The Irresistible Rise of Asian Cinema

  SPRING 1994

(1) Production Activity

Gerald Pratley (Shanghai)

IT WAS not so many years ago it seems when speaking of motion pictures from Asia meant Japanese films as represented by Akira Kurosawa and films from India made by Satyajit Ray. But suddenly time passes and now we are impressed and immersed in the flow of films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, South Korea, the Philippines, with Japan a less significant player, and India and Pakistan more prolific than ever in making entertainment for the mass audience. No one has given it a name or described it as "New Wave," it is simply Asian Cinema -- the most exciting development in filmmaking taking place in the world today.

In China everything is falling apart yet it manages to hold together, nothing works yet it keeps on going, nothing is ever finished or properly maintained, and yes, here time does wait for every man. But as far as art and industry are concerned, it is an awakening giant! The Shanghai Film Studios are a small world of their own -- a reflection of what China is today. They are reputedly the best among the country's 15 studio lots, including Beijing and Changchun. The August 1st Studio in Beijing makes good use of the Army as extras -- as the Canadian Bethune discovered when it filmed there.

The studios in Shanghai are about five miles from downtown in a pleasant suburban district. It takes 45 minutes by taxi crawling through the dense crowds and traffic of all descriptions. Like all studios worldwide, it looks old, rough and ready, a quiet and dusty place among trees and flowers. The courteous press attache, Thomas Tang, showed us around. Several popular entertainments occupied the five stages. The average salaries are Y300 a month (the official average wage in China) more if they work on foreign co-productions, and the studio has a number of actors on long-term contracts.

Films are usually made between Spring and Autumn, as it is after the Chinese New Year that studio heads (studios in general, not just Shanghai) receive the decisions of the Government censor board as to which scripts are considered suitable for production. Because studios were forced in the past to make so many government-approved subjects the public was not interested in paying to see, the managers decided to rent their facilities to independent producers making co-productions with Taiwan and Hong Kong. They are given more latitude by the Government as long as they are not blatantly critical of government practises and policies. A good example is Farewell My Concubine produced at Peking Film Studio but financed by the Hong Kong affiliate of a Taiwan film company. The director was Chen Kaige, originally from mainland China and now a US resident. While the script was approved for shooting, as was the finished film, it was only after the Cannes hoopla that the Chinese government decided to take a look at it again -- because the "foreigners" liked it so much!

But co-productions have led to enormous problems; with films being made in the studio and out on location the facilities demanded by Hong Kong and the Taiwanese producers make it difficult for the Chinese studios to comply, resourceful though they are. Difficulties also arise over language. There is no problem with the Taiwanese who speak Mandarin, but most Hong Kong filmmakers speak only Cantonese. While some do try to speak Mandarin it is with a heavy accent hard to understand. In Shanghai Film Studios recording studio, terribly old-fashioned compared to Hong Kong and the West, the technician proudly showed us the first and only Dolby installation in China -- one of the earliest models.

As elsewhere in China, formerly directors were under contract to Shanghai Studios, which turns out 15 to 20 films a year. Annual production in the whole of China runs around 150 to 200 features of which the greater number are simple, popular stories for the masses, action movies, historical dramas, romances -- many influenced by Hong Kong films; the engine driving all Chinese-language movies today. Taiwan has a small industry of its own, but its cinemas are dominated by Hong Kong films dubbed into Mandarin, and US movies.

The irony for movie buffs visiting China is that mainland films were hard to find in Shanghai's hundreds of cinemas; they were filled with HK "pops" and foreign thrillers which the government mostly passes without too much interference. The mainland Chinese try to make their own action films but Hong Kong's are slicker and generally preferred. Many are shot in the mainland itself (where locations are more plentiful and labour cheaper) by popular HK directors like Tsui Hark, Raymond Lee and Cory Yuen. Zhang Yimou (who photographed Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth) had just started a new period drama To Live, with his favourite actress, Gong Li, on location some 50 miles from the studio. Zhang has worked his way up through the ranks directing well-received "art movies" like Red Sorghum, Judou, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju. In selling these films abroad, producers and studios are now allowed to by-pass the China Film Export & Import Corp., but most are woefully ill-equipped in language ability and business acumen to do so. Although CFE is not much good at it either, most observers expect China Film to continue in its traditional role for some time to come.

