The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.
What films from the early 20th century and the first “golden era” of Chinese cinema are essential to understanding where China is 100 years later?
Shanghai boasted a robust film industry during the swinging 1930s, during which the port city was also a major hub for freshly imported jazz. The industry took a direct blow after Japanese forces invaded the Republic of China in 1937.
Here are a few films reflecting the aesthetics and thematic concerns that characterized pre-War Chinese cinema, along with a few films made in the period after Japanese defeat in WWII, but before Communist victory in the ensuing Chinese Civil War.
Adaptations of stories from Journey to the West have been a motif in Chinese cinema from its very beginnings to the present day. The original Ming dynasty novel has evolved over the last 400+ years into one of the most timeless and popular stories throughout East Asia. Its central protagonist, the Monkey King (aka Sun Wukong), has been an enduring big- and small-screen hero throughout China’s modern history.
Krish Raghav, artist and writer: A lush, richly costumed silent film, thought lost until 2013, when an original copy was discovered in Norway’s Central Library. Cave of the Silken Web is one of China’s earliest fantasy films, and perhaps among the first cinematic adaptations of Journey to the West.
WATCH IT YouTube
Director Sun Yu was a core member of one of the three major production companies in Shanghai during this era, the Lianhua Film Company. His silent films during the period — like 1930’s Spring Dream in the Old Capital, 1933’s Wild Flowers and 1933’s Little Toys — established him as a leading storyteller at the time. Sun left Shanghai after the Japanese invasion in 1937, and continued to make films after the Chinese Civil War, though his career stalled after Mao Zedong personally denounced Sun’s 1950 big-budget historical drama The Life of Wu Xun.
Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: This film depicting the lives of ordinary people — street peddlers, poor scholars, and young revolutionaries — reflects the culturally progressive political climate of that pre-War, post-May the 4th era.
An actor meets a singer with whom he is to star in a movie. The pair spark a romance as the film is a success, only for the singer, Li, to discover that the actor is already married.
Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA: A curious film produced on the cusp of transition between silent cinema and sound cinema, Two Stars provides a tour through pop culture of the Republican-era Shanghai, from miniature golf and dance halls to cinema culture and art deco architecture. At the same time, the film probes the transition from tradition to modernity and the toll that transformation takes on the individual.
Starring tragic actress Ruan Lingyu in one of her final roles, The Goddess tells the story of a woman who balances life as a prostitute at night and as a mother during the day.
Michael Berry: One of Ruan Lingyu’s most outstanding roles as a young mother forced to into prostitution in order to support her son, The Goddess is beautifully shot and features powerful censure of “public opinion” in Republican China.
Based on the life of an actress and writer, Ai Xia who committed suicide in 1934, Ruan Lingyu again plays the lead role here, an omen of sorts of Ruan’s own suicide in 1935. The film was a rallying cry for social reform and women’s issues.
Linda C. Zhang, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley: Not just interesting for its plot, New Women stirred up controversy and an infamous life-imitating-art situation. Ruan Lingyu plays a young writer, music teacher, and mother, who is trapped between conservative tradition and a movement that seeks to liberate women, but various pressures and misfortunes only lead to her tragic suicide. The film, directed by Cai Chusheng, is based on the true story of another young woman writer, Ai Xia, and her fate. Not long after the release of the film itself, the main actress Ruan also committed suicide.
One of the earliest non-silent features on China film, Scenes of City Life was famed actor Yuan Muzhi’s directorial debut, and also starred Lan Ping, also known as Jiang Qing, who would eventually marry Mao Zedong and become a member of the Gang of Four.
Linda C. Zhang: Yuan Muzhi’s film addresses not only the contradictions of urban life in Shanghai during the “golden age” of Shanghai cinema, but also the apparatus of film itself. It opens with various montage sequences and documentary-like footage of Shanghai, through the device of the “peep show.” Watch it for a cameo of the director himself, as well as a “movie-in-a-movie” moment featuring a short animation by the Wan Brothers!
Seen as one of the last cinematic offerings of China’s Golden Age of cinema, Street Angel stars legendary actress Zhou Xuan, and revolves around the travails of a group of young people struggling to become financially independent.
Xueting Christine Ni: This early sound film is a masterpiece of romantic socialist realist cinema that recent film directors have revisited in their works, because post-Communist 21st-century China is increasingly showing its capitalist colors and with this, generating a similar rich/poor divide and conflict of aspirations that the Republican era of Street Angel once did. The absolutely crippling Sino-Japanese War was China’s WWII, and like the impact of the World Wars elsewhere around the world, it’s still felt today.
12 Classic Chinese Films are Now Available for Free on YouTube with English Subtitles
Director Shen Xiling makes direct references to the war with Japan, as well as ascribing to leftist politics in this drama comedy, as four friends are caught up and separated during strikes in Shanghai.
Linda C. Zhang: A romantic comedy that tells a charming tale of neighborly dispute and romance, with deeper commentary on remaining youthful and non-cynical during less fortunate times. Inspired many other contemporary movies with similar romance set-ups, such as Shanghai Blues.
Directed by Sang Hu and written by Eileen Chang, Unending Love was loosely based around Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre. The movie was unique in that it took feminist politics as its focus, during a time when patriotic, polemical movies were a constant.
Xueting Christine Ni: Unlike the majority of post-War films of the ‘40s, which were quite polemical, Hu Sang’s feminist work Unending Love and Huang Zuolin’s satire Barber Takes a Wife 假凤虚凰 (both 1947) were films that examined the impact of war in more complex and humanist ways.
A film that UCLA’s Michael Berry calls an “eternal masterpiece of post-war devastation and desolation,” Spring in a Small Town captures one of several crucial inflection points in Chinese history, paralleling the development of its cinema: the turbulent period following Japanese invasion in 1937. The film paints a very human portrait of a small town decimated by the second Sino-Japanese War, documenting the traumas that would create the foundation for post-WWII conflicts and the ultimate establishment of a modern, Communist-controlled nation-state in 1949.
Xueting Christine Ni: Films like Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town and Shen Fu’s Myriad of Lights (1948 both), which explore the post-War socialist collective, provide an insight into why Chinese society turned towards Communism.
We highlight our top stories each week in an email newsletter that goes out every Monday - hot, fresh, and straight to your inbox.
Don't worry, we don't spam
Thousands of earthlings have signed up for our newsletter, and you should do the same