Cinematography of the World – Part 1: China Post-1990

This will be an on-going series of posts on cinematography from around the world. Initially, it was intended to be a single post but there are so many aesthetically interesting and innovatively shot films from around the world that it is just too difficult to do that in one go. Just think of some of the great films on the big screen: Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battleship Potemkin, Barry Lyndon, The Wizard of Oz, Seven Samurai, Children of Men and so many others. For the first post we take a look at Chinese cinema from 1990 onwards, when so many of their films exploded onto western screens, with blazing colour, fantastic landscapes and affecting portrait shots. From dimly-lit back lanes in Shanghai to epic battle scenes with a cast of thousands, Chinese film-makers have produced some of the most visually stunning films of the modern era. All of the films discussed below are best witnessed on a big screen.

China was one of the first countries to show moving pictures in public venues, starting in 1896. Apart from filming opera performances, most films shown in the first few years were foreign but by 1921 China began its own film industry. It has gone through some momentous periods, mostly influenced indirectly by politics and war, but in the 1980s a diverse range of films began to be made, drawing on historic, social and romantic themes. These were influenced by ‘western’ and Japanese cinema, but also drawing on a rich history of Chinese narrative and cultural symbolism. Academics and film historians labeled this the ‘Chinese Fifth Generation’ of directors that came out of the Beijing Film academy in the early 1980s. By 1990 China was producing several big budget films not just for the local market but for a global audience too. While narrative is a key element of this film movement, I personally think that their defining characteristics are the extraordinary use of colour, attention to symmetry, and atmospheric mood. There is a poetry of aesthetics blending action and stillness; scenes of bold monotone colour (red, green, white) and then muted-colour of a smoky room or misty landscape. You can have a quiet scene with two characters, sometimes not talking, and then a scene of 10,000 soldiers lined up in front of a fortress. The cinematography doesn’t just capture action, but combined with multiple visual arts, it conveys narrative. In so many of these films too, women feature as leads, including in numerous martial arts films often set in historic periods known for their strict adherence to patriarchal rules. A subtle criticism is underlying the narratives, challenging what seem to be immovable norms.

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Raise the Red Lantern (1991 Zhang Yimou)

Raise the Red Lantern (1991) (Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua), set in the 1920s, is about a young woman Sònglián (Gong Li), who becomes one of several concubines to a wealthy and powerful man. It was later adapted into ballet by the National Ballet of China. The film was directed by Zhang Yimou, and received generally favourable reviews but the cinematography by Lun Yang and Zhao Fei is exceptional. Like all films of the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema, the visual look of the film is a collaboration between the director and cinematographer(s), and a team of technicians. This film concerns a woman’s oppression and is deliberately filmed in symmetrical frames, creating a kind of claustrophobic, entrapped feel to it. The camera is often placed unmoving, at the centre of a frame, as if the viewer is watching a trapped animal. The often motionless actors give a sense of the never changing grim world in which they live. Several long shots show the main protagonist Sònglián at a distance, out of reach and emotionally numb. However, in contrast, when she is shown closer to the camera she is often dressed in red or cloaked in red light from surrounding lanterns. Director Zhang was keen to use red to suggest hope, happiness, and fire-hot passion. Zhang says red has an implicit meaning in Chinese culture. It provides an emotional contrast to the restraint in all other elements of the film. Like almost all of Zhang Yimou’s films the central protagonist is a woman, and there is unmistakable social commentary about challenging the status quo. Raise the Red Lantern is a stunning film, conveying the emotional and psychological state of Sònglián in a seemingly unchanging world of dreary oppression.

