THE POSTWAR FILM SCENE
In the mid-1930s the Chinese film industry was flourishing. Everything changed when the war spread to Shanghai in August 1937. Many film personalities fled into
Throughout the war, and particularly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chinese films were made under Japanese auspices in Shanghai and elsewhere. This work had entertainment value but was incapable of considering the impact of the war on ordinary citizens. By late 1944 and early 1945, as the Allies closed in on Japanese forces, relatively few Japanese-sponsored works were produced. Chinese who worked in that sector of the film industry were afraid of being accused of collaboration when the war was over. During the war the Nationalist government tried to encourage filmmaking in the interior. Due to poor production environments and inadequate means of distribution, however, these works, almost all of which fell into the category of patriotic mobilization propaganda, attracted little attention. In short, none of the films made in China between 1937 and 1945 took a comprehensive look at the war and its social consequences. By the end of the conflict, Chinese filmmakers in both the interior and the occupied zones were almost completely idle.
Once victory was in hand, there was an enormous demand for new Chinese-made films, especially works that talked about the war. But the film world responded very slowly. In the twelve months that followed the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945, not a single Chinese film was completed. Consumers demanded, but did not get, new Chinese productions. Instead, they got old Chinese films and American films.
The situation was so tense that in early June 1946 a riot broke out at the Strand Theater (Xinguang da xiyuan) on Ningbo Road in Shanghai, when patrons violently protested yet another screening of an old Charlie Chaplin movie. Consumers looked forward to seeing new Hollywood films, but ticket prices were exceedingly high and lines unbearably long. As a result, there was a booming black market for tickets to the most popular American movies. Local papers demanded to know why there were no new Chinese films.
The lack of new film production activity was related to the threat of full-scale civil war and frustrating delays in the takeover of Shanghai and other Japanese-occupied cities. It is sometimes forgotten that the government did not make an official return to its prewar capital in Nanjing until May 5, 1946.
Ordinary film fans had no way of knowing that both the state and private sectors had ambitious agendas for the postwar film industry. For the state, the first step involved nationalizing the Japanese-controlled film studios in Shanghai and Beijing and confiscating their equipment, by far the best moviemaking hardware available in China. By nationalizing these units and refusing to make the equipment available to private sector filmmakers, the state was declaring its intention of going into the postwar motion picture business. This was a first for China. The Nationalist state had been largely uninvolved in the sprawling prewar film industry.
Two of the new state-owned units, China Film No. 1 and China Film No. 2, were located in Shanghai, and one studio, China Film No. 3, was set up in Beijing. To increase its chances of success, the state retained (and thus monopolized) the services of the Chinese technicians and production crews of the former Japanese studios. Lists of Chinese stars who had worked with the Japanese were published, and a few high-profile arrests were made, but no one was tried for treason. Film workers who had cooperated with the Japanese were spared after the war.
The new state studios also offered employment to the many stage and film workers who had served the resistance so valiantly in the interior. With the war at an end, these people now needed jobs. As a rule, however, directors and film workers who had served in the interior were kept apart from those who had remained in Shanghai.
Filmmakers who desperately wanted to revive the private sector after the war had a hard time competing with the state. They had difficulty attracting investors, they had to order new equipment from abroad, and they were unable to offer immediate employment to film workers, most of whom had families to support.
Well before any state or private-sector films were actually produced, there was a good deal of discussion in the popular press about the hopes of postwar filmmakers. Using time-honored neo-Confucian standards, some commentators argued that both state and private filmmakers had a moral obligation to play an uplifting role in the postwar industry. In general, there was a greater awareness of the extraordinary power of the film image than there had been before the war. In May 1946, for instance, one film writer asserted that there was "no agency in the world so capable of being used for adult education as the motion picture." The "propaganda possibilities" of film, he solemnly concluded, "make it one of the strongest and most penetrative influences in human history."
Those who emphasized educational goals (and there were both conservatives and liberals in this camp) tended to be critical of the purely commercial orientation of most prewar private-sector filmmakers. When the overriding concern was moneymaking, critics said, the result was often worthless trash that weakened public morals. It was necessary to look upon films "as something aside from a means of entertainment." In a word, filmmaking was too important to be left exclusively in the hands of greedy merchants and capitalists.
Although the rhetoric was high-minded, the first few postwar films, almost all produced in the new state-owned studios, failed to offer anything new or innovative. Disillusionment and despair were already facts of postwar life, but none of the new works confronted the problem of urban malaise and its connection to the dislocations of war. The very first state-funded postwar production, Loyal and Virtuous Family (Zhong yi zhi jia), released on August 27, 1946, was written and directed by Wu Yonggang (1907–82), a well-known leftist whose prewar work had been
The box office success of some of these early postwar films was due, in large part, to their novelty. They were advertised in the newspapers as the "first" postwar this or the "first" postwar that, and people naturally turned out to take a look. Some critics complained that the films were poorly made imitations of Hollywood originals, but the film-hungry audience was understandably curious.
Only a relative handful of film-world insiders knew that, even as these disappointing early postwar movies were making the rounds, startlingly different works were already in production in the state-owned studios and, shortly thereafter, in the private studios. These stunning works, fashioned without exception by filmmakers who had worked in leading Nationalist cultural organizations during the war, boldly asserted that the social disruptions caused by the war were so severe that victory felt like defeat. Despite the depressing nature of these postwar epic narratives, the films were phenomenally popular. Indeed, they caused a sensation that propelled the film industry to the forefront of the Chinese cultural world in early 1947.