A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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The tragically short-lived screen icon Ruan Lingyu presided over the beginning of the classical era of Shanghai cinema, which culminated in Fei Mu's beloved 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town.

Films in A Century of Chinese Cinema: The Golden Age

    • Spring Silkworms
    • Cheng Bugao
    • This early classic of Golden Age Shanghai cinema echoes Visconti's classic La Terra Trema in its beautifully rendered story of a humble silk-farming family struggling to be free of debt to exploitative middlemen.

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    • The Spring River Flows East Parts I & II
    • This decade-spanning epic of a husband and wife caught in the maelstrom of the Sino-Japanese War and World War II was hailed as China's equivalent of Gone With the Wind.

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    • Street Angel
    • Yuan Muzhi
    • Loosely based on Frank Borzage's 1927 silent classic Seventh Heaven, this scintillating mixture of melodrama, social realism, exuberant musical numbers and slapstick comedy follows a misfit street musician as he attempts to rescue two hard-luck sisters from their dire straits.

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    • The Goddess
    • Wu Yonggang
    • Silent screen legend Ruan Lingyu gives a fierce and tragic performance in her signature role as a wronged prostitute in Wu Yonggang's early classic of Golden Age Shanghai cinema.

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    • New Women
    • Cai Chusheng
    • This powerful drama about an independent-minded music teacher who dreams of becoming a celebrated writer was the swan song for the tragically short-lived screen legend Ruan Lingyu, who took her own life mere months after the film's release.

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    • Noah Cowan on Spring in a Small Town
    • Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox and programmer of A Century of Chinese Cinema, introduces our screening of Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town, considered by many critics to be the greatest Chinese film of all time.

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    • Song at Midnight
    • Ma-Xu Weibang
    • A loose adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, this beautifully shot and creepily atmospheric tale of a disfigured opera singer is recognized as the first Chinese horror film.

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    • Crossroads
    • Shen Xiling
    • A free (and music-free) adaptation of La Bohème crossed with Frank Borzage's romantic and socially conscious Hollywood classics, Crossroads is a charming, engrossing, and finally heartbreaking portrait of impoverished young artists in Depression-era Shanghai.

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    • The Big Road
    • Sun Yu
    • This big-hearted classic of the 1930s progressive film movement chronicles the efforts of six young, patriotic and unemployed city men as they build a highway to aid the anti-Japanese war effort.

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The 1930s in Shanghai were a Golden Age in many spheres of Chinese culture, cinema chief among them. Widely considered by the rest of the country as a den of iniquity, catering to foreign invaders walled off in concessions throughout the city, Shanghai presented an "anything goes" attitude that proved enormously fruitful for the upstart new medium. Despite heavy censorship by the Guomindang (Nationalist) government, Shanghai filmmaking during this period — aided considerably by the Chinese Communist Party cadres who infiltrated the growing studio system — was able to shatter age-old taboos and champion utopian ideals. Early masterpieces such as Street Angel and The Big Road (one of the first Chinese sound films) not only look towards a more just and equal society, but question how the art of cinema itself might be reconceived along progressive lines by experimenting with innovative visual techniques and unusual narrative structures.

The unquestioned symbol of thirties Shanghai filmmaking was Ruan Lingyu, the Garbo of Chinese cinema, who became the industry's biggest star with her performances in such classics as The Goddess and New Women before tragically taking her own life at the age of twenty-four. (Ruan's life and legend would later inspire one of the key works of the Hong Kong Second Wave, Stanley Kwan's masterful 1992 biopic Center Stage.) Not only did Ruan's outsized screen presence pave the way for a Chinese cinema that would largely be dominated by major female stars, but she helped make women in cinema emblematic of the larger progressive struggles then taking place. Both Nationalists and Communists viewed the liberation of women from the barbaric practices of the imperial era as a necessary component of a modern, twentieth-century China. Furthermore, female characters feature largely in the literature of the progressive, Western-oriented May 4th Movement, whose works and authors figured largely in Golden Age Shanghai cinema and well into the post-1949 era.

The other major influence on the cinema of the Golden Age was another, considerably more dire struggle. Following numerous incursions into China by Japanese armies from the start of the 1930s, the Sino-Japanese War broke out in earnest in 1937 and led straight into the carnage of World War II — over a decade of traumatic conflict that cut China in half, filled its cities with starving refugees, and resulted in the deaths of as many as twenty million Chinese. Several of the key films of this period naturally take the war and its aftermath as its subject, from the two-part epic The Spring River Flows East (regarded as China's Gone With the Wind) to the crowning achievement of the Golden Age: Fei Mu's 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town, considered by many critics as the finest Chinese film ever and one of the greatest films of all time.

— Noah Cowan