However, a recent trend, mostly for co-productions with serious themes, has been for foreign sales agents to handle international business. If the majority co-producer is from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Japan, this ensures the negative will stay outside China, thus making it possible for the West to see difficult or "banned" works like Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite (secretly taken to Cannes) or Zhang Yuan's Beijing Bastards (shown at Locarno) much to the Chinese government's disapproval -- at home as well as abroad. The Blue Kite, possibly the most impressive among the new films, tells the dramatic and moving story of an ordinary family living through fifty years of social and political changes in China.

Other successes overseas have been Xie Fei's The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls, John Zhang's Consuming Sun, Han Gang's Grandpa Ge, Hou Hsiao Hsien's The Puppetmaster, and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, the latter financed from Taiwan and shot in New York City.

Films like these are mostly discovered at festivals and purchased by distributors for specialised showings throughout Europe, Australasia and North America -- where the most money is likely to be made. The Vancouver Film Festival is noted for its detailed and comprehensive Asian Cinema programs, with London, Locarno, and Toronto also giving large representations and retrospectives. Much of what the outside world has learned and discovered about Asian filmmaking is the result of the knowledgeable writing and cinema-going of Derek Elley in London and Hong Kong, David Overby in Toronto and Paris, and Tony Rayns in Vancouver and London.

Few films from other Asian countries are to be found in Shanghai's cinemas or elsewhere in China: the Philippines, for example, has a reasonable rate of production, but few festival entries since Lino Brocka died; South Korea makes around ten a year and had a recent success at festivals with Park John-Won's Our Twisted Hero; Vietnam has a small industry making films again; Thailand has a large and popular industry; Malaysia and Indonesia are continuously active; only Singapore has no production. Burma's small industry is stagnant, suppressed by its military dictatorship. And all look towards Hong Kong with admiration mixed with envy.

In the small, densely populated Hong Kong the rate of production is astounding with some 120-150 films being turned out each year, almost all of them made on location. The once famous studios of the Shaw Bros. led by Sir Run Run Shaw in Clearwater Bay across the harbour is almost an hour's drive east of the city amid the rolling hills and tranquil, thinly populated countryside known as the New Territories. It could be mistaken for MGM's old forecourt, while the symbol on the gate reminds one of the Warner Bros. famous shield. It is a fully serviced studio complete with a block of flats that once housed an army of contract players. But few feature-length films are made here today. The many still standing sets are rented almost exclusively by independent producers of television programs, including TVB partly owned by Sir Run Run. Once dominant in film production, with offices in Los Angeles and London until the late 70s, and the publisher of two monthly magazines about the many films he produced, he is now a reclusive, little seen figure. The company which challenged him is Golden Harvest run by Raymond Chow, who also maintains a company in Los Angeles (it financed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- among others). Set up in the early 70s, very much on its success with Bruce Lee, Golden Harvest would never have prospered without him. Run Run Shaw and Chow became deadly enemies because Chow was Sir Run Run's right-hand man for many years until he `defected' to set up his own company and put Bruce Lee under contract. The massive success of the Lee films followed by those of Jackie Chan and others, helped to keep Golden Harvest in business, along with a smart, ruthlessly administered business policy and a more international outlook than Shaw Bros. ever had.

The Golden Harvest studios are in Hammer Hill in northern Kowloon. It's a smaller studio in a residential district, on the side of a small hill, very compact, unlike the Shaw studio which spreads over several acres. It contains all the essentials required to make and complete films, it's cleverly managed and consistently makes money. The GH company distributes its own films and those of other producers, it owns cinemas, linking up with the Cathay circuit, and once published its own movie magazine in competition with Sir Run Run's during the 70's when they were going head-to-head.

