Seasons of Pain and Change: Tiff's 'A Century of Chinese Cinema'

By Shin, Alice | CineAction, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Seasons of Pain and Change: Tiff's 'A Century of Chinese Cinema'


Shin, Alice, CineAction


From June 5 to August 11, 2013, the Toronto International Film Festival Group presented "A Century of Chinese Cinema"--a comprehensive survey of more than 80 films from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, from the silent era to the present day. These golden classics not only provided a gateway for film lovers who wanted to appreciate Chinese films, they also chronicled the socio-political changes which have affected the lives of the inhabitants of all three regions. Historically, since the 1840s, China had been under constant threat of civil war and foreign invasion. The senseless violence of war juxtaposed with courageous acts by ordinary individuals offered an endless supply of dramatic material for the indigenous film industry. In many of these films, history is revealed through a kaleidoscope of greed versus poverty, glory versus shame, war versus peace, love versus betrayal and characters caught up in the turmoil of pain and reluctant change.

From the festival's wealth of possibilities, I have selected three films for discussion which are representative of the three regional cinemas over three decades, from the nineteen forties to the sixties. The films are connected in that all have a season attached to their Chinese title--it was common for films to explore the radical changes and antagonistic reactions metaphorically by ways of the changing of the season--and they are all realist melodrama, the most popular genre for the time period.

Mainland China: The Spring River Flows East Part 1 & 2 (1947)

  "May I ask how much sorrow you can carry?
  It feels like the Yangtse
  River flowing east endlessly downstream in the spring!"

These two lines of lyrics open and are reprised throughout the epic film The Spring River Flows East Part 1 & 2 /Yi Jiang Chun Shui Xiang Dong Liu, which played for more than three months in 1947 upon its release in theatres, breaking every box office record in post-WWII China. While spring usually represents a renewal of energy in a positive way, here it conveys a negative connotation, as the introductory lyrics indicate, that in springtime when the flow is strong, the river carries nothing but sorrow. Produced during the golden period of the Shanghai film industry, under the cordial collaborative direction of co-writers/directors team Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, the film successfully captures the hardships and struggles of the Chinese during WWII from the Japanese invasion to the ensuing tumultuous depression that lasted for more than ten years.

The Spring River Flows East follows a couple who fall in love during the Japanese invasion of China. Zhongliang (meaning loyal and good, a satirical name for the character), portrayed by the actor Tao Jin, starts off as a hot-blooded idealistic teacher who motivates factory workers to fight against the Japanese, then goes on a journey to serve the troops, gets separated from his family and ends up becoming a despicable person. His wife Sufen/Bai Yang, has to act as the head of the family in her husband's absence. She fights to survive war cruelty, endures extreme poverty, struggles to provide for their son from his infancy to boyhood all the while serving her elderly in-laws selflessly. Life is tough for both during the war in different ways, but events take a different turn after the war is over. After facing disappointments and setbacks, Zhongliang finds himself under the protection of a wealthy society woman in the decadent capital of Chongqing. Tormented by his low self-esteem and tempted by greed, he ends up using sex to get ahead, later denouncing his family to maintain his precarious social status. His wife takes another path. Barely surviving the war while losing loved ones, she is forced to live in poverty. She finds work as a maid while longing for the return of her beloved husband. Crushed after learning the truth about his heartlessness, she ends up losing her faith in life.

The film's storyline is classic melodrama but the realist approach to story-telling makes it heart-wrenching as the characters are well developed and the series of events leading up to the ultimate consequences are believable. …

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