Early Spring in February, starring Xie Fang, (1963), is featured in the guide. (Photo: China Daily)
BEIJING, Nov. 12 (Xinhuanet) — If you have ever wondered whether China has produced any cinema other than over-embellished period dramas, kungfu-style action flicks or soapy stories about who gets to hook the office stud, 101 Essential Chinese Movies might be a good place to start.
Published recently by the Shanghai-based Earnshaw Books and written by journalist-turned-film historian Simon Fowler, the book is both a handy guide for the uninitiated and a springboard to plunge right into China’s incredibly multi-dimensional 105-year-old cinematic history. It, as Time’s China correspondent Austin Ramzy states in his advance praise for the book, “provides the reader with deep insights into not only Chinese film, but also China itself”.
Fowler, who has been strongly influenced by films since he was about 11, made a smooth transition from a film fanatic to being a “Chinese film fanatic” soon after moving to China from England in 2006.
As one who had been tutored meticulously into understanding the black-and-white classics by his eldest brother “Jem” – now a filmmaker based in London – the younger Fowler felt he badly needed a “context” to read Chinese films once he hit the shores of the Middle Kingdom. What started off as trying to establish a frame of reference to arrive at a better understanding of Chinese films has since evolved into 101 Essential Chinese Movies.
Interestingly, he left out the bulk of films made in Hong Kong and Taiwan – films which, in popular imagination, often represent the idea of “Chinese” to the rest of the world. Fowler focused on films from the Chinese mainland, the people who made them and the politics that, until recently, went into their making.
“The cinema of the mainland – for most of the past century – has been overtly political,” Fowler comments. “Even before the communists came to power, films were mainly made by Leftist intellectuals in Shanghai and they weaved their messages into nearly every plot. What is most interesting about this is that they were still able to achieve a high stylistic and artistic level.”
It is relatively recently that the Chinese mainland has begun to produce wuxia (martial arts)-dominated genre films, he says.
The winds of change are apparent as Zhang Yimou, arguably China’s most influential film director, is now massively into period drama that come with a panoramic flourish, and often dazzling color-coordinated fight sequences. “It’s getting harder to distinguish between the two (a Chinese mainland product and a Hong Kong sample),” Fowler points out.
In his opinion the 1930s define Chinese cinema’s “golden age”. Filmmaking in China began as early as 1905 (The Battle of Dingjunshan was the filmed version of a Peking Opera). But it was with the films made by the free-spirited, educated, urban directors, who produced their works in the concession areas of Shanghai, where the long arm of the Japanese forces who controlled most of coastal China could not reach them, that Chinese cinema came into its own.