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Farewell My Concubine (1993 Chen Kaige)

Farewell My Concubine (1993) (Bàwáng Bié Jī) is a visually lavish drama directed by Chen Kaige. Cinematography is by Gu Changwei. It follows the difficult relationships between two operatic actors in Beijing from the 1920s to the 1970s. The film was released in mainland China in July 1993 but was heavily censored two months later to remove content about homosexuality and suicide or overt criticism of the Cultural Revolution. The US version has also been edited to ‘shorten it’ but key scenes have also been taken out without explanation. Internationally the (complete) film has received numerous awards and accolades. Because much of it is centred around stage performance it is vibrant in colour, and exotic in camera motion. Production design is top notch, with attention to detail. Costume and make-up are immaculate. The camera often lingers on minute details, a textured garment or period piece of furniture. And there are plenty of portrait shots of characters with stunted facial expression in the midst of deep-coloured interiors. It creates a kind of sensual style, which mimics the poetry of performance.

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Two actors framed in mirrors in Farewell My Concubine

Gu was cinematographer on a number of films, but his landscape ‘painting’ shots in Red Sorghum (1987) are especially noteworthy. Like several eminent Chinese cinematographers he became a director later in his career. This trend of cinematography to direction is probably the reason why so many Chinese films are an aesthetic marvel. Chen had previously made Yellow Earth (1984), shot by Zhang Yimou. Several western commentators and critics have said that Farewell My Concubine was the first of the Fifth Generation films to be released internationally. I’m not sure why they think this; it clearly is not. But it is something of a landmark film in narrative and technique that received wide acclaim in the West, though again not the first. Anyhow, it is a remarkable film, with an excellent visceral quality.

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Chunking Express (1994 Wong Kar-wai)

Chunking Express (1994) (Chong Qing Sen Lin) is about two seemingly unrelated love stories in Hong Kong. It is one of several films directed by Wong Kar-wai and shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai Keung. This quirky film might be called an urban grunge foray into the life of a city, complete with a hip soundtrack. It was released in Hong Kong and Europe in 1994 but not in the U.S. until 1996. Quentin Tarantino gushes about the film. It is one of several Chinese films of the era that he has been promoted in the U.S. The film was shot in just 23 days during a break from making another film that was proving difficult (Ashes of Time). There was no real script. Wong wrote a basic outline of two stories in two days (actually he wrote three, but the other story became a whole new film). And the actors winged it, so to speak. Lau Wai Keung shot the first segment of the movie about a love affair and Doyle shot the second love affair. Orange-neon lights, over-exposure and shaking camera add to a vibrant grunge feel to the film. It feels fresh, and is just intriguing to follow the people in the streets and bars of the city.

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In the Mood for Love (2000 Wong Kar-wai)

In the Mood for Love (2000) (Huā kāi de shídài) is a romantic drama set in early 1960s Hong Kong. It was written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-wai (though the actors contributed to the writing as the film progressed). Cinematography is by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin. A man and woman, whose partners have an extramarital affair, slowly gravitate towards each other in dealing with the heart-ache and trying to understand how the affair happened. The film has won numerous international awards and is often ranked in lists of the greatest films of all time. That’s impressive for a film that is just 20 years old. This film is visually stunning, and is a huge technical achievement (it is deserving of a post all to itself). It is such an exceptionally wonderful film. There is so much cinematic attention to detail, colour, texture, shadow and light. Much of the film is shot as frames within frames, which is to say characters are seen through a widow, a doorway or a corridor, and this gives it a sense of closeted secrecy of the individuals on the one hand and yet being observed on the other. This is a brilliant film, and the cinematography is truly masterful.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000 Ang Lee)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (Wò Hǔ Cáng Lóng) is a martial arts movie set in 18th century China. It was directed by Ang Lee, and shot by Peter Pau, one of Hong Kong’s best known cinematographers. The visual elements of the film are helped by extensive prop-wire special effects, set location and stunning choreography. Fight scenes are choreographed like a tango dance or ballet by Yuen Wo-Ping, who had choreographed The Matrix (1999) the year before. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been praised for its story, direction, and cinematography, and for its martial arts sequences. At the time of release (2000) it was the most successful Chinese film ever made. Chinese films now dominate the world market, with more Chinese films in the top 50 grossing films of all time than any other country. Since Crouching Tiger hit the world screens, Chinese films have been increasingly incorporating western actors, technicians and finance. And China puts enormous resources into their film industry. The government, for example, has allowed the Chinese army to be made available as extras in epic battle scenes in some films. In Crouching Tiger, sword duels are a form of poetry in motion. Wire work and fluid camera make for a visually interesting film.