When Bruce Lee died in July 1973, Golden Harvest found itself without a major action star. It kept going in the meantime with the success of actor-director-star Michael Hui's comedies, like The Private Eyes, which transformed Cantonese cinema. Then GH "discovered" Jackie Chan, who had been in some successful independent movies in the late 70's and made him an international name -- with huge financial returns to GH. Not surprisingly, Chan later set up his own company, Golden Way, but remains closely affiliated with GH. Chow continues to make other films and is deeply involved in much of the financial manipulation going on in the frenzied field of TV satellite transmission and programming

Nowadays it's the dozens of independent filmmakers who keep the bread-and-butter films pouring into the cinemas and across Asia. They own no studios, film on the streets and in buildings, have no unions to worry about, frequently work on two or three films at the same time, with the leading stars appearing in up to a dozen films a year. Working quickly and effectively, these lively young filmmakers often spend only a month shooting and finish post-production in a week. There are no government subsidies for anyone in Hong Kong, although a good deal of laundering goes on with Triad money. Triads have become increasingly involved in the HK film business over the last three years, moving from protection rackets into production itself. Lured by the quick profits to be made, they haven't hesitated to murder and mangle those who stand in their way.

The important aspect to keep in mind is that locally made films always out-gross American films. None of the international blockbusters top local productions. Interestingly, among all this film activity and the busy cinemas of Hong Kong, the large and beautiful Hong Kong Cultural Centre was attracting full houses with the complete series of Rock Demers' Tales for All family stories at which parents and their children were being happily entertained.

Hong Kongers have always supported their own films, and the majority of these outside the Golden Harvest orbit are made by companies with such attractive names as Film Workshop (run by director Tsui Hark), Impact Films, Win's Movie, Golden Princess, Grand Well and D&B Films. Many come and go. Comedy is a mix of the verbal and physical, action subjects are divided into crime and historical dramas, always with comic pieces. The craze of the past couple of years has been period costume martial arts pictures such as the Once Upon A Time in China series, the fourth recently produced by Tsui Hark.

Hong Kong films of all kinds are sold all over Asia and dominate the box-offices. Anywhere in Asia, other than India and Pakistan, HK films are the most popular. In Japan Jackie Chan is a huge star. It's amazing when you think of it; Hong Kong is the Hollywood of the Far East. But what will happen when Great Britain returns the colony to China in 1997 no one knows.

Many filmmakers and actors have already received Canadian passports and have set up companies in British Columbia. They have made the minimum investment required by our government, $250,000, made a film, established residence, and returned to HK to go on working until 1997.

But for the present, over twenty critically and publicly acclaimed Asian films are now playing in North America to non-Asian audiences in specialised cinemas. If you speak Mandarin or Cantonese of course, there are hundreds more to be found in the video shops of every Chinatown!

(2) The Great Leap Forward

Toh Hai Leong (Singapore)

THE subject of homosexuality is taboo in Chinese films. Ever since Chinese cinema gained world prominence in the 1930s with Mainland Chinese social protest works like Street Angel and Crossroads (both made in 1937 by the socialist Mingxing Film Company) and through the highly popular wen-yi (heterosexual romance) Taiwanese films of the 1960s and 1970s, and the action and comedy mainstays of Hong Kong in the 1970s, no major Chinese film has dared to venture into this taboo theme.

