Article 2 of the Film Inspection Law banned the screening of films that were deemed to "impugn the dignity of the Chinese race", "damage the culture of virtue and public order", "advocate superstitions" or otherwise violate KMT ideology.
Throughout the 'Nanjing Decade' (1928-37) Chiang Kai-shek sought to appease the Japanese forces, and filmmakers who tried to rouse audiences against the Japanese could find themselves at the sharp end of government censors.
In September 1931, the newly-founded Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists' Association drew up a list of their major goals, including ones that pertained to film - what Pang calls "the first left-wing collective strategic involvement in cinema":
Ever since the right-wing of the KMT had tried to exterminate the Communists in Shanghai in 1927, the CPC had retreated from urban centres into the countryside, remote from the rapidly changing heartlands of Chinese film. Recent scholarship therefore suggests that the connections between the left-wing cinema movement and the CPC were more tenuous than was previously supposed.
But the occupation of Manchuria and political unrest damaged the Chinese economy and dampened audience demand. Given the high start-up costs in the industry, struggling producers felt they had no choice but to adapt to changing public tastes, and to seek out new audiences.
In the illustrious output of the New Cinema Movement, these two imperatives were combined - social realist films catered to the more sober concerns of moviegoers, whilst bold technical and aesthetic innovations were pursued in order to elevate the status of cinema as a "serious" artform in its own right.
As was mentioned in the previous post, traditional aesthetic assumptions shaped the reception of film as a medium in China. In particular, early films were criticised for seeming to combine the worst in Chinese opera and painting: classical Chinese paintings were viewed on scrolls, a section at a time, to give the impression that the viewer was moving through a continuous landscape. In this sense, China had "moving" pictures before the advent of film (a subject explored in more detail here).
But films based on traditional Chinese stories and plays were inevitably discrete, lapsing forward through time between acts and scenes. Early Chinese film critics tended to judge them as if they were paintings, and disapproved of the lack of continuity.
The left-wing filmmakers who wanted to use cinema to highlight pressing social issues - organised crime in the cities, governmental and warlord corruption, poverty, gender inequality - saw in the groundbreaking work of Soviet cinema the means to address cultural conservatism in film criticism and to get inside the heads of the masses and move them to act together: montage.
Two key groups were formed in the early 1930s - the Film Critics Group and the CPC-organised Film Group. The latter was a short-lived grouping of the remnants of the CPC's urban agents and cultural insiders - Pang argues it was "more a reaction to, or a product of, the left-wing film movement, than it was its cause" - that operated underground, aiming to infiltrate cinema with Party propaganda.
By contrast, the Film Critics Group intended to create a public forum for debating cinematic theory and technique. It was active into the 1940s, importing Soviet films such as the works of Eisenstein, and translating theoretical works including Film Technique and Film Acting by V. I. Pudovkin.
Here is a picture of its author.
Pudovkin was one of the pioneers of using montage in Bolshevik cinema to stir his audience and instill proletarian virtues in them. He once wrote: "The foundation of film art is editing." As in China, this technique had emerged in response to a more prosaic concern - namely, the shortage of film available in Russia.
Here is that final scene from 'The Mother' (the full film is available here):
In 1928, Pudovkin co-authored, with Eisenstein, 'A Statement on Sound'. As a theoretical response to the inauguration of "talkies" in Hollywood, it strikes a cautiously optimistic note; sound is a positive development, as long as it is used to heighten, rather than cut against, the montage.
However, if it is used in a contrapuntal way, in "distinct nonsychronisation with the visual images", then it promises to solve the problem of subtitles acting as a drag on the flow of images.
For all their theoretical sophistication, these Russian filmmakers were technologically behind developments in Hollywood - but the Chinese were even further behind. Pang writes:
|Twin Sisters (1933)|
But the industry's bias for sentimentality only served to provoke the left into new ways of marketing their message; of making it accessible, moving and entertaining at the same time.
In 1934 two seminal pictures in Chinese film history were released: The Goddess and New Woman. Both films featured Ruan Lingyu in their lead role, and she quickly became the most internationally famous Chinese film actress.
Here is The Goddess in its entirety. Ruan gives an mesmerising performance as an urban single mother forced into prostitution and sucked into the mafia underworld - it's a wonderful example of how much of an inner life can be communicated through silent film.
After Chiang Kai-shek officially declared war against Japan - the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) - filmmakers had greater freedom to use their medium to issue stirring patriotic appeals; not merely exposing Japanese oppression, but inciting audiences to rise against it, and heroising those who did.
It must be remembered that the mercurial political dynamics of this whole period make entirely clean-cut chronological categories redundant - for example, the patriotic Children of Troubled Times was released in 1935, and first featured the song that would become the national anthem of the PRC - 'March of the Volunteers':
When the KMT government retreated to the inland city of Chongqing, much of the film industry went with it. Only Shanghai remained, surrounded on all sides by the Japanese forces - hence this period is referred to as the "Solitary Island" period in Chinese film.
Stylistically, we can observe from the credits sequence alone the progress Chinese film has made over the previous decade: a cacophony of effervescent neon lighting, rapid cuts of the summits of tall city buildings, and even slumbering lions (reminiscent of the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin).
It is a tragicomic tale of people denied medical care and legal justice because of their financial circumstances - and who ultimately find that they cannot defeat the system.
Unfortunately, Ruan's life story did not have a happy ending either: after being hounded by the press for a string of failed relationships, she committed suicide aged only 24. Thousands of her fans lined the streets for her funeral and she became immortalised as an icon of youth. (In 1992 she was portrayed by Maggie Cheung in a film about her life, Centre Stage, which is available here.)
|Cai Chusheng (1906-68)|
Here we find a married couple torn apart by the Sino-Japanese war, following widely diverging trajectories. The film is notably critical of those who collaborated with the Japanese and try to avoid facing justice in peacetime (as represented by the collaborationist factory manager who escapes imprisonment through having political connections) - therefore, whilst not directly attacking the KMT, the film leaves its themes open to this wider interpretation.
The last second generation director I want to draw attenton to is Fei Mu.
|Fei Mu (1906-51)|
One of the last films to be released before the founding of the PRC, Fei's Spring in a Small Town (1948) came first in 2005 in a vote by Hong Kong critics for the 100 greatest Chinese films.
It is differentiated from the earlier leftist films by form as much as content: gone are the swift-cut montages, replaced by lingering tracking shots - including a wonderful shot that passes through a hole in the courtyard wall to find the solitary husband; characters stare in different directions out of frame, but the viewer rarely gets to know what they are seeing. These are the hallmarks of neo-realism.
To reiterate the significance of China's second generation filmmakers, here is a quote from Alison W. Conner's article, 'Movie Justice: The Legal System in Pre-1949 China':
Or, to quote from another essay:
Only a few years later, Spring in a Small Town was banned by the new regime - the Communists had very different ideas about what purposes cinema should serve.