As a teenager during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, filmmaker Chen Kaige joined the Red Guards and famously denounced his father in the political campaigns of the era. His father’s career as a prominent movie director was swallowed up in the maelstrom and Chen himself was "sent down to the countryside" by the Communist Party to perform manual labour alongside peasants.

The experience marked him for life and came to define the films he would later create. "I strongly feel there is a lesson to be learned to avoid something like this happening again," he said during his recent visit to Toronto for the launch of A Century of Chinese Cinema, TIFF Bell Lightbox’s major retrospective of Chinese film.

"As long as memory exists, change will follow," Chen told CBC News.

Ongoing through Aug. 11, A Century of Chinese Cinema showcases more than 80 films. Over the past three years, Noah Cowan, artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, and TIFF curators collaborated with teams from film archives based in Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong to create what’s being billed as the largest ever retrospective of films from greater China to be shown in the West.

Acclaimed Chinese filmmakers, experts, scholars and personalities are taking part in the program, from Jackie Chan introducing some of his past hits to onstage discussions with filmmakers like Hong Kong's Johnnie To and Beijing-based Chen.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, Chen was among the first students enrolled at the newly re-opened Beijing Film Academy in 1978. Among his classmates were now legendary directors Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. After graduation, they were sent to work at regional film studios and began producing movies completely different from the propaganda films of the decades before.

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Yellow Earth was an early success for director Chen Kaige, who teamed with fellow Beijing Film Academy graduate Zhang Yimou on the film. (FRL)

"I was sick of the movies made during the Cultural Revolution. I was going to make films about the fate of the people, about how they survive," Chen recalled.

A first effort was 1984’s Yellow Earth, now considered a masterpiece. With Chen as director and Zhang as cinematographer, the 1939-set drama depicts rural poverty, the peasants’ relationship to the land, their rich tradition of folk songs and the cruel fate of one young girl contemplating her limited options in life. Yellow Earth caught the attention of critics internationally, particularly because of its stunning cinematography.

The film and others that followed in the 1980s and 1990s — Chen’s King of the Children, Zhang’s Judou and Tian’s The Blue Kite to name a few — established these young filmmakers as China’s Fifth Generation. Chen’s most famous film in the West was 1993’s Farewell My Concubine. Screening as part of the TIFF program, the tragic story follows two Beijing Opera stars caught up in the Cultural Revolution. Though a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, it was initially banned in mainland China.

Digging into the past

"A lot of people know the Fifth Generation — Zhang Yimou and so on — but Chinese cinema starts with the early days of Hollywood," Cowan said.

A brief chronology of Chinese film

  • 1920s: Chinese silent film era
  • 1930s-40s: Golden Age of Chinese cinema; Shanghai studios develop simultaneously with Hollywood
  • 1949-1960s: Establishment of the People's Republic of China; Communist Party propaganda films
  • Late 1950s-1960s: Education of Fourth Generation of filmmakers at Beijing Film Academy, with a strong Soviet influence until the Sino-Soviet split of 1963
  • 1966-1976: China's Cultural Revolution; closing of the Beijing Film Academy; Fourth and Fifth Generation filmmakers sent to the countryside or repressed, with their film careers halted
  • 1978-1982: End of the Cultural Revolution; reopening of Beijing Film Academy and other universities; Education of Fifth Generation filmmakers, who came of age during the Cultural Revolution
  • 1980s: Fifth Generation gains international prominence
  • 1989-1990s: Sixth Generation of filmmakers, who came of age during the Tiananmen Square massacre
  • 2000-current day: New generation of filmmakers, who came of age during an era of economic expansion; Directors produce a combination of art-house films, propaganda titles and mass-market blockbusters for expanding Chinese audience

The TIFF retrospective includes films from the silent era — the so-called Golden Era of the 1930s, including movies featuring China’s Greta Garbo, Ruan Lingyu — through the Cultural Revolution and onward. The lineup also spans films by top directors from Taiwan and Hong Kong, covering much of the second half of the 20th century to the present day.

"These are buried treasures," said Cowan. "It’s a snapshot of a culture we had no access to…We see great artistry and heroism in unsettled conditions."

TIFF’s retrospective is the envy of curators in New York and Los Angeles, says Fu Hongxing, director of the China Film Archive. "In this collection we see the transformation of a society, the image of the state and people’s lives."

A key member of the Chinese delegation travelling to Toronto to take part is Xie Fei. The 71-year-old director is from Chinese film’s Fourth Generation: those educated before the Cultural Revolution who were then unable to make films as chaos overtook the mainland.

"A lot of his career was taken away, but he became an important mentor to the Fifth Generation," says Cowan.

A soft-spoken elder statesman, Xie is surprisingly candid about the political ups and downs of his country’s cinematic history. His film training — which took place before the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s — was modelled on the Soviet style and he genuinely admired film classics of the Khrushchev thaw, like The Cranes are Flying.

After the Cultural Revolution, Xie returned to the countryside to chronicle his experiences there as a manual worker. "The Fourth and Fifth Generations explored society deeply, their history and their country," he said.

He also got a job at the Beijing Film Academy and guided subsequent generations of students, including during the Tiananmen Square period.

"They all had their experiences of Tiananmen. They were in the square," he recalled.  But their films afterward, he noted, focused inward "on themselves and life in the cities."

New expressions

Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle — one of the few Westerners fully immersed in Chinese filmmaking after having worked on 50 Chinese-language movies like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love — talks about the Tiananmen generation with particular insight.

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The post-Second World War drama Spring in a Small Town is widely considered one of the greatest Chinese films of all time. (China Film Archive)

He travelled to Beijing in the early 1990s to document its underground rock music scene for the Sixth Generation film Beijing Bastards.

"I smuggled the film out of the mainland," said Doyle, who at age 61 still looks like a rocker with his tattered jeans and a beer in hand.

"The films [of the Sixth Generation]

were a response to social revolution," he said. They were an expression "not so much out of anger as a need to make their own films."

Meanwhile, Yang Fudong, a prominent Shanghai-based contemporary artist featured in the TIFF retrospective, represents the latest crop of mainland directors: filmmakers creating independent productions and video art.

Yang’s screen panels — on exhibit alongside the main film program — give a modern spin to the femme fatales of Shanghai in the 1930s. He says he’s depicting his own era, though he admits he "isn’t sure," of what it represents.

On the commercial side, the current mainland cinema — with its blockbusters aimed at the emerging, gigantic Chinese market — is about "business and money," Doyle said.

The films are a way of saying "Finally, we have a chance to be rich. It’s okay!" he noted.

As for Chen, he continues to be drawn to the epic — to grand narratives that evoke an era. His 2012 film Caught in the Web explores the dangers of social media and the internet in China and how they can be used as weapons to attack  — a theme with shades, perhaps, of the Cultural Revolution.

"I am from a country with a long history, but I see the future," Chen said.

Overall, the TIFF retrospective sheds light on the wider body of Chinese cinema across different regions as well as its recurring themes, including how artists confront day-to-day challenges as well as the flowering of great artistry when the time is right, according to Cowan.

"Only by tracing the patterns do we see this. The centre of the world has moved east, so we need to see where Chinese cinema is coming from and how Chinese culture has played a global role."