It was only in the realm of martial arts film genre (the wu hsia pien) that a renegade major director like Chu Yuan could tackle this "unspeakable" subject in his 1972 successful Ai Nu, the Chinese Courtesan and its more daring 1984 remake Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan. The former hints at a lesbian relationship between a brothel madame Chung and Ai-nu, her innocent protégé who is manipulated by the older woman for her selfish ends. The latter was more explicit with some graphic and titillating scenes of the two women (Hu Kuan-chen, known for her prim and proper roles, and Yu An An, as the procuress). In fact the Ai-nu remake was inspired by director Eddie Fong who in the same year made the hybrid Japanese-Chinese erotica, An Amorous Woman of the Tang Dynasty, which features the willowy and sensuous Pat Ha as a "liberated" Tang woman poet/prostitute involved in a deadly dalliance with her maid.

More recently, veteran action-actor and director Sammo Hung failed critically with his satire of a gay killer in his thriller, Pantyhose Hero (1992), a lack-lustre story about two cops (Hung and Alan Tam) trying very hard to solve a murder in a gay community.

To date, only two major Chinese films -- Taiwanese-American Lee Ang's The Wedding Banquet and Mainlander-American Chen Kaige's Farewell to my Concubine (both made in 1992) have touched on this previously taboo subject in a humane and relatively subtle way. Both directors won international acclaim for their works: At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, Chen's Farewell... shared the Golden Palm with Jane Campion's The Piano while Lee's Wedding Banquet won the 1993 Golden Bear for Best Film in Berlin ex aequo with Mainlander Xie Fei's Women from the Lake of Scented Souls.

The more subtle of the two is Farewell... which was temporarily banned in China. The ban was eventually lifted, to the delight of thousands of Chen's fans who are pleased that he has secured the honour of being the first Chinese to win the top prize at Cannes. Unfortunately, Farewell... remains banned in Taiwan for political reasons.

The film's title is culled from an opera classic which tells of Ru-yi, the king's concubine, who kills herself out of loyalty to her king who has been defeated utterly by his nemesis rival. The story of the "love" between the two Peking opera stage brothers Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and Cheng Dieyi (Hongkong's heart-throb singer Leslie Cheung) and of the courtesan Ju Xian who comes in between them is based on the novel by the popular Hong Kong woman writer Li Pik Wah who also wrote the screenplay. The Cultural Revolution scenes where Cheng and Duan denounce each other to save their own skins were rewritten by Chen Kaige himself. The director incorporated into them his bitter personal experiences from the period in which he himself was made to denounce his filmmaker father.

The epic tale opens in 1977 with the two main characters as old men and flashbacks to the 1920s, when they were children at a cruel Beijing opera academy -- almost a torture chamber -- presided by a harsh disciplinarian who punished his pupils at the slightest mistake. Under these intensely harsh conditions, the two boys formed a strong bond; Cheng, blessed by his prostitute mother's good looks, took on girlish roles, while Duan played the macho warrior role.

As Cheng grew up, he became increasingly attracted to Duan who, to Cheng's horror, was smitten by a prostitute Ju (Gong Li) and whom he later married.

Through the brutal Japanese occupation of the 1940s to the harrowing decade of the Cultural Revolution (1967-77), the duo's lives remain inextricably linked by their stage roles they had assumed in the Farewell... opera classic. Their apolitical attitude did not save them from the assaults of History; they ended up betraying each other at the ugly purges and mock trials staged by the zealous Red Guards.

The theme of betrayal and loyalty -- the other preoccupation of this complex film -- subsumes that of the "gay connection." But the latter is undeniably strong, albeit undercurrent and a strong one at that. A critic who previewed it in Hong Kong with me suggested it was Leslie Cheung's fiery looks at Zhang Fengyi and those jealous rages he displays like a spurned woman that established the taboo theme.

Chen's Farewell... is sumptuously photographed and the period evocation is uncanny, verging from the moody black and white to the sulphurous yellow and amber, the latter suggesting the dark sides of the two men who later fail to stand up to the test of their courage and bonding.

Both Zhang and Cheung put in power-packed performances while Gong Li is faultless as the woman who thwarts and erodes the love of the two stage brothers. The film might as well be titled Two Stage Brothers after Shanghaiese director Xie Jin's 1964 classic, Two Stage Sisters.

