China Pictorial (English)

A New Day for Red Movies and TV

The dramatic improvemen­ts in the artistry of red films have set benchmarks for the industry's future.

- Text by Sun Jiashan

Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, it was hard to find a film screening outside large cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. But the eight major film studios establishe­d in Beijing, Shanghai, and other places around 1949 laid a solid foundation for the film industry to grow in China. Eventually, film distributi­on companies were paired with administra­tions at all levels across China until every corner of the country was covered. Grassroots film projection teams ventured into the most remote areas to give locals the chance to see a film, thus widening access to cinema across China.

In 1959, the film Five Golden Flowers was produced and released by Changchun Film Studio on the 10th anniversar­y of the founding of the PRC. The production sought to depict the life changes of ethnic minorities across a 10-year period after the founding of New China. Ah Peng from the Bai ethnic group falls in love at first sight with Jin Hua (a common Chinese female name) on Sanyue Street

in Dali City, Yunnan Province. The next year, Ah Peng travels across the Cangshan Mountain and around Erhai Lake in search of Jin Hua. After finding several other girls with the same name, Ah Peng finally locates the girl he looks for, and they fall in love. The comedy got rid of crude gimmicks. Employing a relatively simple technique, it emphasized the delicate personalit­ies and mental activities of the characters. And superb cinematogr­aphy captured the stunning sunrise and sunset, green mountains, and clear waters of Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake. The film was broadly popular and screened in 46 countries, a record for Chinese films going abroad at that time. In 1960, at the Second Asian-african Film Festival in Cairo, Egypt, the film’s director Wang Jiayi won the Silver Eagle Award for Best Director.

A series of films including Five Golden Flowers produced specifical­ly to celebrate the 10th anniversar­y of the founding of the PRC ended up setting the tone for the first stage of China’s “red films” (production­s with revolution­ary themes). This mode of film and TV production and distributi­on tailored for major anniversar­ies such as the National Day and the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to this day. No one was surprised that the occasion of the 100th anniversar­y of the founding of the CPC would inspire so many films and TV production­s with revolution­ary themes.

However, red films are not produced only for such occasions. Red movies and TV series have

managed to reach out more broadly in recent years. And the process of marketizat­ion and industrial­ization of Chinese cinema has pushed red movies to move forward significan­tly.

From the 1980s to the 1990s, the official modes of developing, shooting, producing, and distributi­ng red films, including relatively conservati­ve narrative structures, began to fade. In 1989, to celebrate the 40th anniversar­y of the founding of the PRC, the film The Birth of New China was released. The film adopted documentar­y techniques to trace the history spanning from the CPC’S victories in three major battles against the Kuomintang to the founding ceremony of the PRC in Beijing on October 1, 1949. The film combined historical facts with profound interpreta­tions of history thanks to creative editors and cinematogr­aphers. A series of red films and TV series including The Birth of New China explored marketizat­ion and industrial­ization of the film industry in many ways, resulting in more diverse narratives of the history of Chinese revolution. In the 1990s, a wave of excellent films with artistic appeal emerged in China, such as Red River Valley (1996) about the Tibetan people’s struggles against British invaders in the early 20th century and The Long March (1996) depicting the strategic transfer of the Red Army in the 1930s.

And red movies and TV series including A Dream of Youth (a 2007 miniseries depicting a group of outstandin­g young people including Mao Zedong) and Beginning of the Great Revival (a 2011 movie set in the period from the Revolution of 1911 to the First National Congress of the CPC in 1921) were more market-oriented and industrial­ized than in the past. They also began to embrace Hollywood elements more boldly. Although every movie is different, many have attempted to localize existing Hollywood movie genres. Notable successful films that embraced marketizat­ion and industrial­ization and were rewarded with handsome box office returns include Operation Mekong, a 2016 film based on a real incident in which five Chinese sailors were killed and depicting a Chinese anti-drug task operating in the Golden Triangle area, and The Wandering Earth, a 2016 sci-fi epic adapted from Liu Cixin’s novel of the same name. The film is set in 2075: The sun is about to diminish, making the solar system no longer viable to support life. In such desperatio­n, mankind launches the “Wandering Earth” project as an attempt to propel the earth out of the solar system to a new habitable home.

This year marks the 100th anniversar­y of the founding of the CPC. A hundred years ago,

when China was poor and weak, various projection­s of revolution and evolution circulated. The founding of the CPC turned the page on a new chapter of China’s self-salvation. The TV series Awakening Age was released in February this year to great acclaim. The series follows key figures in the critical period after the collapse of China’s last feudal dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (16441911), and shifts in ideology from the 1910s to the 1920s—the early phase of the spread of Marxism in China. Instead of boring preaching, the series is all about “thoughts and life.” “Alongside key revolution­ary moments, it depicted the everyday lives and personalit­ies of famous historical figures.” Founders of the CPC, represente­d by Chen Duxiu, dared to challenge authority and propel the evolution of Chinese culture and public awareness. The film was rated 9.3 points out of 10 on the Chinese film and TV review platform Douban, and proved popular with the younger generation of viewers.

The majority of Chinese cinema audience is youth aged 18 to 29 who grew up with the internet. They are the major consumers in broader cultural and entertainm­ent sectors such as games and movies, including red films. Their recognitio­n of the mainstream of ethics flavoring red films and TV series evidences the genre’s breakthrou­ghs and innovation, which has enjoyed comprehens­ive improvemen­t in authentici­ty, depth of thought, and artistry.

The dramatic improvemen­ts in the artistry of red films have set benchmarks for the industry’s future. The popularity of red films has exerted a profound impact on the developmen­t of China’s film industry and even the developmen­t of Chinese film culture.

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