Film Season Preview: A Century of Chinese Cinema

When we look at the history of cinema in the West we almost instinctively think of Hollywood or European films. Whilst images from Chaplin, Dreyer or Murnau may be familiar, the onset of globalisation and the internet has brought a whole plethora of films from around the world to the attention of a far greater audience. Due to political and cultural differences, Chinese cinema has remained much of a mystery until the last 20/30 years.

The Showroom, Sheffield is screening a number of films, as part of the wider BFI celebrations, to celebrate a century of Chinese cinema. Taking place in September, these films demonstrate how China as a country has changed over the period, along with film-making itself. The particular highlights are the seminal Spring in a Small Town, Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

Song at Midnight – 1937

In a crumbling old theatre, a visiting opera troupe discover a catatonic woman who is entranced by the haunting voice of an unseen singer, a once-famous opera star who was tortured and hideously disfigured over his love for the woman who now thinks him dead. Beautifully rendered in gothic black and white, this loose adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera fuses left-wing politics with the tropes of Hollywood horror films.

Spring in a Small Town – 1948

Regarded as the finest work from the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, Fei Mu’s quiet, piercingly poignant study of adulterous desire and guilt-ridden despair – now restored – is a remarkable rediscovery. After eight years of marriage to Liyan – once rich but now sickly and almost suicidally apathetic following a long, ruinous war – Yuwen does little except deliver his daily medication. A surprise visit from Liyan’s friend Zhang re-energises the household.

The Red Detachment of Women – 1961

A young peasant girl on the island of Hainan is recruited to the red flag by a dashing communist spy, and joins an all-female brigade for a brutal campaign against the dastardly Nationalist foe. One of the most important Mainland films up to the fall of the ‘Gang of Four,’ director Xie Jin’s war epic crosses the eye-popping style of Communist propaganda posters with the gritty realism of Soviet war films.

The Banquet – 2006

The Banquet is a loose adaptation of ‘Hamlet’ set in 10th-century China, which finds surprising intersections between Shakespeare’s play and Chinese family values; it becomes a cautionary tale about the chaos that strikes a family when traditional roles break down or are denied. Featuring a fine cast and enormous sets, The Banquet is a more cerebral entry in the wuxia genre, but sterling work by choreographer Yuen Woo-ping keeps the energy high.

Red Sorghum – 1987

Red Sorghum tells the story of young peasant girl Jiu’er, whose parents sell her into marriage with an elderly winemaker. Attacked by bandits on the way to her wedding, she is rescued by one of her palanquin bearers who later becomes her lover. From its bawdy beginnings to its tragic conclusion, Red Sorghum is a formidable visual accomplishment.

In The Mood For Love – 2000

Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece of romantic longing is a love letter to much of Chinese cinema history. Its tale of a man and a woman crammed into adjacent tiny apartments, their spouses embroiled in an affair and their own passions repressed by tradition, propriety, and a fear of the unknown, echoes a tradition of wenyi melodrama stretching back to the 1930s. The film has a deep, almost fetishized relationship with the postwar period, especially its clothing and interior design, which speaks to the continuing weight of history and memory in contemporary Chinese filmmaking.

The Showroom are offering a 3 for 2 ticket offer for the season. For further information and to buy ticket, visit their website. The season is taking place over 5 months at the BFI Southbank.

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