The Wedding Banquet is a more open "gay" film compared to Farewell... Here, the thematic treatment is that of a marriage of convenience schemed by Simon (Michel Lichtenstein), the Caucasian lover of Taiwanese yuppie Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) -- to appease the latter's conservative parents who want him to marry and to provide them with a grandchild. This social comedy takes a swipe at the "5,000 years of (Chinese) sexual repression" and the Chinese prejudice of (male) homosexuality.

With Lee Ang's adroit handling, the Taiwanese film industry seems to have finally come to terms with the depiction of this sexual taboo in a humorous and incisive way. Lee neither portrays the gay relationship as weird or twisted nor does he glorify or glamorize the gay subculture in Manhattan. As a story-teller and a moralist, he shows people as they are, without passing judgement on them.

It is a better approach this way -- the director respects the audience. The film depicts the loving gay relationship of the two men, which is shaken by the insistent desire of the Wai-Tung's parents to see their son settle down. To get his Confucianist parents off his lover's back, Simon convinces Wai-Tung to marry Wei-Wei (May Chin), Wai-Tung's tenant. Wei-Wei, a sultry and pretty painter from Shanghai, is also an illegal immigrant. Out of this loveless marriage, she will get her coveted "green card." However, Wei-Wei is not satisfied merely to be his "unconsummated wife;" she seduces him on their wedding night and, like Gong Li in Farewell..., sets a wedge between the love of the two men.

Director Lee Ang is a master of situational comedy -- not the television sit-coms variety but those comedies of panic and human errors that come with fear. When Wai-Tung's parents suddenly drop in, the gay duo have to re-arrange their usual intimate set-up; their cartoonish action is very amusing indeed. When the pregnant Wei-Wei frets and blames Wai-Tung for his irresponsibility, the heated verbal exchanges between Wai-Tung and his white lover in front of his parents over the lunch table amply show they once enjoyed their onerous relationship until the fake marriage and May's pregnancy started to reveal cracks in their attachment to each other.

It cannot be a coincidental trend that these two major films have as their major theme homosexual love. Both have confirmed the resurgence of Chinese films which are more liberal and less inhibited in dealing with previously taboo subjects. At the same time, the films bring insight and better understanding of those outside the mainstream culture.

Chen himself does not want to tag his masterwork "a homosexual movie." That would be unjust and ill-judged, nay, even intolerant. Instead, he speaks about "a special kind of love." Lee Ang is also not about to pigeonhole his complex social comedy "a gay film." In his promotional film literature, he just inscribes "5,000 Years of Sexual Repression."

We, the audience, are left to draw our own conclusions, without being manipulated. That is what, in the view of this writer, makes filmviewing a challenging and wonderful experience.

(3) Tian Zhuangzhuang: A Director for the 21st Century

Yvonne Ng (Singapore)

NOWADAYS, when one speaks of mainland Chinese cinema, the names of directors Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, Farewell, My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, The Story of Qiu Ju) come easily to mind. Yet there are other fine directors in the country who are less well known but no less outstanding. One of them is Tian Zhuangzhuang, a contemporary of both Chen and Zhang.

Born in 1952 in Beijing, Tian comes from a family of film personalities; his father Tian Fang and his mother Yu Lan, both communist cadres, were well-known actors before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Tian Fang, now deceased, was the first head of the Beijing Film Studio while Yu Lan is still in charge of the Children's Film Studio in Beijing. Tian Zhuangzhuang was just fourteen when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Two years later he was sent to the countryside in northern Jilin Province to be "re-educated" by the peasantry. He escaped the fields by joining the People's Liberation Army and returned to civilian life by securing an apprenticeship as cinematographer at the Beijing Agricultural Film Studio. There, he discovered his vocation: "When I first handled a movie camera, I felt so excited that my body shook, and I had a strange sensation, a feeling that this was something I wanted to do all my life."(1)

