Special Feature: A Century of Chinese Cinema at the BFI

This July, the BFI's A Century of Chinese Cinema season (which runs all the way up until 7 October) shifts its focus towards the illustrious wuxia and the visually stunning, allegorical dimensions of the Fourth and Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Chinese cinema has always been inextricably linked to the country's fluctuating sociopolitical landscape, with revolution, war, foreign invasion and political oppression all having impacted upon the production and content of Chinese film. Now, in a period where film belongs to a multinational system, resulting in wider distribution, growth in co-productions and questions around national identity, Chinese cinema remains a relatively uncharted terrain for many Western cinephiles - something this BFI season hopes to change.

However, with the dawning of China's new era of hypercultural homogenisation, mainstream Chinese cinema has become dominated with blockbusters such as Feng Xiaogang's recent Aftershock and Back to 1942, with the diversity of films included in the BFI's season providing a welcome insight into the rich history of Chinese filmmaking. So far. the season has covered the first and second golden ages of Chinese cinema and undertaken a brief examination of the films made directly before and during the Communist Party's rise to power. June's focus on the golden age of the 1920s, 30s and 40s featured as its centrepiece a restoration of Fei Mu's glorious 1948 offering Spring in a Small Town. Often regarded as the greatest Chinese film ever made (and has since been remade by the Fifth Generation's Tian Zhuangzhuang in 2002), Fei's masterpiece continues to screen throughout July.

June saw the season embrace the socialist-realism of the Communist era. The strand studied the social and political climate of China's legacy before the Communist party rose to power and the inauguration of its authority. Featuring an eclectic mixture of propaganda films like The East is Red and work from prominent figures of the era like Xie Jin's Red Detachment of Women and Two Stage Sisters, the season showcased films that pertained to condone bourgeois principles, yet were often later criticised and/or banned for their portrayal of decadent rightist values. Part three of the BFI's season looks at the expression of Chinese identity through genre filmmaking. Swords Gangsters and Ghosts will cover a variety of films from the swordplay of wuxia to Bruce Lee and gangster cinema.

The popularity of such films in the West led to the growth of a booming film industry outside of mainland China. Indeed, the definition of Chinese national cinema is complex. The cinema of Chinese diaspora filmmakers based in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other South East Asian regions have often been lumped together with those of the mainland. Whilst each area's cinema has its own recognisable voice, these films often share the same sense of aesthetic experimentation and often boast bold emotive performances. Similarly, each filmmaker's work is often justifiably linked to the mainland through the weight of history and a shared cultural heritage. Finally, the fourth part of the BFI's season allows audiences to examine the new wave of Chinese cinema that emanated from these regions, featuring a series of rare films from prominent directors such as Ann Hui and Edward Yang, as well as work from confrontational Fourth and Fifth Generation directors like Xie Fei, Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang.

China is a key priority in the BFI's International Strategy but hopefully in the months to come we witness a move away from the Western inspired spectacle of directors like Feng Xiaogang and the populist cinema of Hong Kong and help audiences conceptualise China's current cultural globalisation with a stronger focus on the shared sense of anxiety and frustration of Sixth Generation directors like Lou Ye, Jia Zhang-ke and Zhang Yang and the dissident work of documentary filmmakers like Wang Bing, Zhao Dayong and Hunag WeiKai. Hopefully, a shift from less confrontational, state and audience friendly films towards the dissident work of modern Chinese independent cinema will culminate in a fitting conclusion to the BFI's journey through the shifting identity of Chinese cinema.

The BFI's A Century of Chinese Cinema season runs up until 7 October 2014. For more info, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.

Patrick Gamble

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