History of Chinese animation (1)

The animation industry is always in crisis in China. Every so often an article  appears bemoaning the state of Chinese animation (this one also looks like a promotion for a new department– another important factor in Chinese animation, educational institutions promoting media programs meant to feed the domestic animation industry). The message is generally the same. Once upon a time there was a Golden Age, now things are more dispersed, audiences in China are critical of domestic animation, and the movie isn’t a blockbuster like a film by Disney or Studio Ghibli.

The Golden Age is often represented by Havoc in Heaven aka Uproar in Heaven: “[w]ith its stunning visuals and beautiful music inspired by Peking Opera, [the film] received numerous awards, as well as widespread domestic and international recognition.”

Sure. Once the country opened up and sent the film abroad in the late 1970s and viewers could watch the film abroad and in China, everyone loved Uproar, until they kept playing it on TV over and over and even the kids got sick of it. Uproar was produced in two parts in 1961 & 1964 (Olga Bobrowska* does an excellent reading of the films as such). The first part was well received, the second part not so much. Might have had something to do with the Red Guards appropriating the public domain Monkey King for their own revolutionary activities.

Can animators in China learn anything from Uproar, DIsney, and Studio Ghibli? Will the most recent animation studio/institution create that ever illusive recipe to become the next global blockbuster?

It’s the story, stupid.

Sean Macdonald <smacdon2005@gmail.com>

*See Olga Bobrowska, “Maoist Remoulding of the Legend of Monkey King, or Analyzing Ideological Implications of Wan Laiming’s Havoc in Heaven,” in Twisted Dreams of History, V4 Perspective on Propaganda, Ideology, and Animation, Kraków: Wydawnictwa AGH (AGH University of Science and Technology Press, 2019): 83-104.

History of Chinese animation

Source: SupChina (6/2/21)
The history of Chinese animation, from groundbreaking ‘Havoc in Heaven’ to crappy-looking ‘Kung Fu Mulan’
By Jiayun Feng

Havoc in Heaven

Nearly 60 years after the release of “Havoc in Heaven,” the Chinese animation industry is now struggling to generate revenues at home while trying to expand its presence in the global marketplace. What went wrong? This article is brought to you by Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, a leading international joint venture university based in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

When the lights went down for the first screenings of Princess Iron Fan 铁扇公主 across war-torn China in 1941, audiences were merely eager to see how the country’s first full-length animated feature had turned out. But the film proved to be nothing short of spectacular, heralding the start of a golden era for Chinese animation and laying the groundwork for what would eventually become Havoc in Heaven 大闹天宫 (also translated as Uproar in Heaven), an indisputable classic that has influenced a generation of filmmakers and animators, both in China and overseas.

But this golden age didn’t last. Nearly 60 years after the release of Havoc in Heaven, the Chinese animation industry is now struggling to generate revenues at home while trying to expand its presence in the global marketplace. To understand the current challenges facing Chinese animators, it is critical to recognize the history of how a once-prosperous industry fell behind its American, European, and Japanese counterparts and strived to regain its footing with radical adjustments.

The Wan brothers: Purveyors of early animation

To talk about the beginnings of Chinese animation is to talk about the life stories of the Wan brothers — Chaochen 超塵, Dihuan 滌寰, Guchan 古蟾, and Laiming 籁鸣. Growing up in a family with no artistic background — their father was a businessman in Nanjing and their mother was a stay-at-home mother — the four brothers were mad about painting and shadow puppetry when they were boys, with American cartoon series like Popeye the Sailor Man and Betty Boop being the backdrop of their childhood. Continue reading

Zhanqi Village film

Source: China Daily (5/24/21)
New film reflects epic changes in rural China
By Xu Fan | chinadaily.com.cn

A scene in the new film Zhanqi Village. [Photo provided to China Daily]

As the first of its kind, Zhanqi Village — a cinematic feature to reflect China’s epic changes in the vast countryside thanks to the country’s rural revitalization policies — will open across Chinese mainland on May 25.

Based on real stories taking place in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan province, the film tells the story of a village Party secretary who leads local young people to seek opportunities and develop distinctive industries.

Recently, more than 50 film critics, researchers and rural revitalization experts gathered at a seminar after a sneak preview of the film in a downtown Beijing cinema.

