The Chinese film industry began around the turn of the 20th century, but unfortunately nothing survives of those first two decades–films lost to fire, to age, and just plain lost. Any person wanting to study this history must make do with synopses, photos, and imagination. However, after that? This YouTube playlist curated by the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia features a dozen notable films and influential classics from two and half decades of Chinese history, some of the most tumultuous years for that nation. China ousted the British, fought off the Japanese, and began a revolution under Mao. The print quality varies here and there, but all are entertaining, from musicals to horror movies to social dramas.
The collection begins with the oldest surviving film in the series, Labourer’s Love, a two-reeler from 1922 directed by Zhang Shichuan. Most of the original Chinese filmmakers were trained by Americans, so early shorts like this tended to be silent comedies filled with visual gags–this one features a carpenter who opens up a fruit stand to woo a woman, and uses his woodworking skills and tools to increase his business.
By the late 20s however, China was already developing its own genres and styles, just as it was developing a modern nationalist pride away from colonial influence. The first martial arts film would be produced in 1928. Other studios opted for folklore tales or family melodramas.
Trained and educated in the United Stated, Sun Yu was one of the major filmmakers of the 1930s (a group of directors known as the Second Generation filmmakers) until the invasion of Japan sent him fleeing Shanghai for the interior. But the films he made for the leftist film studio Lianhua are now classics. Three of his are represented here: 1933’s Daybreak, a tale of a young country couple who get corrupted in the big city; Queen of Sports, a 1934 drama of a plucky track star who has to navigate class stratas as well as competitions; and maybe Sun Yu’s most famous film The Big Road (above), a story of six young men building a road for the Chinese army to battle the Japanese. Yes, it’s wartime propaganda, but Sun Yu was always focused on working men and women. These three films also star Li Lili, considered by some to be the “Chinese Mae West,” and who lived to a ripe age (as did Sun Yu). She has a role in Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage from 1992, his ode to the movie stars of the 1930s.
China’s first horror film is also in this list: 1937’s Song at Midnight, Ma-Xu Weibang’s retelling of Phantom of the Opera (with a bit of Frankenstein thrown in–the Universal Studios influence is very apparent here). It’s also a musical, with karaoke-like subs for you to sing along if you know Cantonese.
Lastly, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town from 1947 is one of the most influential on this list. A sickly man’s friend visits in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war, and the wife recognizes him as a lover from long ago. Romantic tensions soon begin to smolder. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love borrowed its repressed, longing mood. And filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhaung remade it in 2002, keeping the original setting. Many Chinese filmmakers and critics consider it one of the best of all time, China’s Casablanca.
Hopefully this dozen will whet your appetite for more Chinese cinema and provide an alternative to watching another binge-worthy but shallow Netflix series.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.