By James Wicks
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 174-212
This essay traces what is perhaps the most important link between mainland Chinese director Xie Jin’s and Taiwan director Li Xing’s films made in China and Taiwan during the Cold War: the influence of Shanghai’s film tradition of realist aesthetics in the 1930s and 1940s. This Shanghai tradition was the root of a common cinematic language that flourished on both sides of the Straits after 1949, despite the unique parameters inherent to each film culture after the Communist victory in the civil war. This seemingly counterintuitive observation, exemplified by additional surprising connections in the articulation of Shanghai’s filmic modes and devices by Xie Jin and Li Xing in the early 1960s, shows that conceptions of film as a universal language, or conversely as the expression of a specific national film tradition, do not entirely account for the similarities of these two Mandarin-language filmmakers.
The realist tradition of the 1930s and 1940s in Chinese film history is reasonably well known, but only part of the story is understood if its legacy in Taiwan is presented as separate instead of inextricably linked. In order to trace the nuances and evolution of this tradition, three sets of Xie Jin and Li Xing state-sponsored movies from China and Taiwan in the early 1960s are analyzed alongside filmic narratives and images from the classic films from Shanghai. Rather than an analysis of PRC and ROC film in broad historical terms, this approach allows one to recognize filmic similarities despite different political situations, consider the personal experiences which shaped Xie Jin’s and Li Xing’s craft, and observe the lineage of realist filmic techniques that link the two filmmakers in interesting ways.