(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949 – 1966
New York, September 26 – October 6
The 47th New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11, 2009) will highlight the history of global cinema, including a special program of films from China. (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966, is a twenty-film anthology of works from the crucial early years of the People’s Republic of China.
Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a series of debates emerged as to the role of the cinema in the new socialist state. What kind of balance should filmmakers strike between the education of the masses and their entertainment? What should be the place of Chinese cultural traditions in creating a national cinema? This film series presents 20 films from the so-called “Seventeen Year” period—from the founding of the PRC to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution—that sought to respond to these debates about what kind of cinema this “New China” should have. The following are the films to be screened, including a number of works never before seen in the U.S.:
Before the New Director Arrives / Xin ju zhang dao lai zhi qian
Lü Ban, China, 1956; 70m
“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” said Chairman Mao in 1956. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Within weeks, multiple films were offering criticisms of revolutionary China that would have been unthinkable even a year prior, including this story of a zealous bureaucrat whose enthusiasm for the title arrival is overshadowed by the director’s selfish motivations. Based on a popular stage play inspired by Gogol’s “The Inspector General,” Lü’s gentle comedy doesn’t attack the system, only those who abuse it for their own ends, a provocative theme in a society in which authority was largely beyond challenge.
Big Li, Little Li and Old Li / Da Li, Xiao Li he Lao Li
Xie Jin, China, 1962; 100m
Union leaders Big Li and Old Li regard sports as a waste of time, unlike Old Li’s son Little Li, who gives sports precedence over just about everything. But when the workers jokingly elect Big Li head of their local athletic association, he surprises everyone by taking the position so seriously, he becomes a sports enthusiast. Xie’s madcap factory comedy uses a fascinating cross-section of characters—as well as slow motion, freeze frames, animation, and screen masks and cutouts—to great comic effect.
Bridge / Qiao
Wang Bin, China, 1949; 100m
Considered the first People’s Republic film despite being shot months before Mao’s final victory, Bridge chronicles the construction of a bridge vital for the movement of advancing Communist forces: The pessimistic lead engineer lacks the time and materials to complete the project, but Liang Risheng, a local union leader, comes up with a bold, innovative plan to bring it home. The film is a template for much of the PRC cinema that followed, emphasizing the clash between technical expertise and class consciousness. With Lü Ban, who would later direct Before the New Director Arrives and other popular films.
Family / Jia
Chen Xihe and Ye Ming, China, 1957; 130m
The mid-’50s saw a wave of films based on works by the May Fourth generation, writers who sought to open Chinese literature and culture to foreign influences and address the reality of contemporary China. In Family, based on the novel by Ba Jin, the fortunes of a large, well-off family decline in the early 20th century after the end of the Imperial government. Painting a rich portrait of the period, Family’s meticulous, beautifully choreographed tracking shots recall Ophüls’s films, creating the incessant feeling of time running out on a certain way of life.
Five Golden Flowers / Wu duo Jinhua
Wang Jiayi, China, 1959; 100m
One of the most charming examples of the National Minority film—a genre that emerged from China’s efforts to decentralize its film industry, resulting in a need for local material filled by non-ethnic PRC citizens—Five Golden Flowers follows Ah Peng, from the Bai minority. He is smitten with an elusive young woman named Golden Flower. They plan to meet in a year, but when the date comes, Golden Flower is absent. Ah Peng’s search leads not only to comic misunderstandings and musical interludes, but a celebration of the solidarity of all Chinese people.
Keep the Red Flag Flying, aka Song of the Red Flag / Hong qi pu
Ling Zifeng, China, 1960; 107m
The new national cinema of China often endeavored to create a visual history of the PRC’s founding. here, veteran director Ling Zifeng follows small farmer Zhu Laogong (Cui Wei) through long years of hardship and dreams of revenge before he arrives at a new political consciousness. Keep the Red Flag Flying shows how much more powerful the anger and discontent of the common people can become when it is grounded in revolutionary theory and expressed in solidarity with others. Cui won the Hundred Flowers award (then the Chinese Oscar) for best actor for his performance.
