The two Chinese television comedians had had their fill of much of the Communist Party's latest crop of movies, so they tried a daring spoof on a surprised audience:
One pretended to be an actor in a recent film portraying a brave peasant fatally wounded by nationalist invaders. His partner said, "You can't die yet -- haven't you forgotten something?"
"Oh, yes," the wounded peasant said, his face twisted into unbelievable anguish. "Conrade, here. . .are. . .gasp . . .my party dues. May I die now?"
"Not yet. You must say: 'how are the other comrades?"
"Okay. How. . .gasp . . .are the other comrades? How. . .choke . . .are the villagers?"
"Good, good -- now know what else to say?"
"Oh, yes, ready? We. . .gasp . . .will have vic. . .tor. . .reeeeeee." He toppled over, his audience laughing and nodding knowingly.
The Chinese have become the world's largest movie audience -- 70 million people walking or bicycling each day to see some kind of film -- so they have grown impatient with the propaganda and ritualized acting that still mars their favorite after-hours entertainment. Three years after the Communist Party purged the mean-spirited ballet-lovers who had supposedly stifled movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, people still turn up their noses at much of what they see on the screen and fight over tickets to the few grade-B American productions that have found their way here.
People call the problem Bangwei , ""the smell of the gang," referring to the influence of Mao Tse-tung's widow Jiang Qing (Chiang Ching) and her "Gang of Four" who used to rule culture here. Jiang loved private screening of Greta Garbo pictures and other forbidden foreign movies. pBut she appeared to insist on more rigidly revolutionary films for the masses until she was pruged after Mao's death in 1976. China's filmmakers unusally blunt about their failure to overcome these influences in the three years since. Films are still "too flat and preachy, too talky, too rough-and-ready and too black-and-white," said 79-year-old Ziao Yan, probably China's most experienced screenwriter.
Ding Qiao, 55 vice director of the Culture Ministry's film bureau, ridiculed what he called the "sky, ground and heart" syndrome. The typical hero takes stylized postures in moments of great emotion by pointing at the sky, the ground and touching his breast. Much of this can be blamed on the pervasive influence of Peking opera on dramatic training in China. "People don't like it, the unnatural acting," Ding and several other Chinese say, although Peking opera in pure form remains popular. The chinese delight in the true-to-life acting of American movies, even if the U.S. films they usually see win few Academy Awards.
Several Charlie Chaplin films, such as "Modern Times," have met with enthusiastic audiences here. But American' movies from the 1970s shown in China have been less distinguished, the most widely shown being "Futureworld" and Sam Peckinpah's "Convoy," a trucker melodrama. Of "Convoy," an American cultural officer at the U.S. Embassy here said, "That frightfful film was nothing but sex and violence. The chinese intellectuals I know were outraged. But the Chinese assistant I have, who runs the Xerox machine, he liked those trucks and all the action." The film played to packed audiences, with some showings being at 5:30 a.m. "They would not show it or any other foreign films out in the countryside, however," the American said. "They told us it would be too disruptive, too confusing."
The big movie in Chinese theaters now is a 1979 ABC made-for-TV movie called "Nightmare in Badham County." And Chinese national television just finished showing 17 episodes of the canceled U.S. television series, "Man From Atlantis." "Chinese friends of mine mentioned they had seen it, and I told them it was just trash -- that we don't give it a thought," said Tom Gold, a U.S. scholar working in Shanghai. His friends hesitated, then said, "But we liked it. The characters were good, the story was good." "I immediately pulled back," Gold said.
Francis G. O'Brien, an American film producer who was until recently a vice president of Columbia pictures, visited here in the summer of 1979 and stayed to talk film with the Chinese.
He said the Chinese have been unable to purchase better films from American distributors because they want to buy all rights to each film for no more than $10,000. The American studios insist that they get a percentage of theater receipts.The Chinese have had many talks with visiting American filmmakers, but are confused and "afraid they are going to get into something when they don't know what they are doing," O'Brien said. "Like everything in Hollywood, deals are made and broken all the time. The Chinese would not understand that at all." Peking managed to get a few general-release U.S. films like "Convoy" from independent distributors willing to sell rights cheaply in return for more business later on.