In 1978, he passed rigorous examinations to gain entry into the Beijing Film Academy which had just reopened after having been shut down during the Cultural Revolution. As Tian was past the age for new entrants in the cinematography department (which had a maximum age limit of 23 for newcomers), Tian studied directing instead. His classmates included Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Wu Ziniu (Secret Decree, 1984; The Dove Tree, 1985), Zhang Junzhao (One and Eight, 1984) and Hu Mei (Army Nurse, 1985; Far from War, 1987). They all graduated in 1982, becoming the first group of students to do so after the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy. Members of this class are now widely known as the Fifth Generation, so called because they are the fifth distinct group of filmmakers to have surfaced in mainland China.(2)

Fifth Generation films are characterized by their emphasis on cinematic qualities, unlike traditional Chinese cinema which attaches prime importance to plot, melodrama and literary adaptations. Fifth Generation filmmakers also rely on literary sources but melodrama is rejected in favour of formal innovation and experimentation. As opposed to the convenience of the Hollywood narrative model long accepted in China, the films of the Fifth Generation are generally slower-paced and are marked by still imagery, minimal dialogue and action. These characteristics often produce ambiguity of meaning aimed at encouraging audience reflection. They also provide a deeper and more complex worldview in which the traditional concepts of right and wrong are questioned.(3)

Among the 1982 graduates, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang have become major representatives of Fifth Generation films, especially in the western world. While Chen and Zhang have already achieved international fame, most recently through Chen's 1993 Golden Palm winner in Cannes, Farewell, My Concubine (1992) and Zhang's The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) which won the 1992 Golden Lion in Venice, Tian is barely known in the international community of film critics and practically unheard of outside it.

While at the Beijing Film Academy, Tian distinguished himself in a video called Our corner (1980) which he co-directed with fellow-students Xie Xiaojing and Cui Xiaoqin. The film, about a young girl and a group of handicapped men, was noted for its sophisticated realism and minimal dialogue at a time when Chinese cinema had just begun to move away from traditional literary conventions. Tian also collaborated with Zhang Jianya and Xie Xiaojing to make the Fifth Generation's first professional feature which was actually a children's film called The Red Elephant (1983) for the Children's Film Studio in Beijing. The film, a fairy-tale about people of a national minority in south-west China, was commissioned and financed by Tian's mother Yu Lan. Tian then directed a film for television called A Summer Experience (1983) followed by a feature for the Kunming studio titled September (1984), a character study of a middle-aged woman.

But it was his next two films that established Tian's importance abroad as a major filmmaker and which earned him a notorious reputation at home for making films that the mass audience could not comprehend. The first was On the Hunting Ground (1985) which Tian made at the invitation of the Inner Mongolia Film Studio. After living for a month with the Mongolians on the grasslands in preparation for the film, he drastically changed the script given to him by the studio. The original story centered around the themes of male dominance and jealousy with a complicated plot; in Tian's film, the narrative element practically disappears. Insofar as a narrative centre exists, it deals with a hunter's transgression of the Mongolian hunting code (laid down by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century) and his subsequent penance.

Using local herdsmen rather than professional actors, the film is a semi-documentary which captures the hunting rituals, rhythms and patterns of daily life in a Mongolian tribe. In the film, juxtapositions of peace and violence, life and death, man and animal reflect the contradictions in Mongolian society. Above all, it reveals the all-encompassing force of the law which is not only applied in hunting but in structuring every sphere of Mongolian life -- morally, socially and economically. Tian reported that upon viewing the rushes, the Mongolian cast remarked how life on the grassland was really like that in the footage. The authorities at the Mongolia Film Studio, however, were not so pleased with the film pointing out that the Mongolian people are portrayed as very poor.