Veteran scriptwriter Song Fangjin, also deputy head of the China Cinema Literature Association, said the film successfully visualizes China’s great shift from ending extreme poverty to the revitalization of rural areas. Continue reading

Alone together in Taipei

Source: NY Review of Books (June 10, 2021)
Alone Together in Taipei
Intimacy in Tsai Ming-liang’s films is an elusive possession, but the desire for it is constant and always particular.
By Max Nelson

Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days

Grasshopper Film. Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, 2020

In 1997 the Taiwanese film and theater director Tsai Ming-liang premiered a movie called The River. It starred Lee Kang-sheng, who has had major parts in all eleven of Tsai’s feature films, as a young man living with his parents who develops agonizing, mysterious neck pains after visiting a film set and agreeing to play a floating corpse. Tsai’s previous two theatrical releases, Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and Vive L’Amour (1994), had been tense, entrancing portraits of young people rattling through Taipei’s streets, parks, arcades, restaurants, and apartment buildings, making brief contact and simmering in isolation. In both of those films, Lee plays a voyeuristic onlooker who follows an outlaw played by Chen Chao-jung and watches him have a fleeting love affair with an equally adrift woman. When we last see Lee in Vive L’Amour, he’s hiding under the bed and masturbating while the couple has sex above him, then slipping out and giving Chen’s sleeping character a kiss on the cheek.

The River carried the tone of those films past where many viewers were willing to follow it. “I was almost boycotted by the entire Taiwanese audience,” Tsai said in a 2003 interview with the critic Chris Fujiwara and the scholar Shujen Wang. At the core of the controversy was a single five-and-a-half-minute-long shot: a scene of inadvertent incest between Lee’s character and his father (Miao Tien) in a dimly lit gay bathhouse.

That scene was a breakthrough for one of Tsai’s career-long projects: emphasizing his characters’ material needs and hungers. The River is about “a family, a wife, husband, son,” he told Wang and Fujiwara. “But in their attitudes I make them go back to the very beginning, to zero. So they are just three bodies.” And yet what made that scene in the bathhouse so startling might have been what the scholar Rey Chow has since called its “reciprocal tenderness.” Continue reading

Journal of Chinese Film Studies–cfp



Journal of Chinese Film Studies (JCFS) is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal which focuses on the history, theory, criticism, practice and industries of Chinese films and provides a platform for cutting-edge academic research and debate. It is committed to advancing interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of Chinese films and cinematic practices across multiple genres and platforms. The journal is open to all areas of scholarship in Chinese film studies.

The journal seeks original research articles that set forth innovative research and methodologies or engage with significant historiographical or interpretive issues of films from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora. The journal also welcomes reviews of books and films of significance to the focus of the journal, as well as interviews with filmmakers and film scholars. It will showcase research both from established scholars and emerging new voices of Chinese film studies. Authors who have had their articles accepted are encouraged to submit video abstracts. Continue reading

Chinese Film Classics


I am delighted to announce the publication of my book Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949 (Columbia University Press):


For fun, I made two short trailers for the book–something I think more of us should do:

1-min trailer: https://youtu.be/mMwK7_h052s
2-min trailer: https://youtu.be/mMwK7_h052s

People interested in early Chinese cinema might also take a look at the updates to the Chinese Film Classics website: https://chinesefilmclassics.org/

The website features over 20 English-subtitled films from the Republican era, as well as a full online course. I will post about the website on the listserv separately later this month.

For now, please join me tomorrow at my first public talk since the book’s release, hosted by the U.C. Berkeley Department of History: “Chinese Film Classics and Hollywood Resonances”


The event begins at 5pm Pacific Standard Time, Thursday, May 20, 2021.

Professor Wen-hsin Yeh will be the chair and Professor Weihong Bao will be the discussant.


Christopher Rea

Cliff Walkers

Source: SCMP (4/30/21)
Cliff Walkers movie review: Zhang Yimou spy thriller, starring Liu Haocun, deceives with its labyrinthine narrative
Full of exhilarating action, the plot of this thriller, set in 1930s Manchuria, is overstuffed. Liu Haocun shines as the doe-eyed yet tough heroine, but the rest of the cast are forgettable

Liu Haocun in a still from Cliff Walkers (category IIB, Mandarin), directed by Zhang Yimou. Zhang Yi co-stars.

Liu Haocun in a still from Cliff Walkers (category IIB, Mandarin), directed by Zhang Yimou. Zhang Yi co-stars.

Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers bursts at the seams with lavish visuals and a slew of exhilarating action sequences, as one might expect from the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Recalling everything from Where Eagles Dare to The Age of Shadows, this snow-driven spy caper delivers enough betrayals and double-crosses to make John le Carré seem like Tintin. However, the film’s labyrinthine narrative deceives and confounds its audience as readily as the protagonists, as we collectively struggle to recall exactly who is fighting on whose side.

Liu Haocun, Zhang’s latest ingénue and star of his still unreleased previous filmOne Second, plays one of four Soviet-trained agents who parachute into 1930s Japanese-occupied Manchuria on a mission to rescue a witness who can expose Japan’s atrocities to the world.

Continue reading

Chloé Zhao and China: The Nomadland Moment

Source: The Film Quarterly (4/28/21)
Chloé Zhao and China: The Nomadland Moment
By Gina Marchetti


OSCAR SPECIAL. With the unprecedented success of Chloé Zhao and Nomadland at this week’s Oscars, Film Quarterly here offers a special Quorum edition: Gina Marchetti applies her expertise in Chinese cinema to decipher the influences lurking just under the surface of a film that may just be more Chinese than anyone realizes. In honor of the three Oscars that it won, Nomadland here gets three times the usual Quorum length.—B. Ruby Rich and Girish Shambu, editors of Film Quarterly and Quorum

The story of Su Min, an unhappily married former factory worker from Henan, who became an Internet sensation when she started posting videos of her solo road trip across the People’s Republic of China in a van, may seem like an unlikely way to open a conversation about Chloé Zhao’s US-set film, Nomadland (2020). However, there are similarities between Su Min and many of the women on the road in Zhao’s film that point to a way of looking at Nomadland that takes it outside of the American West. This perspective underscores its connections to a China which, visually and physically absent in the film, nevertheless structures its production, distribution, exhibition, and, arguably, much of its international critical acclaim.

As single, working-class women living frugally in order to have the freedom to live outside the confines of the traditional, patriarchal,  heterosexual family, either nuclear or multigenerational, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Su Min share common ground across continents. For Zhao, her film speaks beyond politics to a universal humanism that is prized by many in the film industry and can resonate with viewers in China:

I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal — the loss of a loved one, searching for home…I keep thinking about my family back in China — how would they feel about a cowboy in South Dakota, or a woman in her 60s living in America?…If I make it too specific to any issues, I know it’s going to create a barrier. They’d go, ‘That’s their problem.’

Continue reading

Chloe Zhao sought common ground in Oscars speech

Source: Nikkei Asia (4/27/21)
China-born Chloe Zhao sought common ground in Oscars speech
Considering ‘Nomadland’ as art made by humans rather than geopolitical actors
By AYNNE KOKAS and JEFFREY WASSERSTROM, Contributing writers

Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for best director on Sunday, crashing through one of Hollywood’s toughest barriers with her film “Nomadland.”   © AP

In her acceptance speech for the Best Director Oscar for “Nomadland,” Chloe Zhao recited the first verses of the San Zi Jing, a classic Confucian poem her father taught her.

Her reference evoked pan-Chineseness and the intimacy of family, while rejecting the patriotic education of the Chinese Communist Party. Her reference evoked a pride in the classics with wide appeal in some Chinese cultural contexts.

But even as Zhao’s speech expressed gratitude to her father, it fell far short of praising her motherland. And this is the challenge facing not just artists born in China, but anyone seeking to distribute media there — the space for ambiguous expression in the mainland has collapsed. Continue reading

Sino-Japanese Connections in Independent Film Cultures

To mark the launch of the journal of the Chinese Independent Cinema Observer, CIFA will hold an online event on May 15 (Saturday), in which Mr. Nonaka Akihiro, Prof. Tsuchiya Maasaki, and a transgenerational line-up of filmmakers—Feng Yan, Ji Dan, Hu Jie, Wu Wenguang, and Fang Manman—will participate in a special online forum (in Japanese and Chinese)

Date & Time: 15 May, 16:30 (Japan Time)/15:30 (Beijing Time)/8:30 (UK Time)
Languages: Launch Event: English/Chinese/Japanese; Forum: Japanese/Chinese

Please register for the event via the CIFA website: https://tinyurl.com/54c4hx3u

After registration, you will receive a Zoom link 1 week in advance of the event.

