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Amber: Hey everybody! Welcome back to Amber and Victor’s Chinese Buffet. I am Amber.
Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), 我是 (Wǒ shì) Victor.
Amber: And today we have a segment called ‘General Tso’s China’. What we do in this segment of the Buffet is we take a tidbit from Chinese history and we talk about its impact, its evolution and how it has affected society today, the people, the country, that sort of thing. And today’s topic is Chinese cinema!
Victor: Yes, very interesting.
Amber: Now interestingly, films were first introduced in China in 1896. And the first Chinese film was made in 1905. So, it’s quite a long history.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Now, I think when a lot of people visualize Chinese movies today, we think of the Hollywood ones.
Victor: Yeah. Hero, Crouching Tiger.
Amber: Well, a lot of people think of that but, I think personally, because of having lived in China, when I think of Chinese movies, I also think any time you turn on the TV you would see a lot of those Hong Kong kung fu movies. There is millions of them.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: So, the movies we’re talking about today are the Mandarin movies, the ones from mainland China.
Victor: I think a lot of people may not know this but Shanghai in the 20s and 30s was actually the Chinese version of Hollywood.
Amber: Yes!
Victor: That was the movie center of China.
Amber: You can think of the glamour at the time and people had money. There was more idleness and time for entertainment.
Victor: Right. A lot of the West-side influences were in Shanghai very early on.
Amber: So, the movies of that era basically depicted real life at the time. They were very literals of the films. Based on people on their lives. After 1949, things changed somewhat.
Victor: Right.
Amber: There was a new generation of films and the government saw film-making as quite a propaganda to all. And basically it started with the fact that it started that the pre-1949 films were banned at this time to be shown and the new movies were to center around different new topics. So now, at this time, the only thing you could depict was something with a politically correct perspective.
Victor: Yeah. A lot of the movies were made about how the liberation army fought off the nationalists and the Japanese.
Amber: A popular theme at the time.
Victor: A lot of the heroic acts committed by the soldiers who were fighting for the independence of the country. And I remember when I was in elementary school, the schools would organize these movie-watching trips to watch these patriotic movies that were made 50 years ago or something.
Amber: Yeah. And well, how was the acting? Was it like, sketchy? Any academy-award performances?
Victor: There were actually some very good, very famous actors and actresses from that period and they are still even famous now.
Amber: On another note, another really famous movie in China that is quite iconic is the Monkey King, that crossed the line regardless of the actor’s acting ability because I remember everyone I knew in China, all of my friends said that they basically grew up with this film. They would show at every Chinese New Year, right? The Monkey King. And then they said, well, the special effects were the terrible… I don’t know what year it was filmed, at least for like 20 to 30 years ago or something. There was one day I was at the gym. I saw this weird thing dressed up in a costume on the TV and it looked like some sort of like Sesame Street episode. And then I finally asked, “What is that?” “Oh, that’s the Monkey King.” It was really like a man dressed in a monkey suit. It was very charming. But yeah, everyone had a real endearment with that movie because they loved it. It was part of their childhood.
Victor: Yes! Very interesting.
Amber: Well, things have progressed a lot since then. There is some really amazing movies nowadays and actors as well.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So, I think one of the breakthrough Chinese movies that’s a really good one,it’s actually the first Chinese movie I ever saw. It was very inspirational. Brought everyone to tears. It’s called To Live.
Victor: Right.
Amber: If anyone hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It gives a really good depiction of a certain era in China.
Victor: Yeah, from way back then to the recent history. You kind of follow the couple and their lives as they changed and as China changed from I guess the early 20s, even beyond to the more modern days.
Amber: Yeah. And of course, the lovely Gong Liis in the movie.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Beautiful actress.
Victor: Very one of the biggest names in Chinese cinemas - Gong Li. You know, I actually ran into her once in 1993. I remember when I was like seven or eight years old.
Amber: Did you say hello?
Victor: No, she was buying groceries in the supermarket. I was behind her when she bought a lot of expensive stuff. She definitely had the…
Amber: But she went herself so…
Victor: She definitely had the paycheck to pay for all that.