Li Shuang Shuang
Lu Ren, China, 1962; 110m
One of the era’s most popular films and winner of four Hundred Flowers awards including Best Picture, Li Shuang Shuang offers up another round in the battle of the sexes wrought by China’s revolutionary society. Straight-talking Shuang Shuang (Zhang Ruifang) launches a corruption investigation into her own husband, commune accountant Xiwang (Zhong Xinghuo), that forces him to leave. When they meet again, Xiwang claims that he is a changed man, but will Shuang Shuang take him back? A rollicking character study with great performances, influenced by a favorite of Chinese filmmakers: ’30s Hollywood comedies.
Living Forever in Burning Flames / Lie huo zhong yong sheng
Shui Hua, China, 1965; 138m
In the waning days of the civil war, clandestine Communist leader Xu Yunfeng (the great Zhao Dan, in his last major performance) is sent to the notorious Red Crag prison, where he’s tortured and beaten. As the situation grows worse for the Nationalists, prison officials step up their oppression, announcing plans to execute all the prisoners. One of the last films completed before the Cultural Revolution temporarily ended film production in China, Living Forever focuses not on heroics but on the interpersonal support the prisoners give each other, confronting the sacrifices made to achieve the final victory.
Mysterious Traveling Companion / Shen mi de lu ban
Lin Nong and Zhu Wenshun, China, 1955; 100m
One of the classics of the PRC’s popular spy film genre, Mysterious Traveling Companion follows two secret agents working for the Americans who smuggle weapons and communication equipment to a Catholic priest. When they arouse the suspicions of a local woman, the border patrol assigns two of its own agents to infiltrate the smugglers’ operation. Wonderful plot twists and a taut, suspenseful ending frame a National Minority story, as the many non-Han Chinese characters finally reveal an unquestionable loyalty to Beijing.
New Year Sacrifice / Zhu Fu
Sang Hu, China, 1956; 100m
In New Year Sacrifice, based on a key work by the great May Fourth writer Lu Xun, a young widow (veteran actress Bai Yang) is sold by her in-laws to a mountain peasant. He turns out to be a kind man, but when fate deals her another blow, she is regarded as a pariah despite her ultimately devastating attempt to be forgiven by making a major donation to a temple. Lu hoped to show through his story the oppressive weight of tradition, which only increases the burdens on widows while offering little comfort.
Zheng Junli, China, 1959; 130m
Nie Er re-united two powerhouses of the pre-1949 Shanghai cinema, director Zheng Junli (The Spring River Flows East and Crows and Sparrows) and celebrated actor Zhao Dan, to create a massive studio production chronicling the life of Nie Er, the composer of the PRC’s national anthem “March of the Volunteers,” who died in 1935. The period recreation is breathtaking, as Zheng and his screenwriters offer a powerful variation on a perpetual meditation: the role of art and artists in times of revolutionary change.
Platoon Commander Guan / Guan lian zhang
Shi Hui, China, 1951; 120m
Veterans of dozens of battles, Commander Guan (director Shu Hui, one of the greatest film talents to have emerged at the end of the war) and his men come off R&R with orders to attack enemy headquarters in Shanghai. But Guan discovers that the targeted building is actually an orphanage, with hundreds of terrified children still inside. Brilliantly acted and consistently challenging, Platoon Commander Guan offers one of the most richly nuanced portraits of the liberation struggle. As a result, many contemporary Chinese directors, including Jia Zhangke, cite the film as an all-time favorite.
The Red Detachment of Women / Hong se niang zi jun
Xie Jin, China, 1961; 115m
Escape-prone servant girl Chunghua is bought from her master by a wealthy businessman who turns out to be an organizer for the Communist party. She joins up eagerly, but her desire for revenge overshadows her commitment to the revolution, until she becomes a danger to her new comrades. One of the best films of the period, The Red Detachment laces its politics with great expressions of personal passion and scenes of remarkable physical transformation. It was a favorite of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, forming the basis for one of her “eight model plays.”