The Chinese have eight major film studios today. They completed 65 feature films in 1979, up from 46 the previous year. They completed virtually none in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Jiang Qing held sway over cultural projects. The enormous increase in the availability of films, with more theaters open at longer hours, plus improvements in some new films, has brought theater and out-door showing attendance up from 50 million daily in 1977 to 70 million now. There about 110,000 cinemas and film projection teams in the country.
In addition, Chinese televison shows movies nearly every night, augmenting the film audience. The country has only 4.5 million TV sets, but plans to double that by next year. Officials estimate that about 200 million Chinese watch TV regularly on sets in common rooms in communes, factories and offices. China's national broadcasting network shows at least one foreign film a week, though many of them are acquired cheaply from Hong Kong, Japan and Mexico. In addition to films such as "Convoy," Zorro," "Murder on the Nile" and "Futureworld," there have been better-quality TV productions such as the British series on the life of Madama Curie now being shown.
More and more films appear on television. This has resulted in a capitalist-style commercial war that might cause Mao Tes-tung to spin in his mausoleum.
In the first blush of the new movie era in 1977 and 1978, the best Chinese and new foreign films were shown on television only weeks and sometimes days after they first appeared in local theaters. Film studios complained that they "have to earn profits for the state. With the growing number of television sets in the country, the showing of new films on television cuts off about one-third of the box-office receipts, thus diminishing the income of the state," the official China Youth New reported.
When film officials ruled that television would have to wait six months before showing new films, the Chinese public erupted in anger. The people's Daily received 100 letters on the subject in less than a month. Some complained about long lines at theaters, or about new films not reaching theaters in remote areas. "Films in a socialist country are to educate and serve the people," one letter-writer said. "Money should not come first, and this is a fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism."
For the Chinese it was an embarrassing dilemma, but perhaps a sign of new vigor and an old medium. All the official press could say was "the discussion is still going on between the two sides."
Late in 1980 the American government is scheduled to hold a special festival of Chinese films, and the Chinese government is to hold an American film festival here. Ding, the film bureau vice director who has been directing movies since before the Communist liberation, has very definite ideas about what sort of films he does and does not want to see. As for sex in cinema, "It is not that we are feudalminded, but we don't approve of such films. They are not art. We are not against kissing and embracing, but it is our national custom not to show such things." During a long discussion of, movie sex, the Chinese told O'Brien, "you should leave something to the imagination."
Ding said he does not like too much violence, although some recent Chinese films seem no less brutal than the latest crop of Hong Kong "kung fu" pictures or American westerns. What really annoys Ding are films that "give a distorted image of the Chinese people." He singled out for special scorn "55 days in Peking," the story of the attack on the foreign legations during the Boxer rebellion of 1900, as well as "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" another tale of foreigners trapped in Chinese chaos, and "Chinese in Paris," a surrealistic spoof of Maoists taking over the French capital.
Ding has a long list of films he wants the Chinese to see: "The Grapes of Wrath," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (recently staged in Peking with black-faced and blond-wigged actors), "Breaking Away" and "The Godfather." When asked about this last choice, Ding said vaguely, "It does reflect some aspects of the social situation." He confessed that he was an enthusiast for Western film biographies of Lincoln, Zola and Madame Curie, and musicals like "Blue Skies."
As in every other medium in China -- from books to magazines to newspapers -- some films are generally available to the public and some can only be seen by officials of a certain rank, in the privacy of special screening rooms. Peking officials who deal with American journalists have generally seen a wide range of such neibu (internal) foreign films, including "Patton," "The Greek Tycoon" and "A Bridge Too Far." Some of these films may be loaned by American distributors for review without license for general distribution, and some may be pirated from Hong Kong.
The party feels it has to be more careful with what is shown the masses, for film has enormous power here. In the outlying provinces in particular, scalping and trading of tickets goes on at a frantic pace in front of some moviehouses, and fist-fights can break out during arguments over movie tickets. In one of the more candid new movies released in recent months -- the Changchun studio production "Those Kids" -- a young pickpocket makes money selling movie tickets in front of theaters after he has lifted them from the pockets of bus passengers.
