The 2009 New York Film Festival Masterworks series "(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949–1966" is the first major U.S. retrospective of the films made during the "Seventeen Years" period between the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution. I've produced a two-part video essay on the series for the Moving Image Source; part one is viewable now and part two will be online early next week. In producing the video I watched 18 of the 20 films in the series, thanks to several sources: the helpful folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, VCDs sent by the invaluable Chris Berry all the way from London, the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library (which has even more Chinese titles than its Manhattan counterpart), DVD retail outlets in Flushing and Manhattan Chinatowns as well as online, and tudou.com, aka the Chinese YouTube.
What follows is a loosely ranked listing of 18 of the 20 the films screening at the Masterworks series, with accompanying notes. The only two films I was not able to screen were Platoon Commander Guan (which reportedly is a favorite film of Jia Zhangke) and House of the 72 Tenants, whose DVD is in Cantonese with no subtitles (incidentally there's a great Hong Kong remake of this film by the amazing Chor Yuen). I should also mention that I've seen at least a couple other great films from this period that aren't included: Crows and Sparrows, The Lin Family Shop and Early Spring in February are well worth checking out. I'm also curious about the conspicuous absence of The Life of Wu Xun by the legendary director Sun Yu, a film that I haven't been able to find anywhere, but is considered a landmark film from this period, if only for inciting a vicious backlash by the government that would influence the production of Chinese cinema for years to come.
1. Two Stage Sisters (1965, Xie Jin) - The apotheosis of the "Seventeen Years" period, Xie Jin was able to synthesize the demands for square Maoist propaganda with a decades-long undercurrent celebrating more layered, Western-influenced art. The film is all about reconciling dualities, both in story and style. As one sister goes bougie capitalist while the other discovers Marxism, the film infuses socialist truthisms into a Hollywood backstage women's melodrama worthy of George Cukor. With its deliberate operatic pacing, stunning Chinese technicolor and a musical chorus that invokes Chinese opera, Sophoclean tragedy and Brechtian alienation all at once, what's not to love?
2. New Year Sacrifice (1955, Sang Hu) - A film that would fit perfectly among Zhang Yimou's early films with Gong Li, but with a greater sense of emotional urgency, thanks to Bai Yang's powerfully mannered performance as a widow chewed up and spit out by a feudal-era patriarchy. An early instance of the Chinese operatic mode breaking into cinema, with an amazing soundtrack that gives expression to a woman with no voice over her own fate.
3. This Life of Mine (1950, Shi Hui) - Transposed to American cinema, this masterpiece plays like an awesome bitchslap to Forrest Gump five decades before the fact, where Forrest's pea-brained complacency towards life, politics and authority leads to the breakup of his family, the rape of his daughter-in-law and his own incarceration and torture. It's amazing that this film was even released given that the proletariat were seen as the noblest creatures on earth, unlike the passive enabler of oppression embodied by the actor-director Shi Hui in the lead role. (Shi killed himself just a few years later during the Anti-Rightists Campaign.) It remains one of the most honest and heartfelt attempts to examine a nation and its people in the history of Chinese cinema.
4. Family (1956, Chen Xihe and Ye Ming) - Remade several times over the decades, this saga of a family cracking under the weight of an elderly patriarch feels like The Magnificent Ambersons shot by Mizoguchi, with creeping pans and tracking shots exploring the dead oppressive interior spaces of pre-Republic Confucian society.
5. Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (1957, Xie Jin) - Xie Jin's vibrant debut has a buoyant Howard Hawksian quality to it, both in how Xie orchestrates an ensemble of giggling girls through several energetic set pieces, and develops character dynamics through situations and rituals. The film displays more bare female flesh than any previous Communist Chinese production, for what that's worth.
