The Chinese-language cinema has three distinct historical threads: Cinema of Hong Kong, Cinema of China, and Cinema of Taiwan. After 1949 and until recent times, the cinema of mainland China operated under restrictions imposed by the Communist Party of China. Some films with political overtones are still censored or banned in China itself. However, most of these films are allowed to be shown abroad in commercially distributed theaters or in film festivals.
The vast majority of the Mainland-produced movies are Mandarin-based, unlike those from contemporary Hong Kong, which are almost exclusively made in Cantonese. Mainland films are often dubbed when exported to Hong Kong for theatrical runs, though Taiwan, like the PRC is predominantly Mandarin-speaking, and offers ready alternative commercial outlets for export.
Three production companies dominated the market in the early to mid- 1930s: the newly formed Lianhua ("United China"), the older and larger Mingxing and Tianyi. Both Mingxing and Lianhua leaned left (Lianhua's management perhaps more so), while Tianyi continued to make less socially conscious fare.
The period also produced the first big Chinese movie stars, namely Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan and Jin Yan. Other major films of the period include New Women (1934), Song of the Fishermen (1934), Crossroads (1937), and Street Angel (1937). Throughout the 1930s, the Nationalists and the Communists struggled for power and control over the major studios; their influence can be seen in the films the studios produced during this period.
Meanwhile, companies like the Wenhua Film Company ("Culture Films"), moved away from the leftist tradition and explored the evolution and development of other dramatic genres. Wenhua's romantic drama Spring in a Small Town (1948), a film by director Fei Mu shortly prior to the revolution, is often regarded by Chinese film critics as one of the most important films in the history of Chinese cinema, with it being named by the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2004 as the greatest Chinese-language film ever made. Ironically, it was precisely its artistic quality and apparent lack of "political grounding" that led to its labeling by the Communists as rightist or reactionary, and the film was quickly forgotten by those on the mainland following the Communist victory in China in 1949. However, with the China Film Archive's re-opening after the Cultural Revolution, a new print was made from the original negative, allowing Spring of the Small Town to find a new and admiring audience and to influence an entire new generation of filmmakers. Indeed, an acclaimed remake was made in 2002 by Tian Zhuangzhuang.
With the Communist takeover in 1949, the government saw motion pictures as an important mass production art form and tool for propaganda. Starting from 1951, pre-1949 Chinese films and Hollywood and Hong Kong productions were banned as the Communist Party of China sought to tighten control over mass media, producing instead movies centering around peasants, soldiers and workers such as Bridge (1949) and The White Haired Girl (1950). One of the production bases in the middle of all the transition was the Changchun Film Studio.
The number of movie-viewers increased sharply, from 47 million in 1949 to 415 million in 1959. Movie attendance reached an all-time high of 4.17 billion entries in that same year. In the 17 years between the founding of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution, 603 feature films and 8,342 reels of documentaries and newsreels were produced, sponsored mostly as Communist propaganda by the government. Chinese filmmakers were sent to Moscow to study Soviet filmmaking. In 1956, the Beijing Film Academy was opened. The first wide-screen Chinese film was produced in 1960. Animated films using a variety of folk arts, such as papercuts, shadow plays, puppetry, and traditional paintings, also were very popular for entertaining and educating children. The most famous of these, the classic Havoc in Heaven (two parts, 1961, 4), was made by Wan Laiming of the Wan Brothers and won Best Film award at the London International Film Festival.
The thawing of censorship in 1956-7 and the early 1960s led to more indigenous Chinese films being made which were less reliant on their Soviet counterparts. The most prominent filmmaker of this era is Xie Jin, whose two films in particular, The Red Detachment of Women (1961) and Two Stage Sisters (1965), exemplify China's increased expertise at filmmaking during this time.
During the Cultural Revolution, the film industry was severely restricted. Almost all previous films were banned, and only a few new ones were produced, the most notable being a ballet version of the revolutionary opera The Red Detachment of Women (1971). Feature film production came almost to a standstill in the early years from 1967 to 1972. Movie production revived after 1972 under the strict jurisdiction of the Gang of Four until 1976, when they were overthrown.
In the years immediately following the Cultural Revolution, the film industry again flourished as a medium of popular entertainment. Domestically produced films played to large audiences, and tickets for foreign film festivals sold quickly. The industry tried to revive crowds by making more innovative and "exploratory" films like their counterparts in the West.