A debate that has shaken Chinese culture over the last years continues today, though with less vehemence: Should movies paint society as good and evil, black and white, in order to encourage socially acceptable behavior? Or should they adopt the foreign habit of giving villains and charlatans a certain human depth, and treat crime, sex and violence more completely and ambiguously?
In a letter to the official Peking daily, city Youth League official Xu Baolan wrote: "In the course of doing youth work, we have discovered that some units are showing certain unhealthy foreign films, which have already caused gravely evil results in society . . . and even caused some to embark on the road of crime. One murderer aged 17 has seen more than 100 foreign films in the past two years, many of which were films not shown to the general public which depicted violence, sex, knights of ancient times, old-style acrobatic fighting and so one. He started by being frightened and scared of these films, but then gradually changed to a strong partiality for scenes of bloody murder, and ended up by committing a crime."
Most new Chinese films still suffer from the stiff gestures, patterned movements and overacting of Peking opera, but a few emerge fresh and fascinating. A new adventure film, "Aolei Ilan," tells the story of a female warrior from a grasslands tribe living in China's northeast region in the mid-17th century and trying to stop enchroachments by the Russians. After enduring captivity in Moscow and resisting demands that she join the czar's harem, Aolei Ilan returns to China to fight off the Russian invaders, portrayed by members of China's Caucasian "Uighur" minority from the far northwest or by Chinese actors benefitting from new noses, wigs and beards well-fitted by the make-up department. The heroine emotes pain, triumph and anguish to flashes of sunlight and violins, a throwback to some of the worst socialist film conventions. But the battle sequences stirred the audience in a provincial Gansu theater, especially when the troops of the imperial Qing dynasty rode in like the U.S. Cavalary to save the day in the last reel.
Far different is "Those Kids," (xiao zi bei ) by the Changchun studio of Jilin (Kirin) province in what was once Manchuria. It is a Chinese "American Graffiti," depicting the loves and mishaps of young Shanghaiese: a female driver and male and female ticket-takers who operate a public bus.
The movie is full of pratfalls and pranks. A dreamy inventor cannot summon the nerve to tell the girl ticket-taker, he loves her until his friends make a tape recording of him practicing the words and play it under the couple's park bench. The male ticket-taker is a genial laggard who closes the bus door on the leg of a woman rushing to get on. "Why such a hurry?" he says, not the least bit nonplussed. "We must hurry to realize the four modernizations," the woman replies, not the only time the movie makes gentle fun of some of the slogans of 1980 China.
All ends happily: The bus driver ensnares the handsome young policeman who has been changing the lights green for her. The new bus public-address system, installed by the female ticket-taker's new beau, mistakenly plays his confession of love again as the movie ends. Although too earnest in spots and showing a suspiciously clean and prosperous Shanghai, the movie is one of the best in several years. More like it may come if its director can survive politically, a feat that has defeated clever filmmakers here in the past.
Gingerly and slowly, the Chinese are attempting to have the best of both worlds -- Western production talent and Chinese story values -- by entering joint production projects with Western filmmakers. China announced last fall that Sidney Glazer Associates would co-produce "The Magnificent Mongolian," a tale of a Mongolian horse, a herdsman's son and a young Welsh girl, to be filmed party in China and partly in Europe. Other projects are also being discussed, including a joint U.S.-French-Chinese production of Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate," revolving around a massacre of Communists in Shanghai in 1927.
It is Shanghai, forever a symbol of sin and foreign sophistication to 20th-century Chinese, that has taken great leaps in filmmaking here. One of its latest productions, "Smile of a Troubled Man," gives birth to an odd bird on the Chinese screen, an ambivalent and not terribly heroic hero. He is a newspaper reporter uncertain if he should expose the corruption around him in 1975. The movie provides stream-of-consciousness sequences, and much touching and kissing of forehead and eyes by the reporter and his wife, all unusual in Chinese films. The characterizations are excellent, even if the political message of a China now much changed for the better is still there.