Tian's next feature, Horse Thief (1986) explores the relationship between religion and humans in Tibetan society. Using a fragmented narrative and minimal dialogue, the film deals with the conflict between a Tibetan tribesman, Norbu, who steals horses for a living and his religion. Religion is the controlling force of life in Tibetan society and although Norbu is a thief, he is also a devout Buddhist. His relatively quiet life comes to an end one day when he steals a gift from the government to the monastery, a crime for which he and his family are ostracized and expelled from the tribe. Soon afterwards, Norbu's son dies and his death is interpreted as punishment from God. Although destitute, Norbu gives up his profession. He and his wife become nomads and their wanderings bring them to many major Tibetan festivals.

The power of the film (shot in Cinemascope) lies in Tian's pictorial composition, especially that of the rugged Tibetan landscape, in the unusual and inspired camera angles and in the effective use of tracking shots and superimpositions. Throughout the film, sound, light and colour are applied with a rare force to create images of transcendent beauty that transforms the cinematic experience into a spiritual one. In one hypnotic shot after another, Tian's documentary eye captures the solemnity and dignity of the Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies which are at once lyrical and surreal. These include the celestial burial in which human corpses are dismembered and laid out for the vultures to pick in the belief that when the birds fly skyward, the deceased will reach heaven more quickly; the worship of the mountain god; and the exorcism of the devil to rid the Tibetan countryside of a plague.

Both On the Hunting Ground and Horse Thief were not well-received by the Beijing authorities. Not only did the films, with their portrayal of strange customs, minimal plot and dialogue, alienate the Chinese officials, ordinary audiences and even some critics, but they also unmasked Beijing's official propaganda of the country's national minorities as rapidly prospering and modernizing. It took Horse Thief eight months to pass the censors before it was allowed limited release in China. By then, the two celestial burial sequences were trimmed, and the year 1923 was imposed at the start of the film, way before the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1950. The arbitrary year was convenient in explaining both the absence of Han Chinese characters in the plot, and the primitivism and poverty of the region, contrary to Tian's intention to make the film timeless.

Due to their "avant-garde" techniques and documentary realism, both On the Hunting Ground and Horse Thief were deemed unsuitable for foreign distribution. On the Hunting Ground owes its screening at the 1986 Pesaro Film Festival to the interest and help of Shanghai's Exploration Cinema House, an enlightened movie theatre that frequently exhibits films which are disregarded elsewhere in China. Tian had earlier tried together with Zhang Yimou to show both On the Hunting Ground and Yellow Earth at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival but as the films were on videotapes, they were not even looked at. When the Horse Thief finally appeared at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1987 the original Tibetan dialogue (with Mandarin subtitles) had been dubbed into Mandarin with English subtitles. While it is a great privilege to be able to see the film, it is also a little odd to hear the tribal Tibetans articulating perfect Beijing Mandarin. For unspecified reasons, the film was subsequently withdrawn again from foreign distribution.(4)

On the mainland, while the average Chinese movie sells about a hundred prints for distribution, On the Hunting Ground sold only two; they were not distributed but went to the China Film Corporation for reference purposes only. Horse Thief performed marginally better, selling a total of seven prints.(5) Yet the themes, styles and social functions of the two films have been debated and discussed by more people in China than those who have seen them.

Although On the Hunting Ground and Horse Thief focus on China's ethnic minorities, they also force their primary audience, the Han Chinese, to reflect upon their own situation. Like the Mongolians and Tibetans whose lives are entirely controlled by the hunting code and religion respectively, so the Chinese have a propensity to quietly submit themselves to control by the Communist state.

Tian's notoriety grew when in a September 1986 interview with Popular Cinema, China's most widely-read magazine, he countered the reporter's remark on the unpopularity of Horse Thief by saying he had made it for audiences of the next century -- to which a film bureaucrat replied that Tian could wait until then to pick up his salary.

