Retrospective look at 70 years of Chinese film

By CHEN XUGUANG / 11-07-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Today’s mainstream blockbusters such as Wolf Warriors have continued the long-held cinematic tradition of depicting Chinese heroes, but have scaled new heights with more relatable characters and dazzling visual effects. Photo: FILE

At the center of our concept of film are the questions “What is a film?” and “What is a film for?” Also at the center are the essence, ontology and function of a film, as well as the practices of film creation, production and management. Concept determines reality. Our concept of film is by all means the source and engine of film production. 
The history of film development is also the history of how our concept of film has changed. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China 70 years ago, the concept of Chinese film has evolved in many dimensions, such as aesthetics, art, culture and industry, which has influenced the creative thinking, critical vision and industrial system of the film industry as a whole.
Generally speaking, Chinese film has transitioned through various concepts such as national film and propaganda, films as tools, art and culture, entertainment, industrial aesthetics and other concepts spanning 70 years’ development. To be specific, our concept of film has evolved with the times. It began with function/tool theory and national films in the early stages; then the concept progressed to arts and entertainment, film culture, and the film industry after the emancipation of thought in the 1980s and the market-oriented reform in the 90s; then came the wave of film industrialization, and in recent years, the concept of industrial aesthetics, reflecting its inherent relationship with reality, society, and cultural transformation.
New China
After the founding of the PRC, a corresponding revolutionary discourse system was established. During this period, our concept of film was centered on the nation-state and guided by Mao Zedong thought. The duty of the film was to express the national identity and safeguard national interests. The film also played the role of educating the public and guiding the public to identify with the nation-state.
From 1949 to 1976, a large number of revolutionary historical “red films” appeared. For example, Red Detachment of Women, which depicts how the heroine Wu Qionghua, a servant girl escaping from the house of local tyrant Nan Batian, becomes a woman soldier with firm communist beliefs, thanks to the help of Hong Changqing, a representative of the Communist Party of China. 
Battle on Shangganling Mountain, set in the Korean War (1951–53), tells the story of courageous Zhang Zhongfa, a company commander of the Chinese Volunteer Army, and how he leads his troops to guard Shanggangling Mountain in an extremely difficult situation, succeeding in dragging the enemy force into a position such that the main Chinese forces have an advantage. 
Dong Cunrui, Heroic Sons and Daughters, and Living Forever in Burning Flames are also good embodiments of the above concept of film. 
At this stage, most of the films were revolutionary tales following the purpose of “serving workers, peasants and soldiers,” which not only successfully shaped a number of revolutionary heroes and heroines, but also made the “state” become a mainstream concept of film and an extension of our concept of film itself.
Reform and opening up
Since the reform and opening up and the transformation of our concept of film and film aesthetic, and with the growth of a new generation of directors from the fourth, fifth and sixth generation of directors, the convergence, collision and fusion of concept and culture have been extremely intense. It could be said that the 40 years of film development after the reform and opening up has been a history of innovation with culture and the concept of film, in which the two have collided.
One of the important goals of the emancipation of thought in the 80s was to reconstruct the subjectivity of human beings and return to the ontology of literature and art. Discussion on film and drama, the relationship between literature, drama and film, and the modernization of film language was heated, exemplified in such articles as Bai Jingsheng’s “Losing Drama’s Crutches,” Zhong Dianfei’s “Divorce of Drama and Film,” and Zhang Nuanxin and Li Tuo’s “Modernization of Film Language.” 
All these articles encouraged the fourth generation filmmakers to grow out of the traditional techniques of dramatic expression and explore modern film language. Fourth generation filmmakers then were able to explore the laws of art to stress the meaning of life, focusing on an idealistic view of human nature and showing the brutality of war from a humanistic perspective. They were devoted to the exploration of formal aesthetics, such as the narrative structure of films and the lyric expression of motion pictures.
Afterward, the fifth generation of directors continued the exploration of the modernization of film language and made a great breakthrough in spatial visual aesthetics. At the same time, their films were a carrier of cultural reflection on the modernization of traditional culture. Yellow Earth, One and Eight, The Black Cannon Incident and On the Hunting Ground are representatives of their work. 
In the 1990s, China saw the transition from a planned economy to a market economy and the whole society began to gain market and consumption consciousness in the context of the development of a commodity economy, and the films also became diversified. At this time, mainstream films, art films and entertainment films dominated the market. In the tide of great social change and commercial entertainment, these three types of films took on a new form of market expression.
Under such circumstances, Chinese filmmakers in the 1990s began to pay attention to the coordination between artistic quality and the commercial value of films. For example, Zhang Yimou’s Codename Cougar and Shanghai Triad are typical examples of films with distinctive commercial features. Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine is a perfect integration of artistry and commercial value. Feng Xiaogang’s comedian series created a unique type of Chinese commercial film, signaling the rise of civilian and consumer culture.
New era
In the 21st century, mass culture and industrial aesthetics have gained momentum. Chinese films have trended toward entertainment value, and the commercial and industrial features of films and the corresponding popular culture have gained more recognition. Chinese blockbusters represented by Chen Kaige’s Hero began to enter the world mainstream commercial film market, which shows the ambition of Chinese films to participate in the construction of global cultural patterns on a larger scale. Art films and mainstream films ushered in a period of transition toward mass culture.
The new mainstream blockbusters such as The Founding of a Republic, Operation Mekong, Wolf Warriors and Operation Red Sea have refined their commercial operations in terms of casting, narrative aesthetics and publicity strategy. While actively exploring screenplay creation and collaboration with the industry chain, these films have also maintained a unique artistic style and expression, thus transcending the confrontation of industrial and commercial mechanisms with artistic expression to present the changing trends of popular culture as well as market potential and vitality. As a representative of the new era, The Wandering Earth opened a new chapter and provided a reference for the reform of the industrialization of Chinese films.
The new generation of directors upholds both commercial interest and artistic quality in our concept of film, striving to realize individual artistic expression and to meet the needs of the market and the audience, so as to seek breakthroughs in the box office. 
These directors are familiar with and are willing to follow the rules of the film industry and the market, to balance the challenges of themes, institutionalization, and the relationship between commercialization and the screenwriters’ personal style. Therefore, the new generation of directors could be said to represent the rise of industrial aesthetics.
Looking back on the 70 years since the founding of the PRC, Chinese films have seen a great transformation. Going forward, Chinese films shall be equipped with innovative ideas to tell the stories of the Chinese experience and imagination, which in turn reflects the historical process of China’s social development.
Chen Xuguang is a professor from the School of Art at Peking University. 
edited by YANG XUE