Sentries Under Neon Lights / Ni hong deng xia de shao bin
Wang Ping and Ge Xing, China, 1964; 130m
Shortly after the liberation of Shanghai, a PLA unit is billeted in the late-night hotspots along Nanjing Road. The temptation proves too much for the soldiers, and the local political supervisor Lu Hua is left to bring them back into the Party fold. This free use of questionable main characters was not to defend their bad behavior but to show that, with proper guidance, even the most decadent citizens can be reintegrated into the new China, a direct challenge to the hard-line attitude that judged people on class background alone.
Seventy-Two Tenants / Qi shi er jia fang ke
Wang Weiyi, China, 1963; 90m
An old Guangzhou tenement house serves as a microcosm of China in the months before the establishment of the PRC. When the tyrannical landlord announces plans to convert the ramshackle building into a pleasure palace, the loose band of merchants, artisans, and artists unite to save their homes. Chockfull of side stories and wonderful comic passages, Seventy-Two Tenants uses a favorite plot device of the era: the sudden coming to consciousness of a group of otherwise apathetic citizens.
This Life of Mine, aka The Life of a Beijing Policeman / Wo zhe yi bei zi
Shi Hui, China, 1950; 110m
Based on a novel by Lao She, one of China’s most important writers, This Life of Mine follows a nameless man (director Shi Hui) who, as a Beijing policeman near the end of Imperial regime, witnesses many of the major events of modern Chinese history: the May Fourth movement, the rise of the Guomindang, the Japanese invasion, the war. Shi brings astonishing depth to the character, offering both visceral pain and the persistent fear that he’ll eventually get caught on the wrong side of the struggle.
Two Stage Sisters / Wutai jiemei
Xie Jin, China, 1965; 112m
The unrivalled masterpiece of the Seventeen Years cinema follows peasant girl Chunhua, who escapes an arranged marriage by hiding within a traveling Shaoxing opera company. Soon, she and Yuehong, the manager’s daughter, earn fame and perhaps too much attention as a scintillating on-stage duo. With ravishing art design and a unique approach to filming opera, this brilliantly executed work is studio filmmaking at its finest. Nevertheless, Jiang Qing despised the film, inciting so much anger that a group of Red Guards destroyed the magnificent 16th-century stage that appears in the opening scenes.
Visitors on the Icy Mountains / Yi ge shi zhe dui sheng zhe de fang wen
Zhao Shinshui, China, 1963; 100m
Shortly after the liberation, a group of spies plan to infiltrate China through the forbidding mountain passes in Xinjiang by exploiting the unrequited love of a vulnerable border guard. But the commander of the border guards has his own secret weapon: the guard’s old flame, who has begun working for the Chinese. Several exciting mountain sequences and romantic subplots underscore this popular spy thriller, a prime example of how skillfully Chinese filmmakers could wrap their openly patriotic messages within rich, hugely entertaining narratives.
Woman Basketball Player No. 5 / Nü lan wu hao
Xie Jin, China, 1957; 94m
Not the most lyrical title in film history, but Woman Basketball Player No. 5 is a work of tremendous feeling that launched the career of one of China’s greatest filmmakers. After refusing to throw a game, star basketball player Tian Zhenghua is kicked off the team while his love Jie, the team owner’s daughter, is married off. Eighteen years later and a successful coach, he is amazed to discover that his star player is the daughter of his old flame. The before-and-after-the-liberation narrative was a staple of the period, allowing filmmakers to depict the decadent bad old days and celebrate the changes wrought by the new China.
Woman Hairdresser / Nu li fa shi
Ding Ran, China, 1962; 100m
Hua Jiafang goes against her Party husband’s wishes and enrolls in a hairdressing course. Landing a good job in a prominent salon, her reputation soars, and soon she is attracting clients from all over—including her unknowing husband. One of the few films of the era to discuss the lingering presence of class prejudice in China, Woman Hairdresser makes an impassioned plea for the dignity of all work, as well as the right of women to determine for themselves the course of their lives.