Shattered dreams and new beginnings: how history and politics blazed a trail through East Asian cinema was originally published in HEROINE 13, read previous chapters here.
When Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, it not only marked a crowning moment for South Korea’s film industry, but a long overdue recognition of East Asian cinema’s rich and dynamic history.
Far from a homogenous product, cinema in East Asia reflects the complex, mutating network of geopolitics and national discourses that define the region’s past and present. These forces are in perpetual motion – their ebb and flow demanding continuous investigation through beautifully expressive films that pioneer new genres.
Many are considered cornerstones of global cinema yet despite their international appeal, East Asian films address local issues and shared histories, salving old wounds and externalising national psyches. In this sense, the current prosperity of South Korea’s socially conscious cinema is no different to similar periods of success in China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, whose world- renowned national cinema’s trace the region’s ruptured history over the last 70 years.
Civil war, revolution, censorship, migration, dictatorships, and martial law form repeating patterns that have moulded cinema in East Asia, at times wielding it as a political weapon and at others encouraging boundless creativity. The sheer scale of these events has left indelible imprints on the films they helped produce, many of which tell universally human stories that preserve a record of time and place.
By considering specific films, periods or trends alongside historical events that precipitated them, the true brilliance of East Asian cinema is revealed, reminding us of the unique power of film and the significance of this latest breakthrough.
No country within East Asia embodies the difficulties of discussing singular, homogenous national cinemas better than China. Put simply, it is the biggest country with the most widely spoken language (Mandarin), and its influence in the region is therefore profound and far-reaching. Shanghai was for a long period the centre of a cultural triangle of Chinese-language film, comprising the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, from which it oversaw the country’s Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s, with films like The Spring River Flows East (1947) and Spring in a Small Town (1948).
Mao’s Cultural Revolution paralysed the country’s film production for a decade (1966-76) yet in many ways provided the political impetus for the country’s Fifth Generation directors to emerge shortly after. Beginning in the mid-80s with Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), the international acclaim of these Beijing Film Academy graduates continued with Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) and Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), eschewing the ideological purity of the Cultural Revolution in favour of real stories about real people.
The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 brought tighter government censorship, sparking a largely underground Sixth generation whose emergence was characterised by low budgets and amateur visuals. Wang Xiaoshuai (The Days, 1993, Beijing Bicycle, 2001, So Long, My Son, 2019), Jia Zhangke (Unknown Pleasures, 2002, A Touch of Sin, 2013, Ash Is Purest White, 2018) and Zhang Yuan (Beijing Bastards, 1993, East Palace, West Palace, 1996) all remain instrumental voices within contemporary Chinese cinema.
The last 30 years have seen Chinese cinema extend beyond its borders, harnessing a transnational diaspora that’s brought unprecedented global success. While this hardly constitutes a ‘new’ development, considering regional film production involved the movement of directors, actors and crews across borders since the 60s, in China it converged with Western involvement during the 90s to produce some of the country’s most successful films.
From Farewell My Concubine (1993), to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), these international sensations were the product of combined industries in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Hollywood that evade any singular national classification. The strength of this movement is symptomatic of China’s turbulent political history and its waves of emigration that saw native filmmakers scattered across the world. This culminated in films that hybridise genres and tastes, encompassing a multiplicity of industries and aesthetic affiliations which enable them to straddle both arthouse and mainstream audiences.
No film epitomises the complexities of China’s transnational cinema better than Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a global phenomenon that received ten Oscar nominations, grossed over $200 million at box-offices worldwide and became the first Chinese-language film to find a mass American audience. Lee was born in Taiwan, but his parents were Chinese migrants who had left the mainland in 1949 and by the time he made the film, Lee had lived in America almost as long as Taiwan.
Many of the film’s stars were Chinese but of its three screenwriters, one was American and two from Taiwan. Beijing-based production company Huyai Brothers provided some funding and domestic marketing, but the principle funders were Columbia Pictures, the US-based studio, owned by Japanese tech giants Sony. The soundtrack was recorded in Shanghai, the post-production looping took place in Hong Kong and the film was edited in New York. Things get even more blurred when it comes to the film’s production, which involved five different companies in five different countries.
This atomised assembly line led the film to be perceived by some as evidence of just how far Hollywood’s colonisation had reached, with many accusing it of creating an inauthentic appropriation of East Asian culture made palatable for Western audiences. For many others, it represented the emancipation of East Asian cinema from Hollywood’s clutches, a watershed moment with the potential to dismantle America’s monopoly. The truth is likely to be found somewhere between these two binaries, but more revealing is what the film says about China’s international community of filmmakers.
For Ang Lee, who has no lived experience of China, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a means of reconnecting with a lost, largely imagined homeland, saying in an interview, “In some ways, we’re all looking for that old cultural, historical, abstract China – the big dream of China that probably never existed.”