In recent years, the popularity of Chinese Cinema has greatly increased in the West. Martial Arts films, fantasy fables, and vast epics, have all been well-received in Europe and America, and made international stars of some previously unknown Chinese actors. In my list, I will avoid reference to most, if not all of these well-known films, and try to look behind the hype, for the real film-making from a country that has produced some of the best work of the last thirty years.
Red Sorghum. This is a 1987 film from acclaimed director Yimou Zhang, and features the well known actress Gong Li, in her first starring role. Set in the 1930’s, just before the Japanese invasion, it tells the story of the young wife, bought by the repulsive aged owner of a wealthy sorghum wine making business. Married against her will, she soon finds love with one of the servants. When the old husband dies, she runs the business, a rare sight of female independence in old China. The Japanese come, and the community eventually rises against them. That is the story, but not the film. Beautifully photographed, with a meticulous sense of time and place, the red of the sorghum acting as a metaphor for the blood that flows, all make this film a cinematic treat. There has been much criticism that the story fails to progress smoothly, due to the emphasis on the scenery, and the compelling visuals. I would have to agree, that there is an element of style over substance. However, in this case, it is justified. This clip shows the wonderful cinematography to full effect.
Raise the Red Lantern. This time set in the 1920’s, again directed by Zhang, (in 1991) and once more starring Gong Li, in another tale of forced marriage in pre-revolutionary China. If you think I am giving you two the same, you are wrong. They couldn’t be more different. The young girl taken into marriage as the fourth wife of the wealthy master, must adapt to the claustrophobic household, and the rituals of life as part of what is essentially, a harem. Each night, the master will choose who will spend the night with him, and her lanterns will be lit and raised, hence the title. Amongst the women, our heroine must decide who is friend or foe, and who may be a danger to her, all the time trying to be the one chosen by the master, to have his child, or to please him in some way; thus ensuring the continuation of her luxurious lifestyle. Things change, and the outcomes are never predictable. This is a cleverly scripted, and elegantly filmed work, considered to be a classic of modern Chinese Cinema. It has little action to speak of, and depends on powerful performances, great lighting, and the unusual setting. Something very different. This short clip sees Gong Li at her dramatic best.
City of Life and Death. This 2009 film is an unflinching depiction of the massacres in Nanking in 1937, after the city fell to the invading Japanese army. Many inhabitants fled into the International Zone, seeking protection from the foreign missions there, and many were aided, ironically enough, by the representative of Nazi Germany. This is a true story, and is filmed in sumptuous high resolution black and white, which adds to the immaculate period feel. I should include a warning that there is graphic depiction of casual and brutal violence, rape, and many other atrocities, as well as the mass executions of soldiers, and civilians. It is not easy to watch, but then neither is Schindler’s List. It is a harsh fact that over 300,000 people were killed during a six-week period, and this event is still fresh in the thoughts of the Chinese to this day. This film does justice to the victims, and educates those who were unaware, and as such, is an important work that should be seen by many. This is the official trailer, in widescreen HD.
Blind Shaft. This 2003 film is in a more modern setting, the coal mines of industrial China. The poor working conditions, non-existent safety precautions, and hard life of the miners, are all well portrayed, in a style reminiscent of a documentary. Two men think up a scheme, to supplement their meagre incomes. They find an unemployed man, and convince him to pose as a relative. If he agrees, they try to get him a job at their mine. Soon after he starts work, they kill him, in a fake accident, and claim the death benefit, from the mine manager. This works so well, that they begin to move around the region, from mine to mine, continuing their murderous con trick. They then target a young man, only 16 years old, and one of the pair begins to have doubts. This is a well-acted and unusual film, depicting areas of Chinese life rarely seen outside that country. It is also suspenseful, and has a compelling plot, that keeps the viewer satisfied until the end. This trailer will give you an idea of the film.
The story of Qui Ju. If my third choice starring Gong Li, again directed by Zhang, seems lazy and uninspired, I assure you that it is not. There is a reason that they are paired so often in Chinese films, and it is because they are both at the top of their game at this time, unassailable in both their fields. This film, made in 1992, gives us an insight into how modern China still exists in what are two worlds. The peasants in the countryside live an almost medieval existence, and see the city as a mystical, far-off place, to which they should never go. This simple story is so basic, as to almost raise the question ‘why film it?’ A man is beaten by a petty official, acting as the village chief in a country district. The attacker refuses to apologise, meaning that the family suffer indignity, and lose face, still a matter of great importance to the people. When she receives no satisfaction, the man’s wife begins her tortuous journey through the many levels of Chinese bureaucracy, getting ever nearer to the distant city, as she does so. On the way, we are treated to a view of life in China unknown to us in the West, and some marvellous photography, together with entertaining set pieces too. The ending is not what you might imagine either, and the whole film is a delight from start to finish. The American trailer shows how good it is.
That is my selection from China. I am sorry if three of those films all star the same female lead, and were directed by the same film-maker. However, if you ever watch them, you will know why they were included. Chinese films have become familiar to us recently, but I believe that I have found five that are not so well known, and will reward the discerning viewer. Please also be aware that Chinese names are often reversed, so Gong Li may be written as Li Gong, and Yimou Zhang as Zhang Yimou. Confusing isn’t it?