TIFF’s Chinese film retrospective traces ups and downs of greater China

13 June 2013 21 h 05 min Comments Off

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(CBC News, Jun 12, 2013)As a teenager during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, filmmaker Chen Kaige joined the Red Guards and famously denounced his father in the political campaigns of the era. His father’s career as a prominent movie director was swallowed up in the maelstrom and Chen himself was “sent down to the countryside” by the Communist Party to perform manual labour alongside peasants.

The experience marked him for life and came to define the films he would later create. “I strongly feel there is a lesson to be learned to avoid something like this happening again,” he said during his recent visit to Toronto for the launch of A Century of Chinese Cinema, TIFF Bell Lightbox’s major retrospective of Chinese film.

“As long as memory exists, change will follow,” Chen told CBC News.

Ongoing through Aug. 11, A Century of Chinese Cinema showcases more than 80 films. Over the past three years, Noah Cowan, artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, and TIFF curators collaborated with teams from film archives based in Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong to create what’s being billed as the largest ever retrospective of films from greater China to be shown in the West.

Acclaimed Chinese filmmakers, experts, scholars and personalities are taking part in the program, from Jackie Chan introducing some of his past hits to onstage discussions with filmmakers like Hong Kong’s Johnnie To and Beijing-based Chen.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, Chen was among the first students enrolled at the newly re-opened Beijing Film Academy in 1978. Among his classmates were now legendary directors Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. After graduation, they were sent to work at regional film studios and began producing movies completely different from the propaganda films of the decades before.

“I was sick of the movies made during the Cultural Revolution. I was going to make films about the fate of the people, about how they survive,” Chen recalled.

A first effort was 1984’s Yellow Earth, now considered a masterpiece. With Chen as director and Zhang as cinematographer, the 1939-set drama depicts rural poverty, the peasants’ relationship to the land, their rich tradition of folk songs and the cruel fate of one young girl contemplating her limited options in life. Yellow Earth caught the attention of critics internationally, particularly because of its stunning cinematography.

The film and others that followed in the 1980s and 1990s — Chen’s King of the Children, Zhang’s Judou and Tian’s The Blue Kite to name a few — established these young filmmakers as China’s Fifth Generation. Chen’s most famous film in the West was 1993’s Farewell My Concubine. Screening as part of the TIFF program, the tragic story follows two Beijing Opera stars caught up in the Cultural Revolution. Though a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, it was initially banned in mainland China.


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