Chinese Cinematography

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Chinese Cinematography


Since an aspiring filmmaker may be overwhelmed by the expansive field of Chinese cinematography, this essay aims to demystify and systematize this aspect of filmmaking. It combines information from written sources (mostly text books on filmmaking and cinematography) with observations made from viewing recent and older feature films. The knowledge organized under the three main headings of lighting, camera view point and the camera's mode of perception. The outcome is an accessible and systematized foundation for film makers to consult as an entry point into understanding the relationship of Chinese cinematography (Semsel, pp.154-162). When considering the role of cinematography in contemporary Chinese popular culture, in addition to trying to understand, Chinese films past and present one must look at a much broader range of influences. Cinematography captures and expresses what a character is feeling - their attitude towards the rest of the world, their interior state.


In recent years, Chinese cinematography has become one of the most internationally visible areas of contemporary Chinese popular culture. Since the mid-1980s, when young filmmakers of the so-called Fifth Generation (see below) started making films that hit cinema screens throughout the world, Chinese cinematography has established for itself a recognized position on the international cinema circuit of film festivals, competitions, and art-house distribution. Some of those young filmmakers twenty years later were internationally recognized names—directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige and actress Gong Li in particular.

The aim of this essay is to present these cinematographic elements in a coherent way that provides the filmmaker with an inventory of the 'toolbox' at disposal, giving examples from China's cinematography. However, it is not only in the last twenty years that cinematography has become a prominent feature of Chinese popular culture. Since the 1930s, cinema has had a crucial role to play in formulating and embodying ideas of Chinese modernity; in the development of revolutionary Chinese intellectual and political movements; in entertaining, educating, and informing ordinary Chinese citizens; in promoting the policies of the Chinese Communist Party; and in raising the profile of Chinese artistic production on the international stage. Chinese cinematic production is a fundamental component of China's recent historical and contemporary artistic, entertainment, and political heritage (Cheng, pp.78-94).

In terms of understanding the emerging Chinese popular cultural landscape at this time, there are two salient points to note. First, China's developing cinematography culture was extremely limited in geographical and demographic scope. It was heavily concentrated in the more cosmopolitan urban centers of Beijing and the treaty ports. Second, although a Chinese film industry was starting to find its feet, by far the majority of films viewed in China were foreign. In 1929, compared to approximately 50 Chinese films made, there were 450 foreign films projected in China. About 90 percent of these were from the United States, which was already establishing itself as a leading global film exporter. The imbalance between the number of domestically produced films and the number of imported films continued through the 1930s. In 1933, there were 67 Chinese films made as opposed ...
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