Amber: A seven-year old would notice that.
Victor: And speaking of Gong Li, we have to mention really big director, talking about Chinese cinema, is Zhang Yimou.
Amber: He directed what?
Victor: To the Western audiences… yeah, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Curse of the Golden Flower; definitely probably the biggest name in Chinese cinema.
Amber: And interestingly, I read an article in New Yorker about Indie filmmakers in China. Actually, a lot of the Indie filmmakers in China feel that Zhang Yimou has sold out. What do you think, Victor?
Victor: They are interesting and he actually has admitted this himself in a recent interview. He did say that because he used to do a lot of story-based movies depicting different eras of Chinese history and lives of the small people.
Amber: Beautiful.
Victor: Right. Recently he just said, “You know, I am doing all these movies just to target Western audiences and for profit.” And he actually said that himself. And it’s true that Hero and the other more movies he made a lot of money and it’s very visually appealing and kind of brings a different sense of Chinese cinema to the West. So, I don’t know. We’ll see how his future career develops I guess. But, another thing to mention is he actually also directed the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
Amber: Yes!
Victor: He was the main director for that.
Amber: Let’s talk about some other pretty actresses, Victor. Another very famous one is Zhang Ziyi, right?
Victor: Yeah, that’s her.
Amber: She’s probably one of the more well-known Chinese actresses in the West.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Interestingly, a lot of Chinese people tell me they think that she is not beautiful whereas most western people think she is beautiful. Chinese people are always like, they are always confounded. How did this girl become a movie star? She doesn’t have the cheery lips and the big eyes. Maybe that’s why.
Victor: I think in the beginning of her career, when she became really famous, a lot of people were just kind of… I don’t know. Maybe a little jealousy involved? I’m not sure. This is just my guess.
Amber: And she doesn’t have the typical maybe, traditional look of the Chinese actresses that were famous up to that point.
Victor: Right.
Amber: And speaking of another one who I think is very beautiful is Maggie Cheung.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: She is very famous in China.
Victor: And also in Europe.
Amber: Europe too, yeah. My favorite Chinese movie, In the Mood for Love, which is actually a Cantonese movie, but a very visually appealing… you might fall asleep, but personally I love it just for its beauty.
Victor: The funny thing about that movie is that she wore these Chinese dresses.
Amber: Yeah, the qipao.
Victor: She had like some customary changes.
Amber: That’s the most I love about that movie. Beautiful!
Victor: And she totally brought back this rage about qipao in Chinese woman.
Amber: It’s true.
Victor: After the movie aired, all these shops just boomed in business because customers like ordered like, “This is what I want like what she looks like.”
Amber: Yeah. And interestingly, the qupao she wore, why they were extra beautiful is they were made from vintage fabrics that were not very typical Chinese fabrics used at the time. Usually we see Chinese silks and they were really beautiful and really tight. Very sexy. Okay, how about some men? There are some famous actors, of course in Chinese cinema.
Victor: Yeah. Definitely Jackie Chan. Very well respected in the West and also, he is probably actually the most respected entertainment figure in China right now.
Amber: Yes. With some staying power as well.
Victor: Yeah, definitely. It seems like every time a Chinese talent becomes internationally known, the nastic in China also rises.
Amber: So, was Jackie Chan famous in the West before China do you think, or what?
Victor: He was already very famous in China before.
Amber: But he got more famous after.
Victor: Yeah. He got even more so.
Amber: Now, what about censorship? We know that not all movies make it into China. I know that up until quite recently. There’s only a certain amount of foreign films that are allowed to be shown in cinemas per year, and they’re also hand-selected for their content.
Victor: Right. I think there is definitely more strict system than in the West to select certain movies. However sometimes, I do think some movies do pass through censor surprisingly. Some sensitive issues.
Amber: Yeah. And I know notice some pass through but they will also cut the part with sex scenes and things like that.
Victor: Right. Sometimes they just edit it out.