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Hero (2002 Zhang Yimou)

Hero (2002) (Yīngxióng) is one of the most dazzlingly beautiful films ever to hit the screen. Though it was filmed by Australian-born Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, he worked closely with director Zhang Yimou to create the distinct colour-coded scenes. The film is based on Jing Ke’s assassination attempt on the King of Qin in 227 BC. Released in China in 2002, Hero was at the time the most expensive film project undertaken in China, and since its release has been one of highest-grossing movies in China. But it was another two years before it was finally released in the U.S., due largely to lobbying by Quentin Tarantino. There are cinematographic elements of Rashomon (1950) in this film, in which three different narratives are shot using different camera techniques. The film therefore uses three dominant colours for each narrative: red, blue, and white. Flashbacks are filmed in reed-green, and the over-riding story that connects the narratives are darker. The colour palate is elegant, almost poetic. As Doyle describes it, ‘every story is colored by personal perception’. On Hero, Zhang was keen to  develop an aesthetic film that an international audience can appreciate without missing out on any hidden meanings. A small amount of the filming incorporates digital effects, flying through the air martial arts style for instance, but Doyle and Zhang were keen to keep it to a minimum and expand the scope of cinematography without special effects.

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House of Flying Daggers (2004 Zhang Yimou)

House of Flying Daggers (2004) (Fēi Dāo Zhī Jiā) is a tragi-romance martial arts film directed again by Zhang Yimou. Cinematography is by Zhao Xiaoding. Set in the last years of the Tang Dynasty (10th Century AD), rebel groups – including the House of Flying Daggers – aim to take on an oppressive government. With specialised throwing daggers they steal from the rich and give to the poor. The film is more of a romance than a martial arts film, but martial arts are displayed throughout with an exotic beauty. But then again, Chinese martial arts are ‘arts’, and have their own poetic beauty. It makes for a visually beautiful film. Two years before making this film, Zhang was making Hero in northern China, where he noticed Buddhist grottoes with cave paintings from the Tang dynasty. ‘When I noticed one that was very rich in blues, greens, and golds, I pointed it out and said, “This is what I want for the colour scheme of House of Flying Daggers”.’ He set the film in the Tang dynasty and designed the look of the film to those three colours. I especially like the look of this film. The narrative is a little melodramatic, perhaps overly sentimental, but visually it is a marvel. Camera work is put to task to render the serene poetry of action, and duel scenes are often fought out in stunning landscapes. It has style in abundance.

The scene above shows a blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) conducting the ‘echo game’ dance. Like many carefully choreographed scenes there is attention to symmetry. The precision of the dance, painting, swordsmanship and athleticism combine into a kind of magical beauty. It is a celebration of the arts and of tradition, rather than a depiction of a violent contest. An even more impressive scene is a fight in the bamboo forest. It borders on the absurd if you think about it simply as a fight sequence but if you imagine how a fairy story might look like this is pretty close to the mark. I think in the same way that British films based on classic literature often put effort into celebrating literature and the spoken language itself, Chinese cinema in recent decades celebrates the aesthetics of visual arts. It is portrayed in elegant style and poetic movements. There is nothing brutish about it; it’s not just about revenge and justice, but something much deeper in the soul. Often set in historic dynasties cloaked in chaos and intrigue, it is interesting to note that so many of the immaculately skilled heroes are actually heroines. Many recent Chinese films are full of female combatants of enormous skill and finesse. Perhaps a criticism could be made that an almost mystical supra-human quality in fight scenes gets in the way of the gritty realism of combating foes, but I would say that is missing the point. These films aren’t about spitting blood across the screen in slow-motion. They are about a spiritual awakening of ancient traditions.

