cinema offices begin a work of strengthening the production and distribution structures that have never stopped since then. From 1950 to 1980 the number of theaters scattered throughout the country multiplied, rising from around 2200 to 120,000; the same thirty years saw an almost exponential growth in spectators: from 600 million to 25 billion.
A free development of ideas does not correspond to this technical and industrial development. 75% of the films made, subjected to strict censorship, have as their theme the revolution and the construction of socialist society. The progressive state of repression reached its peak in the mid-1960s, when two films were publicly accused of supporting the petty bourgeois ideology to the detriment of the class struggle. Zaochun eryue (“Early Spring”, 1963) by Xie Tieli and Beiguo jiangnan(“North of the fertile lands”, 1963) by Shen Fu are banned, and those responsible for the cinematography, guilty of not having censored, dismissed them.
What follows are dark years, during which the production is controlled by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a former actress who leaves no initiative to the directors, forced to move within well-defined areas. The situation did not improve after the fall of Jiang Qing in 1976, also because under his regime the most talented filmmakers had been persecuted and many had died in prison; cinema therefore finds itself without new forces on which to rely.
The recovery started slowly, but already in 1976 an attempt at renewal was marked by the fact that the Filmmakers’ Association came together again while the film schools reopened. Since 1978, China has participated in numerous festivals all over the world: an opportunity for Chinese filmmakers to get to know and establish relationships with the most diverse cinematographic realities. The stimuli for renewal soon bear fruit. 1982 marks the birth of a nouvelle vague animated in large part by that generation of young directors who graduated after the Cultural Revolution at the Beijing Film Academy. The works of the so-called ” directors of the fifth generation ”, almost all in their thirties, can be traced back to a common aesthetic that has its strengths in the search for a transgression operated in both expressive and thematic terms. This attitude has sometimes created many problems, so much so that several films have been re-edited because they are too out of line with the principles of the Cultural Revolution. Among the directors whose names have now crossed national borders, Zhang Junzhao, Wu Ziniu, Huang Jiianxin, and especially Chen Kaige, author of Huang tudi (“Yellow Earth”, 1984), Dayuebing (” Hai zi wuang (“The King of Children”, 1988), three films presented in various festivals, welcomed everywhere.