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: I remember a few years ago, there was a nationally known movie about homosexual affair, which is just very unheard of.
Amber: Yes.
Victor: But it did pass through censors.
Amber: Well, maybe the government thought they were just friends.
Victor: I don’t know.
Amber: Well, the good thing is… well, I don’t know if it’s a good thing but the truth of the matter is, you can see any movie you want in China because you can just buy it on the street. But we’re talking about in the official cinemas.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So yeah, censorship is censorship. However, it just stops the flow of pirated DVDs which doesn’t really work.
Victor: It sort of extends, right?
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: And of course I think the Chinese audience is very familiar with a lot of Western movies and Western stars.
Amber: Yeah. So, who are the big stars that Chinese people love?
Victor: I’d say Tom Cruise and Will Smith.
Amber: Oh, really?
Victor: They’re the biggest stars. Yeah. I mean, virtually everyone will know them. It’s really interesting. This past summer, I was working for NBC in Beijing and Access Hollywood did random interviews of people on the streets.
Amber: Oh, that’s interesting.
Victor: They had pictures of famous Western stars for people to identify. Almost everyone could identify Tom Cruise and Will Smith and they know them immediately.
Amber: Yes.
Victor: Interesting thing is not so many people knew who George Clooney or Brad Pitt was.
Amber: Maybe they didn’t make the Chinese standard of beauty right.
Victor: Maybe not. Maybe Tom Cruise and Will Smith did. I don’t know.
Amber: Interesting.
Victor: But that was very interesting, yeah. And talking about Western stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were worshipped by Chinese male youth.
Amber: No wonder. They’re Gods, practically.
Victor: Yeah, during their peak days…
Amber: Look at their physique, Victor! I’m sure if a Chinese see someone as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger would be completely…
Victor: Blown away.
Amber: Boring for them, yeah. I can see it. Maybe they thought it was God, perhaps. They probably did worship him.
Victor: It’s like the opposite of fact of people in the West like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
Amber: Yeah, I guess. That’s true.
Victor: I remember as a little kid, my cousin had all this pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger on his wall and he’s trying to work out and stuff.
Amber: That’s great.
Victor: Yeah. And to a certain extent, the Chinese movie market is not so different than the West. So, a lot of the Western big blockbusters actually make their way to China and become really popular as well. Recent ones like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Slumdog Millionaire – they are all big hits in China as well.
Amber: Yeah. That’s true.
Victor: And talking about relations with the Western movie market…
Amber: It’s like a crossover.
Victor: Right. There have been some controversies as well. For example, when Steven Spielberg was actually originally asked to be the artistic director for the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, and he declined because he opposed the Chinese involvement in the foreign Africa.
Amber: Probably didn’t go well.
Victor: He kind of like stood out like that and it actually raised a lot of anger in China. Because people were really excited about the Olympics. Like really excited. And of course, him being the big name of Hollywood, people were really looking forward to working with him. But he declines and I guess in a way it kind of hurt people’s feelings a lot, right? So, people were really angry about that.
Amber: So, are they still going to watch Jurassic Park?
Victor: We’ll see.
Amber: They are going to boycott it.
Victor: I don’t know. We will see.
Amber: You can’t buy a bootleg anymore. So, that’s cinema in China. If anyone else has seen… maybe come to the Chinese class on our website and you can leave some comments about your favorite Chinese movies.
Victor: Definitely.
Amber: I definitely liked the Road Home. That was a beautiful film.
Victor: It was.
Amber: Beijing Bicycles was a really cool film.
Victor: Oh yeah?
Amber: Intense. It’s like this kid whose bike got stolen and they are riding to the hutongs. Crazy fighting over this bike. It’s really, really good. So, everybody come and share your favorite films. So, that’s it for the Chinese Buffet today and if you want to learn more Chinese or about Chinese culture, make sure come visit us at chineseclass101.com, we have lots of lessons there that can give you lots of insights about China and also teach you to speak Chinese. 再见 (zàijiàn)!
Victor: 再见 (zàijiàn).