In the 1980s the film industry fell on hard times, faced with the dual problems of competition from other forms of entertainment and concern on the part of the authorities that many of the popular thriller and martial arts films were socially unacceptable. In January 1986 the film industry was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the newly formed Ministry of Radio, Cinema, and Television to bring it under "stricter control and management" and to "strengthen supervision over production."
The end of the Cultural Revolution brought the release of "scar dramas", which depicted the emotional traumas left by this period. Evening Rain (Wu Yonggang, Wu Yigong, 1980) and Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Xie Jin, 1980) both won the first Golden Rooster Award in 1981. The best-known of these is probably Xie Jin's Hibiscus Town (1986), although they could be seen as late as the 1990s with Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite (1993).
Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers brought increased popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. Most of the filmmakers who constitute the Fifth Generation had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and included Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others. These graduates constituted the first group of filmmakers to graduate since the Cultural Revolution and they soon jettisoned traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free and unorthodox approach. Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight (1983) and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984) in particular were taken to mark the beginnings of the Fifth Generation. The most famous of the Fifth Generation directors, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, went on to produce celebrated works such as King of the Children (1987), Ju Dou (1989), Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), which were not only acclaimed by Chinese cinema-goers but by the Western arthouse audience. Tian Zhuangzhuang's films, though less well-known by Western viewers, were well noted by directors such as Martin Scorsese. It was during this period that Chinese cinema began reaping the rewards of international attention, including the 1988 Golden Bear for Red Sorghum, the 1992 Golden Lion for Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju, the 1993 Palme d'Or for Farewell My Concubine, and three Best Foreign Language Film nominations from the Academy Awards.
Extremely diverse in style and subject, the Fifth Generation directors' films ranged from black comedy (Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident, 1985) to the esoteric (Chen Kaige's Life on a String, 1991), but they share a common rejection of the socialist-realist tradition worked by earlier Chinese filmmakers in the Communist era. Other notable Fifth Generation directors include Wu Ziniu, Hu Mei, and Zhou Xiaowen. Some of their bolder works with political overtones were banned by Chinese authorities.
The Fourth Generation also returned to prominence. Given their label after the rise of the Fifth Generation, these were directors whose careers were stalled by the Cultural Revolution and who were professionally trained prior to 1966. Wu Tianming, in particular, made outstanding contributions by helping to finance major Fifth Generation directors under the auspices of the Xi'an Film Studio, while continuing to make films like Old Well (1986) and The King of Masks (1996).
The Fifth Generation movement effectively ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, although its major directors continued to produce notable works, such as The Emperor's Shadow (1996) by Zhou Xiaowen. Several of its filmmakers went into self-imposed exile: Wu Tianming moved to the United States (but has since returned), Huang Jianxin left for Australia, while many others went into television-related works.
Unlike the Fifth Generation, the Sixth Generation brings a more individualistic, anti-romantic life-view and pays more attention to contemporary urban life, especially those affected by disorientation. Many of their films have highlighted the negative attributes of China's entry into the modern capitalist market. Li Yang's Blind Shaft for example, is a chilling account of two murderous con-men in the unregulated and notoriously dangerous mining industry of northern China. While Jia Zhangke's The World emphasizes the emptiness of globalization in the backdrop of an internationally-themed amusement park.
In 2000, the multi-national production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon achieved massive success at the Western box office despite being dismissed by some Chinese cinema-goers for pandering to Western tastes. Nevertheless, it provided an introduction to Chinese cinema (and especially the Wuxia genre) for many and increased the popularity of many Chinese films which may have otherwise been relatively unknown to Westerners.
In 2002, Hero was made as a second attempt to produce a Chinese film with the international appeal of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The cast and crew featured many of the most famous Chinese actors who were also known to some extent in the West, including Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, directed by Zhang Yimou. The film was a phenomenal success in most of Asia and topped the U.S. box office for two weeks, making enough in the U.S. alone to cover the production costs.
The successes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero blur what may be called the boundary between Mainland Chinese cinema and a more international-based "Chinese-language cinema". Crouching Tiger, for example, was directed by a Taiwanese director (Ang Lee), but its leads include Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwan actors and actresses while the film was co-produced by an array of Chinese, American, Hong Kong, Taiwanese film companies. This merging of people, resources, and expertise from three regions (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) seemed to imply big-budgeted Chinese-language cinema is moving toward a more international-based arena looking to compete with the best Hollywood films. Further examples of films in this mould would include House of Flying Daggers (2004), The Promise (2005) and The Banquet (2006). Tighter-financed Chinese-language cinema are still relatively localized in content, as seen in those from Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, especially in the latter two where many films have not yet found international distributors abroad.