You can download the inaugural issue “Sino-Japanese Connections in Independent Film Cultures (1989 – 2020)“ here: https://tinyurl.com/6j6mv9tj

CIFA also would like to cordially invite you for a photo exhibition entitled “Feng Yan’s Encounters (Japan, Documentary, Those People and Those Events)” for the contribution with the same name by Feng Yan for the inaugural issue: https://www.chinaindiefilm.org/10100/

China censors Zhao’s Oscar win

Source: NYT (4/26/21)
China Censors Chloé Zhao’s Oscar Win, but Fans Find Ways to Rejoice
On social media, the director’s fans blurred out her name and turned images on their sides to evade the censors. “People should be celebrating,” one writer said.
By Amy Qin and Amy Chang Chien

Chloé Zhao accepting the Oscar for directing for “Nomadland.”Credit…Todd Wawrychuk/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscar win should have been met with jubilation in China, the country of her birth. On Sunday night, she became the first Chinese and woman of color to be named best director, for “Nomadland,” which also took home the prize for best picture.

Instead, the Chinese government imposed a virtual news blackout, and censors moved to tamp down or scrub out discussion of the award on social media.

Chinese state-run news media outlets — which are typically eager to celebrate recognition of its citizens on the global stage — made nearly no mention of the Oscars, let alone Ms. Zhao. Chinese social media platforms raced to delete or limit the circulation of articles and posts about the ceremony and Ms. Zhao, forcing many internet users and fans to use homonyms and wordplay to evade the censors. Continue reading

Film on HK protests vies for Oscars, riles China

Source: Al Jezeera (4/25/21)
Film on 2019 Hong Kong protests vies for Oscars, riles China
By Kate Mayberry

Do Not Split does not shy away from the violence of the protests, but at its heart is the emotional toll on the young people struggling to protect the city they love.

Growing up in Hong Kong, Joey Siu imagined she might become a secondary school teacher, but two years ago, as pro-democracy protesters filled the streets of the Chinese-ruled city, she found herself taking a different path.

Siu joined the rallies as a student activist, but quickly took on a more prominent role in the movement, advocating for international help and speaking regularly to the media.

Then, in June last year, China imposed the National Security Law – broadly worded legislation it said was necessary to deal with secession, terrorism, subversion and “collusion with foreign powers”.

Overnight, social media accounts were closed, pro-democracy groups shut down. The protests, already quietened by the coronavirus pandemic, evaporated. Some chose exile. Siu agonised for weeks about what to do. Continue reading

CCP 100th birthday bash

Source: NYT (4/19/21)
‘Follow the Party Forever’: China Plans a Communist Birthday Bash
Patriotic films. History lessons. Mass weddings. The Chinese Communist Party is going into overdrive to celebrate its 100th birthday.
By Javier C. Hernández

A shop in Jinggangshan, China, sells Communist Party memorabilia. The party this month is celebrating its centenary with a modern-day propaganda campaign. Credit…Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

Movie theaters in China are being ordered to screen patriotic films with titles like “The Sacrifice” and “The Red Sun.” Elementary students in some cities are being told to create paintings and calligraphy extolling the “Chinese dream.” Buses and subways are broadcasting nationalistic messages about revolutionary heroes.

China’s Communist Party is gearing up for a patriotic extravaganza to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding on July 1. Officials are going into overdrive to make sure commemorations go off without a hitch — and hammer home the message that the party alone can restore China to what Beijing considers the country’s rightful place as a global power.

While much of the focus will be on the past, the party’s centenary will have significant repercussions for China’s future. The celebrations will give China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, a forum to present himself as a transformative figure on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Xi, 67, is maneuvering to stay in power indefinitely, an effort that appears to have taken on greater urgency as a new American president builds alliances to curb Beijing’s influence. Continue reading

Red Squirrel Mai

Dear Colleagues,

I am very sorry to bother those who are not interested. At 9am this coming Monday (April 19, Hong Kong time), Mr. Lo Wing Keung, the producer of the TV animation series Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, will talk about his new film Red Squirrel Mai, which, if completed on time, will be the first CGI ink-painting animated feature film in Greater China.

Dr. Nelson Chu will talk about his ink-painting software Moxi and Expressii, which was used to create the special effects for the Opening Ceremony of Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Mr. Lo Wing Keung and Dr. Nelson Chu are alumni of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. They are now working together to produce Red Squirrel Mai.

Panel 11:  9:00am-12:30pm, April 19 (Monday, Hong Kong time), Film Screening and Animators’ Perspectives (in Chinese and English): chaired by Daisy Yan Du, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong SAR

Premier of Red Squirrel Mai (CGI ink-painting animated feature film, 2020) Continue reading