Arts Review, The Arts

A Century of Chinese Cinema

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A Century of Chinese Cinema

Noah Cowan, curator w/additional film notes by Aliza Ma, Jesse Wente and Todd Brown

Series of over 80 films runs until August 11, 2013

Guest appearances by Jackie Chan, Chen Kaige, Johnnie To

Scholarly appearances by David Bordwell and Bart Testa

Art exhibitions by Christopher Doyle and Yang Fudong

For more information: or call 416-599-TIFF

Imagine trying to curate a survey of the past hundred years of American cinema or, if it was possible, the past two centuries of Italian opera or British theatre. That’s the task TIFF’s and Bell Lightbox’s Noah Cowan has set for himself with A Century of Chinese Cinema. While film doesn’t define China culturally as much as opera does for Italy, the draw of the form must be considerable. Cinema was being created in Shanghai during the Civil War and Japanese invasion of the 1930s and again in the impoverished Maoist China of the 1950s; it was produced in vast multitudes during Hong Kong’s glory days in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and even in the repressive Taiwan of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Cowan not only had the challenge of presenting fascinating films from various eras, he has to show an understanding of the political and economic circumstances that created three Chinese cinemas in the glory years of the 1980s. During that time a revived Mainland movement of filmmakers called the 5th Generation came to the forefront while a brazen and exuberant group of Hong Kong based directors made astonishing genre films and in post-censorship Taiwan, young artists began to produce deeply interior modernist works.

For this survey to work, Cowan has to contextualize Hong Kong’s delirious Tsui Hark, Taiwan’s darker and far less showy Edward Yang and a host of Mainland directors from Zhang Yimou to Chen Kaige, who started off by creating brilliant historical dramas before moving on to conquer other genres. He succeeds in doing just that while also offering fine examples of older Shanghai and Maoist films as well as the key contemporary works of directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Jia Zhangke.

Cowan has divided the programme into historical eras and genre tendencies with a great deal of care. The catalogue from TIFF has extensive notes, which further inform his choices. I’ve included his themes and added my own picks of “must-sees,” when appropriate.

Film Programme by theme and dates:

The Golden Age (1930s and ‘40s)

Shanghai was the main production centre as sophisticated melodramas were created during the brutal war years.

A New China (1950-1975)

“Revolutionary” cinema produced during Mao’s era.

Swordsmen, Gangsters and Ghosts: The Evolution of the Chinese Genre Cinema (1949-2006)

Whether in Hong Kong or the mainland, when the two were different politically, genre films were loved by the public.


Johnnie To introduces his crime thrillers Election and Election 2 (July 13); Infernal Affairs, the original version of Scorsese’s The Departed (July 6); Hero, Zhang Yimou’s martial arts masterpiece (June 28); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s international breakout hit (Aug. 3); Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2, Tsui Hark’s spectacular action thriller with Jet Li (Aug 4).

New Waves (1980-1994)

The 5th Generation of new Mainland Chinese auteurs emerges at the same time as Hong Kong’s commercial cinema becomes more outrageous and glorious and Taiwan’s censorship relaxes allowing filmmakers Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien to start their careers.


The Horse Thief, a hybrid ethnographic drama shot beautifully in Tibet (June 29); A City of Sadness, Hou Hsiao-Hsian’s masterpiece about four Taiwanese brothers reaching adulthood as the Nationalists take over their country (July 1); Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou’s first film with Gong Li about a gorgeous peasant girl, wine, love and war is justly famous (July 14); Peking Opera Blues, Tsui Hark’s comedy thriller set in 1913 Beijing about a quirky trio attempting to overthrow a corrupt government is fast and funny (Aug.4); A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang’s masterwork about a notorious murder case explores the despair of youths in Taiwan in the 1960s (Aug. 5).

New Directions (1994-2006)

Chinese cinema becomes more arty and existential as new auteurs Tsai Ming-Liang, Wong Kar-Wai and Jia Zhangke emerge.


Still Life, Jia Zhangke’s epic look at the destruction of village life due to the flooding created by the Three Gorges Dam (July 25); The Peach Blossom Land, a rare film by renowned theatre director Stan Lai about what happens when two theatre troupes double booked into the same rehearsal space—it’s Brechtian, not farcical (Aug. 3).

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