While the selection of pre-1949 films in the Walter Reade’s Chinese centenary retro seems well chosen, if attenuated, the post-liberation
sample raises more questions. How can even an abbreviated overview skip the substantial underground movement of the 1990s, for example?
Platform (2000), made outside of the censorship system, is included, but that system lately has moved to accommodate director Jia Zhangke.
Films made in China under Communist Party rule have to negotiate a tricky and sometimes stultifyingly rigid (though ever changing) set of ideological requirements. Nevertheless, some filmmakers were able to work within the system and find space for individual voices and even implicit (and carefully coded) political dissent.
Family (1956) is the kind of exquisitely subtle melodrama that needs no apologies. An Ophülsian control of camera movement and fine performances by the three female leads highlight this politically correct family history: You’ll never see a more damning portrait of liberal-progressive indecision and impotence.
Though sexuality and just plain romantic fun would be starched out of Chinese mainstream filmmaking in the late 1960s and 1970s, they found refuge in the ethnic minority film. One of the best exemplars of the minority song-and-dance musical is Five Golden Flowers (1959), a comedy of ironic romantic misidentification whose typical ethnic picturesque mode is vitiated by an infectious vitality.
Serfs (1963) is stunning in its Mizoguchian use of rich space and composition but ham-fistedly
ideological in its account of how “primitive” feudal Tibet (with snarlingly evil lamas) is modernized by a beneficent conquering Red Army. The year 1963 also saw the brief flowering of one of the most open eras in the arts in recent Chinese history, and Early Spring in February is its key film. A complex romantic drama about two teachers who insist on individualism (and a somewhat unorthodox friendship) in the face of communal opprobrium, it fairly glows with delicate sophistication and a daring open-mindedness.
Another flagrant gap: Where are the yangbanxi, or model opera films? Nothing is offered from the hysterically political (and often stunningly beautiful) films produced during the Cultural Revolution. After some dutifully repentant films in the early ’80s that argued against hard-line Maoism ( The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, 1980) came an earthquake: Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) (with Zhang Yimou as DP) marks a watershed in Chinese cinema, a point of no return. Its radical aesthetic forged a philosophical break with post-1949 filmmaking and heralds the Fifth Generation of filmmakers, whose works would impose themselves on the international cinema scene. Xie Fei, from an older generation, is represented by a real find: Black Snow (1990), an extremely dark tale of a hoodlum released from jail back into a dead-end life. Its countercultural vibe boldly anticipates the underground Sixth Generation.
Ning Ying’s On the Beat (1995) casts a wry, quietly subversive eye on Beijing cops. And New York audiences should already be familiar with Jia Zhangke’s masterpiece Platform, a milestone in world cinema that bears multiple re-viewings. For a closing film, though, The Master of Everything (2004) seems a strangely arbitrary choice: an inept, inconsequential comedy that won’t do anything for the careers of its Chinese American stars Coco Lee and John Lone.