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The Painted Skin (2008 Gordon Chan, Andy Wing-Keung Chin and Danny Ko)

The Painted Skin (Huàpí) is a supernatural fantasy film released in 2008 to great fanfare. It was directed by Gordon Chan, Andy Wing-Keung Chin and Danny Ko. A follow-up sequel, Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) directed by Wu Ershan, was even more successful at the box office. Both were filmed by renowned cinematographer Arthur Wong. I’d describe it as a pop film.

Like many Chinese films, it is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese story. In this instance it is a short story by Pu Songling (1740) that concerns a man who becomes infatuated with a demon disguised as a beautiful woman. Huàpí (Painted Skin) became a common phrase in China to describe people who wear a mask of humanity but are inwardly sinister. It became an even more common turn of phrase during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in describing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. It might be expected then, that by the time this story made it to the cinema it already resided in the national consciousness. But importantly for the film, it was necessary to have transformative imagery, from startlingly beautiful to eerily creepy. The visual effects of the films are a combination of an award-winning team of editors and choreographers, a spectacular set, special effects and photography. Like a lot of Chinese films in which martial arts come to the fore, there are several strong women leads. The story is fantastic melodrama, even a touch corny, but it is also a celebration of traditional folklore. There is a lot of symbolism in the film that has special resonance for Chinese audiences. If you can go with it, it is a lot of fun. Several pop songs accompany both films, as shown in the example above.

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City of Life and Death (2009 Lu Chuan)

City of Life and Death (2009) (Shēngsǐ Zhī Chéng) is a gritty war drama written and directed by Lu Chuan and shot in black and white by Cao Yu and He Lei. The film is also known as Nanking! Nanking! and deals with the Battle of Nanking in 1937. This relates to a following massacre committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film was a huge success in China (though some viewers objected to a Japanese soldier being portrayed empathetically). It is less well known outside of China but has received a good reception at various film festivals. Cao Yu said that he thought the film should be about faces – ‘faces showed the inner thoughts of the people in the war’. He thought that would be best conveyed in black and white and was influenced by Robert Frank’s 1958 photographic book The Americans. The idea was to get in close, right into the eyes of the actors. He also drew on the war photographs of Robert Capa for the battle scenes. He shot battle scenes in long sequences using up to four cameras, one after the other, to maintain continuity. It is very affecting.

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The Flowers of War (2011 Zhang Yimou)

Just two years later The Flowers of War (Jīnlíng Shísān Chāi) (2011), another historical drama set around the 1937 Nanking Massacre, was released. This one follows a group of escapees trying to survive the violence of the invading Japanese troops. It was directed by Zhang Yimou, and like his previous Hero, it aims for an international audience. It notably includes Christian Bale in a leading role. The film did well in China but was less successful in the U.S. and elsewhere. Cinematography is by Zhao Xiaoding, who also filmed House of Flying Daggers (2004), The Great Wall (2016) and Shadow (2018), among many others. He is especially adept at action sequences, but in this film a great deal of effort was put into recreating atmosphere, from grim street scenes to interior scenes full of colour and hope. Though I prefer City of Life and Death as a film, both films use very different cinematography to great effect.

Chinese films are increasingly becoming like Hollywood blockbusters, with big budgets, lots of action and expensive digital effects. We are seeing a lot more epic films of good versus evil and over-the-top battle scenes. Increasingly they are becoming formulaic and more likely to have multiple sequels. They may be still impressive technically, but they are less interesting artistically. To name a few: Red Cliff (1 & 2), Ip Man (1-4 + one more) and Wolf Warrior (1 & 2). The 2019 science fiction film The Wandering Earth has some interesting digital special effects but otherwise the cinematography in all of these films is not exceptional. The golden era of Chinese cinematography is unfortunately in decline, giving way to a kind of instantaneous pulp-cinematography. Putting aside my obvious disappointment in where many Chinese and Hollywood blockbuster films are taking us, I think it is clear that the spectacular flourish of innovative and aesthetically beautiful and startling films of the 1990s and 2000s has made an enormous contribution to the world of cinema. Now more than ever Chinese directors, cinematographers, choreographers and others are working across the globe on films, and we are better off for it.

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