6. Li Shuangshuang (1962, Lu Ren) - Possibly the most complex cinematic interrogation of the difficulties of implementing Maoist reform to the masses, featuring a marvelous Zhuang Ruifang in the title role, one of the ultimate "don't take shit from nobody" characters in movie history. She's a village wife who will stop at nothing to see her commune reach model working standards, even if it means kicking her husband out of the house (twice!). Uniquely unsettling rustic comedy of manners with dark undertones of village fascism, hinting to the disastrous purification campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, waiting just years away.
7. Big Li, Little Li and Old Li (1962, Xie Jin) - Proof that somebody (namely Xie Jin) had access to '50s Hollywood comedies like Frank Tashlin, or at least could remember Preston Sturges movies from the 40s. Delightfully lively take on the need to implement physical fitness programs in factories, with animated title sequences, plenty of clever visual jokes and strangely ironic use of upbeat propaganda music.
8. Woman Hairdresser (1962, Ding Ran) - Another delightful comedy that argues for a woman's right to pursue her vocational dream, namely being a hair stylist, despite lingering prejudices against both working women and "low-class" vocations in a supposedly egalitarian society.
9. The Red Detachment of Women (1961, Xie Jin) - The most militant of Xie Jin's trademark girl power anthems, based on a real life regiment of women soldiers in southern China during the early stages of the war against the Nationalists. Xie proves to be as adept at action filmmaking as he was with the sports movie, the comedy and the musical.
10. Five Golden Flowers (1959, Wang Jiayi) - Along with Third Sister Liu (not included in this series), one of the standouts of the small but wildly popular genre of "Ethnic Minority Musicals" where non-Han Chinese could express romantic love openly, unlike their repressed Han counterparts.
11. Visitors on the Icy Mountains (1963, Zhao Shinshui) - A fine example of how textured Chinese cinema had gotten by the early 60s, this soldier-spy romance set in the western frontier boasts moments of soft-focus sensuality and unexpected plot twists.
12. Sentries Under Neon Lights (1964, Wang Ping and Ge Xing) - Fascinatingly schizo military drama about soldiers stationed in the den of sin known as Shanghai, lured into such vices as fraternizing with westernized women and buying designer socks. Has a hilarious opening scene with an American (played by a Chinese in whiteface) getting kicked out of the city.
13. Before the New Director Arrives (1956, Lu Ban) - A comedy produced during the Hundred Flowers Movement, when Mao encouraged people to criticize his regime. This comedy rose to the challenge, depicting a factory director as provincially corrupt as Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazard. Like many other social critiques from the Hundred Flowers, the film and its makers were censured during the Anti-Rightist Movement that swiftly followed.
14. Keep the Red Flag Flying (1960, Ling Zifeng) - Historical drama of a proto-socialist peasant revolt offers a fine example of operatic gestural acting and camerawork.
15. Bridge (1949, Wang Bin) - The first feature produced in Communist China; established many of the Socialist Realist conventions that would dominate the nation's movies. The first ten minutes, where characters refer to each other only as "Comrade," suggests the blueprints for a radical socialist cinema that never quite materialized.
16. Living Forever in Burning Flames (1965, Shui Hua) - This grandiose prestige saga of patriots languishing in a Nationalist prison is notable for its use of expressive noir lighting and shadow appropriated from Hollywood. On the other hand, its complex, multi-character storyline passes from one Revoutionary martyr to another en route to the fulfillment of Marxist liberation.
17. Mysterious Traveling Companion (1955, Lin Nong and Zhu Wenshun) - Early example of the stalwart Chinese military adventure genre moving to the border regions and incorporating ethnic minority characters, leading to a beguiling blend of spy movie intrigue and exotic romance.
18. Nie Er (1959, Zheng Junli) - Biopic about the musician who composed the Chinese national anthem will make you realize how universal biopic cliches truly are - though the film makes an fairly nuanced subtextual argument about the role of art in political revolution. It also has Zhao Dan, arguably the most charismatic Chinese actor from the first half of the 20th century, whose career miraculously survived four decades of social upheaval, would be worthy of a movie of its own.