PREWAR CONNECTIONS, WARTIME PASSAGES,
AND POSTWAR NETWORKS
Chen Liting, Shi Dongshan, Cai Chusheng, and Zheng Junli were especially prominent among the screenwriters and directors responsible for the astonishing surge of creativity that swept through the Chinese film world in late 1946 and early 1947. The four men shared much in common. All four were veterans of the robust stage and screen worlds of prewar Shanghai. Chen Liting and Zheng Junli were leaders of the Shanghai Amateur Experimental Drama Troupe (Shanghai yeyu shiyan ju tuan) in the late 1930s, while Shi Dongshan, Cai Chusheng, and Zheng Junli were well-known film personalities associated with Shanghai's glamorous Lianhua Film Studio (Lianhua dianying zhipianchang) in the prewar years. All four had contacts in Nationalist government offices, in the business world, and in left-wing cultural circles. All four held moderate political views and refrained from joining political parties. All four fled Shanghai prior to the Japanese occupation in November 1937 and passed many difficult years in the interior working for various Nationalist cultural organizations engaged in resistance activities. All four spent considerable time in wartime Chongqing, returning to Shanghai by early 1946 to breathe life into a postwar reincarnation of the old Lianhua Film Studio called Kunlun (Kunlun yingye gongsi). Most important, all four had ambitious plans to film unsettling accounts of the holocaust experience.
A native of Shanghai, Chen Liting (1910–), the most intellectual of the group, was swept up by the post–May Fourth surge of interest in modern drama. In 1931, while attending Daxia University in Shanghai, Chen translated The Rising of the Moon, a highly influential early-twentieth-century play by the noted Irish dramatist Lady Gregory. This famous work helped launch a renaissance in Irish drama; it featured lively, direct, and powerful dialogue that was rooted in Ireland's rural folklore. Chen directed and acted in the first Chinese production of The Rising of the Moon.
In late 1931 and early 1932 Chen worked as an elementary schoolteacher in rural Nanhui county, east of central Shanghai. Chen began at once directing experimental "street theater" (jietou ju) that dispensed with stages, sets, artificial lighting, and other conventions. Actors and audience were in direct contact. Inspired by Lady Gregory's example, Chen emphasized simplicity and clarity of message. His most famous production, Lay Down Your Whip (Fang xia ni de bianzi), caused an immediate uproar. Years later, during the War of Resistance, it was performed countless times throughout China.
Back in Shanghai by mid-1932, Chen worked for several years organizing and directing amateur theater groups that were loosely affiliated with the League of Left-Wing Dramatists. He also wrote film reviews for Chen bao and Ming bao, and translated a number of Soviet books on filmmaking, including Vsevolod Pudovkin's On Film Acting (Dianying yanyuan lun). It was in the mid-1930s that Soviet films began to be screened in China.
When the war erupted, Chen was one of the primary leaders of the Shanghai Amateur Experimental Drama Troupe. His company immediately joined the resistance by breaking into two groups to form the third and fourth brigades of the Shanghai Salvation Drama Troupe (Shanghai jiuwang yanju). Chen served as the leader of the fourth brigade. After putting on numerous street performances, including Lay Down Your Whip, the troupe fled Shanghai before it fell, in September. For the next three years Chen and his compatriots traveled under harsh conditions through central and southwest China, performing innumerable patriotic plays.
In 1941 Chen arrived in Chongqing and was immediately invited by the Nationalist authorities to join the state-run China Film Studio (Zhongguo dianying zhipianchang) and the Central Cinematography Studio (Zhongyang sheying chang). But Chen's main contribution continued to be in the theater world. As a member of such state-sponsored groups as the China Art Theater Society (Zhongguo yishu ju she), Chen directed leading plays by Wu Zuguang (1917–), Xia Yan (1900–1995), and Chen Baichen (1908–). Chen Liting's most impressive wartime effort was his staging of Guo Moruo's (1892–1978) famous 1942 play, Qu Yuan.
Chen Liting was back in Shanghai by early 1946. He was invited to join the state's new China Film No. 2 Studio, and began at once to write and then direct Far Away Love (Yaoyuan de ai), the first in a series of controversial epics on the social dislocations caused by the holocaust. The premiere, held in Shanghai's well-known Huanghou Theater on January 18, 1947, was a landmark event in postwar filmmaking. Such
Chen Liting made a second film at China Film No. 2 Studio, Chen Baichen's A Rhapsody of Happiness (Xingf u kuangxiangqu), in late 1947, before moving on to Kunlun, the new private studio, to direct Women Side-by-Side (Liren xing) in early 1949, a work based on a screenplay cowritten by Chen and the noted dramatist Tian Han (1898–1968). After 1949 Chen served the new socialist regime in many capacities, including a long stint as director of the Haiyan Film Studio in Shanghai from 1957 to 1966. There is no evidence that Chen Liting ever joined the Communist Party, even though many leading film personalities did so in the 1950s.
Shi Dongshan (1902–55), whose original name was Shi Kuangshao, was raised in Hangzhou. His father was an accomplished local artist and musician, but the family was of modest means. Shi left Hangzhou in 1922, finding work as a set designer at the Shanghai Yingxi Film Company (Shanghai yingxi gongsi). He directed his first film for Yingxi in 1925, at the age of twenty-three, and in 1930 Shi began working for the legendary Lianhua Film Studio, one of the two most important film companies of the 1930s. Prior to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Shi's finely crafted works did not have a particular political orientation. On the contrary, one of Shi's specialties was directing the sort of flashy martial arts thriller that was so popular in the late 1920s.
