I grew up in the Philippines during the coup d’etat-ridden 1990s. A national state of emergency could descend on any given Sunday. There was little to do for fun. On weekends, my parents and I went to the mall and watched movies, mostly American imports. I liked period romances. Dad liked Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis. And mom, well, like a good Chinese wife and mother, she deferred movie selection to us.
“Guerillas on the Plain”
Although we watched many together as a family, rarely were the three of us into one movie. Once, an old Chinese war movie came on TV. Dad dropped the Newsweek he was reading. Mom came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. They sat down in front of the TV and barely blinked as black-and-white images from “Battle of Triangle Hill” (《上甘岭》Shànggānlǐng) flashed.
I was curious. What movie could have both my parents equally engrossed? I went to look over their shoulders. Scenes from Korea, where valiant—Chinese soldiers had gone to defend the peninsula against American imperialists, played to soaring orchestral arrangements. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. What would my American friends say at school? Crying at a propaganda movie?! I should know better. This story assignment was the perfect excuse to revisit that strange movie experience. My parents were clearly influenced by the revolutionary and “resistance” films of the 1950s and 1960s. What are the other movies that defined generations of Chinese people?
I consulted books and experts. I made a list of notable Chinese movies that spanned the century and whittled it down. I watched a movie, talked to people about it and moved on to the next one.
My eyeballs were progressing through decades of Chinese cinema, but Chinese viewers kept telling me the same thing. Almost everyone, from people in their twenties to those in their eighties, repeated horrid-sounding titles: “Tunnel Warfare” (《地道战》Dìdào Zhàn, 1965), “Guerillas on the Plain” (《平原游击队》Píngyuán Yóujīduì, 1955), “Railway Guerillas” (《铁道游击队》Tiědào Yóujīduì, 1956). These were the names that sprang to people’s lips when I asked what movies left the deepest impression on them.
I found an entire nation of movie-goers defined by a handful of politically-minded pictures.
A WAR MOVIE PLAYED 1.8 BILLION TIMES
Everyone turned out to watch “Tunnel Warfare.” Adults, students, even young children tagged along. “There was nothing else to do for fun,” says Liu Haixia with a thick northeastern accent. “Kids could jump rope or go to the movies. My dad scolded me, ‘You think the show doesn’t start without you?’” Taking a pause from rapid chatter, Liu says more seriously, “Of course we always wanted to watch movies. No matter how many times we had seen one, we always watched if it was playing.”
The film was originally made as an instructional video for military use, but it dominated public screens for a long time. It’s a story of ingenious farmers digging underground tunnels to use in combat against the Japanese. Chinese media report that it has been watched a total of 1.8 billion times, a believable number considering one man’s experience, “My friend, now a professor at Tsinghua, watched movies at his mother’s danwei (单位, work unit), a coal mine in Guizhou. He saw ‘Tunnel Warfare’ more than one hundred times! As long as it was playing, the kids in the danwei would go see it, just for fun,” says Nie Xiaoyang, a prominent journalist.
Kids didn’t mind the caricatures of Japanese soldiers—sporting mustaches and making exaggeratedly choppy salutes—nor the overly enthusiastic portrayals of the villagers’ selflessness. “This movie brings back wonderful memories. Children don’t know politics. I thought the tunnel was cool. I wanted to dig one in my village too,” reminisces Xiao Yuqi, a young advertising executive.
VISITOR ON ICE MOUNTAIN
REVOLUTION MADE EXOTIC
Another movie in the 1960s also captivated audiences. “Visitor on Ice Mountain” (《冰山上的来客》Bīngshān Shàng de Láikè, 1963) gave people all around China glimpses of its western border. Set in Xinjiang, this film was a gripping mix of spy action, romance and, naturally, a dose of political awareness. The story follows Amir, an ethnic Tajik who joins the People’s Liberation Army, as he reports for duty and solves the mystery of the “two Gulandams.” One is Amir’s long-lost childhood sweetheart; the other, an impostor sent to spy on the army’s activities.
The exoticism of glacial peaks, clear-eyed Tajik faces and espionage intrigue made “Visitor on Ice Mountain” a success. Many aunties turn dreamy-eyed when the name “Amir” is uttered. When I took my mother to Xinjiang last year, she asked to take photos at Oytagh Glacier Park, where the namesake “ice mountain” is visible. The tour guide easily met her demands—it was a standard part of the itinerary. After sightseeing, the restaurants we stopped in, without fail, played the lovers’ song “Why Is the Flower so Red?” Few people over the age of twenty-five don’t know the lyrics to this song.