In the next four or five years that followed, Tian managed to keep his head above water by making films that the studios were willing to invest in. Folk Artists (1987) is a literary adaptation about the folk singers and artists who settled in south-west China after fleeing the Japanese during the war of resistance. Rock N' Roll Youth (1988) is a breakdance musical while his 1990 Illegal Lives, a.k.a Special Surgery Room, remains unreleased. His next feature, Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch (1991) won a Special Mention at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival. Tian's latest film, The Blue Kite (Lan Fengzheng, 1993) reconfirmed him as one of China's great directors, when it was shown in Cannes last year. The film also won the Grand Prize at the 1993 Tokyo Film Festival despite a walkout by the Chinese delegation who complained that the film had not yet been authorized by the Beijing authorities.

Blue Kite
The Blue Kite

A family saga and a coming-of-age story, The Blue Kite is set against the political repression and turmoil of Beijing during the years 1953-1967. It is to date Tian's most personal film, based on his own memories and those of his family and friends. The making of the film, a coproduction between Hong Kong's Longwick Film Production and the Beijing Film Studio, was a trial in itself, starting with the rejection of the first script by the film studio for political reasons. When the rough cut of the revised script was previewed by the Beijing film authorities in 1992, they promptly forbade the work print of the film to be shipped to Japan where post-production had been scheduled to take place. Finally, almost a year later, the Netherlands-based Fortissimo Film Sales acquired world rights to the film and the post-production was completed according to Tian's script and detailed production notes without the director's presence.

Although for a long time Tian was overshadowed by the success of his contemporaries, Chen and Zhang, The Blue Kite should hopefully restore him to his rightful place beside them in the international spotlight. However, Tian himself does not seem interested in seeking publicity. In an interview with Asian cinema specialist, Peggy Chiao, he explains his decision to make The Blue Kite, "something with a bit of meaning", despite knowing that it would bring many difficulties. "I knew that were I to make the film I wanted to make, it wouldn't be a happy project for either me or the people who have the responsibility for passing it, and I'd end up in a heap of trouble. I don't like becoming a news item, but I felt that if I didn't make this film, I just couldn't rid myself of this obsession."

Tian Zhuangzhuang is not only one of China's greatest directorial talents, he is also one of the most independent-minded. Long before it was fashionable for artists and intellectuals to be involved in pro-democracy movements, Tian was the only member of the film community and one of thirty-three people who signed an open letter in 1989 calling for the release of political prisoners. He seems to be someone who will continue to act according to his conscience. He has a refreshingly, not to mention courageously, relaxed attitude regarding the Communist Party's hostility to his films, observing that the Constitution provides for a sense of proportion: "I don't kill, commit arson, raping or go whoring, so they can't arrest me."(6)

Most admirable, perhaps, is Tian's commitment to filmmaking. He has said that even if his films were to suffer the fate of Van Gogh's paintings, that is, be recognized only after the artist has died, he cannot stop making films. The recent recognition, at least in the West, of this artist's significance gives hope that Tian Zhuangzhuang will not have to suffer Van Gogh's fate.


1. From an interview conducted by George S. Semsel and interpreted by Ma Ning in the spring of 1984. In Chinese Film: The State of the art in the People's Republic, ed. George Stephen Semsel (New York: Praeger, 1987), p. 129.

2. The division of mainland Chinese filmmakers into generations is discussed in more detail in David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1990), p. 818 and in John A. Lent's The Asian Film Industry (London: Christopher Helm Ltd, 1990), p. 20.

3. Chen Kaige and Tony Rayns, King of the Children & the New Chinese Cinema (London: Faber & Faber, 1989), p. 54.

4. Horse Thief was also available for sale on LaserDisc in North America. In 1993, however, it was deleted from retail for undisclosed reasons.

5. Chris Berry, "Market Forces: China's `Fifth Generation' Faces the Bottom Line," in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, ed. Chris Berry (London: British Film Institute, 1991), p. 118.

6. Tian Zhuangzhuang, interview with Peggy Chiao, Imagemaker, No. 32, Sept. 1992.


  Last edit 19 November 2002 -