Beginning in 1931, however, his films took on a more pronounced patriotic tone as the Japanese threat intensified. In 1937 he fled Shanghai for Wuhan and later Chongqing, where he, like Chen Liting, worked for the China Film Studio, an arm of the Political Bureau of the Nationalist government's Military Affairs Commission (Junshi weiyuanhui zhengzhi bu). Shi produced a number of highly patriotic wartime propaganda films and directed a few stage plays.
In 1946 he returned to Shanghai and helped found the Kunlun Film Studio. In August 1946 he completed the controversial screenplay Eight Thousand Miles of Clouds and Moon (Ba qian li lu yun he yue), a narrative thematically consistent with Chen Liting's Far Away Love. It was Kunlun's first postwar production. This film, directed by Shi himself, was released simultaneously at the Carlton, Huguang, and Huanghou theaters in Shanghai on February 21, 1947, a month after the triumphant appearance of Far Away Love.
Shi Dongshan resided in Hong Kong in 1948, but returned to Beijing in 1949 after the revolution, and was appointed head of the Technology Committee of the Ministry of Culture's Film Bureau (Wenhua bu dianying ju jishu weiyuanhui). After 1949 Shi's directorial activities were limited. Shi never joined the Communist Party, and by late 1951 he became the target of political criticism. On February 23, 1955, at the age of fifty-three, Shi Dongshan committed suicide. According to one of his sons, his farewell note was confiscated on the orders of Zhou Enlai, and news of the suicide was suppressed.
Cai Chusheng (1906–68) was born in Shanghai, but returned with his parents to their native place, Chaoyang, Guangdong, when he was six. His formal education was limited to four years in an old-style private school. At age twelve Cai was sent by his father to Shantou to learn a trade, first in an old-style bank (qian zhuang) and then in a small shop. Cai was far more interested, however, in amateur theater activities. In 1926 he helped make local arrangements for a Shanghai film company that was shooting a movie in Shantou. In 1929 he moved to Shanghai and, like Shi Dongshan before him, worked at a number of odd jobs in the film industry. Cai's big break came in 1929, when at the age of twenty-three he met the famous actor and director Zheng Zhengqiu (1888–1935), who was also a native of Chaoyang. Zheng immediately brought his compatriot into the well-known Star Film Company (Mingxing yingpian gongsi), where Cai directed six pictures. In summer 1931 Cai Chusheng began working at the Lianhua Film Studio, where he met Shi Dongshan. Like Shi, Cai's films of the early 1930s had no pronounced political characteristics. Works like A Dream in Pink (Fenhongse de meng, 1932) were the sort of mainstream butterfly works that Cai's mentor, Zheng Zhengqiu, had mastered years before. Some of his films were criticized by leftist writers.
It was only after the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1932 that Cai's films became overtly patriotic. By the mid-1930s he was making a greater impact on the film world than Shi Dongshan was. Cai's masterpiece, Fisherman's Ballad (Yu guang qu, 1934), written and directed when he was twenty-eight, was the first Chinese film to win an international award.
In 1937 Cai fled the occupation of Shanghai and spent more than four years making Cantonese-language resistance films in Hong Kong. Following the occupation of Hong Kong he fled to Guilin, and finally to Chongqing in late 1944, where he met up with his old friend Shi Dongshan. Cai was seriously weakened by tuberculosis following his departure from Hong Kong, but by February 1945 he was able to serve as a member of the committee on writing and directing of the Nationalist's Central Cinematography Studio. Chen Liting also served on that committee.
In January 1946 Cai returned to Shanghai to help organize the privately run Kunlun branch of the old Lianhua Film Studio. Kunlun's second film, A Spring River Flows East (Yi jiang chun shui xiang dong liu, 1947), a spectacular two-part account of holocaust dislocation released in three Shanghai theaters (Lidu, Huguang, and Meiqi) on October 9, 1947, on the eve of National Day, was written primarily by Cai Chusheng. The film was so popular it played continuously in Shanghai for almost a year.
Like Shi Dongshan, Cai Chusheng went to Beijing in 1949 and assumed a number of leadership positions in the new cultural organizations, including the vice directorship of the Film Bureau under the Ministry of Culture (Wenhua bu dianying ju). Cai did not join the Communist Party until 1956. Owing to harsh treatment during the Cultural Revolution, Cai Chusheng died on July 15, 1968, at the age of sixty-two.
Zheng Junli (1911–69), whose family hailed from Zhongshan county, Guang-dong, was born in Shanghai. Fond of art in his early years, Zheng dropped out of
At Guo Moruo's urging, Zheng served in Chongqing as director of China's wartime Children's Theater Troupe (Haizi jutuan). From 1940 to 1942 he worked outside the wartime capital on a documentary film project for the Nationalist government's China Film Studio, returning to Chongqing and the stage as a director and actor in the last few years of the war.
Zheng Junli returned to Shanghai in 1946, joining immediately in the effort to establish the Kunlun branch of the old Lianhua Film Studio. There he worked with Cai Chusheng on the epic film A Spring River Flows East. The screenplay, written primarily by Cai, was finished in the summer of 1946. The direction of the film was left primarily to Zheng.
After 1949 Zheng Junli continued making films at the Kunlun Studio. In 1951 his movie Between Husband and Wife (Women fu fu zhi jian) was severely criticized for presenting a "distorted view of life in the liberated areas" after 1949, and Zheng was forced to write a self-criticism entitled "With Deep Remorse I Must Reform Myself" (Wo bixu tongqie gaizao ziji). Zheng was allowed to continue working, and he eventually joined the Communist Party in 1958. In 1961, however, his film on the life of Lu Xun was banned before its release, and in 1967, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was jailed. Owing to mistreatment, he died in prison in 1969 at the age of fifty-eight.