EARLY SPRING IN FEBRUARY
THE MAKING OF SCREEN ICONS
Films made in the early decades following the founding of New China in 1949 stayed for a long time in people’s hearts. So did the people who played those characters. Actress Xie Fang, a screen icon now in her seventies, began performing when she was just 15 years old. She recalls the rush to produce content for public consumption in the 1950s. “After liberation, audiences needed to watch something. There was no time for us to study in arts school. We graduated from middle school and were told ‘If you can go on stage, just go!’”
Xie’s first film catapulted her to nationwide fame and received attention, straight from the top. “Song of Youth” (《青春之歌》Qīngchūn Zhī Gē, 1959), released on the 10th anniversary of New China, came hot off the reels and was put straight into the hands of Premier Zhou Enlai. “As soon as we finished the movie, we rushed it to Zhongnanhai. I remember the premier standing outside to greet the cast and crew,” says Xie. After Zhou gave his approval, an entire nation watched Xie’s bright eyes light up the screen. “The movie played 24/7 with people lining up outside. There were no televisions back then. This was the big thing,” explains Xie.
These days, viewers can still watch Xie’s old films on websites like Youku. Even hip youngsters leave rave reviews, “After thirty years, it’s still so powerful!” They’re talking about another of Xie’s movies, a less political one—“Early Spring in February” (《早春二月》 Zǎochūn Èryuè, 1963). In it, Xie plays Tao Lan, a bold beautiful early feminist in a small town who falls in love with a drifting intellectual. The misty backdrop of an idyllic southern town and Tao Lan’s mandarin collars make this a signature film about the disenchantment of Chinese intellectuals.
ROMANCE ON LUSHAN MOUNTAIN
ROMANCE AND THE REVOLUTION
The movies that Chinese people most remember aren’t all about blood, war and austerity. In 1980, just two years after the policy of Reform and Opening Up was announced, “Romance on Lushan Mountain” (《庐山恋》Lúshān Liàn) broke new ground on many counts.
This movie showed New China’s first onscreen kiss (so widely believed, but there were in fact similar pecks on the cheek in films before the Cultural Revolution). Aside from this sensational scene, the overall newness and luxury of “Lushan” drew audiences in. For the first time in decades, wealth, fashion and love took center stage. Actress Zhang Yu played the returning Chinese-American daughter of a Nationalist army officer in exile. Her 43 costume changes even outdo Maggie Cheung’s 23 qipao looks in “In the Mood for Love.” She falls for the bookish son of a Communist army officer, who is a bit square and wholly dedicated to building a modern China through studying architecture.
In a shiny package, complete with scenes of an imagined American home and dangling pearls, the moviemakers delivered a modern patriotic rally call to the audience — “China has changed. Help build your Motherland.” The movie has endured. In 2002, it earned a Guinness Book of World Records title, as the movie with the longest continuous run in one theater. A little theater built by the enterprising Lushan tourism authority has played this movie continuously since its release.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
What of the newer movies that broke box office records and won praise overseas, the “Red Sorghum” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” types? Why don’t these titles light up faces?
Perhaps, over time, people were spoiled for choice. Nie, the journalist, muses, “It was a planned economy back then. Every year, there were set numbers of movies released. If there was a new movie, everyone watched it.” Indeed, many moviegoers, when asked why old movies, movies about war and politics, remain their favorites reply, “There was so little choice. We watched the same ones over and over again.”
Scarcity of diversions had a lot to do with it as well. “In those days, we were busy with political movements, even in our leisure time,” says Lu Guanghui, an energetic and well-coiffed retiree. In her career days, Lu was a high-ranking official in the central bank system. Now, as she recalls watching movies outdoor on her college campus, she says with girlish excitement, “Watching movies was such an indulgence. We enjoyed it so much. Back in the dorm we talked about the scenes for a long time, from top bunk to bottom bunk.”
Another development in the 1980s also changed how much a single movie could “define” and influence a people. Televisions began entering average households. Movie-going subsided. The days of collective viewing and group chatter were coming to an end. People started to stay in and watch programs in isolation. Liu, whose father once scolded her for running to the factory theater too often, switched to television series after getting “a small TV” at home in 1988.
When I talk to people about movies, I catch a glimmer in their eyes, a faint flush on their cheeks from palpating hearts only when those old titles of yesteryear come up. Those were the movies that defined generations.