Wu Tianming is a famous Chinese director whose masterpieces include Life, The King of Masks and Old Well. Although he was not prolific, his works are classics with compassion and profound ideological implications. His unique ideas of film and the spirit of perseverance will always be remembered.
On May 6, Song of the Phoenix was released across China. Unfortunately, its director Wu Tianming didn’t live to see this day. Known as the founder of Chinese “Western Movies” as well as the “Godfather” of China’s fifth-generation directors, Wu has been gone over a year’s time. Among his masterpieces are Life, The King of Masks and Old Well. Although he was not prolific, his works are classics with compassion and profound ideological implications, winning awards domestically and internationally many times. His unique ideas of film and the spirit of perseverance will always be remembered.
I wonder if there is also Song of Phoenix in the heaven?
In the 1980’s, there was a popular saying in Chinese moviedom: When one thinks of Chang’an, he will think of Wu Tianming. At that time, Wu can be called an iconic figure in Chinese film industry; he was almost incomparable.
With the ancestral home in Shandong, Wu Tianming was born in Shaanxi in 1939. Early in Xi’an high school, he began watching drama and fell in love with seeing films. One winter, former Soviet Union’s movie Poem of the Sea was on, and Wu did not understand it the first time he watched. He sold the new shoes so that he could watch this movie more times. Later, it was just because he was able to recite many lines in Poem of the Sea that he was admitted to the actor training course of Xi’an Film Studio. Since then he has stepped into the world of the film industry.
But being an actor was not his dream, and he regarded the training course as a springboard to be a director in the future. In 1974, Wu got his wish to study in Beijing Film Academy, where he met the older generation of the famous actor and director Cui Wei, from whom he learned a lot. After he went back to West Film Studio, Wu worked as script supervisor and deputy director for several years before finally gaining the opportunity of co-directing.
In 1981, Wu Tianming and Teng Wenji co-directed the film Keith and Kin. It is a moving story of a Taiwanese female PhD who met pirates on her sea trips, was rescued by young people from Mainland where she then found long-lost mother and brother. It sounds like a good story, but after the release of the film, the critical letters and articles were so overwhelming that Wu felt deeply shameful. The film is full of fake and pretentious plots, so many so that in his own words, “if it were not the ‘culmination’ of Chinese film, few could be compared with it.”
It is also this bitter Waterloo that influenced his later film. From Keith and Kin, Wu learned that artistic creation must be true.
Looking for the “buoys”
In May 1981, Wu hurried to Beijing for writer Ye Weilin, who was having a meeting there. Ye Weilin is the author of the novel River Without Buoys, and several film studios were competing for the right to shoot the novel.
River Without Buoys is about three timber rafters during the Cultural Revolution who decided to a former District Director from a former labor camp. It demonstrates the goodness and evilness, and beauty and ugliness in human nature through several typical stories and reflects profoundly on that era that could distort humanity. Wu felt strongly resonated to the novel and wished to redefine himself as a director through shooting it.
However, it is easier said than done. At that time, people’s thoughts weren’t fully liberated, and the topic concerning reflection about the “Cultural Revolution” was particularly sensitive. A deputy director of the Xi’an Film Studio proposed over 100 suggestions after reading the script of River Without Buoys. One suggestion made Wu feel ridiculous: there is a scene where the hero Pan Laowu swam in the nude in front of many rural women. The deputy director believed it unbecoming to put on screen and told Wu that “This is not good and must be changed. Pan Laowu should wear pants.”
This put Wu in a dilemma. He didn’t want to disrespect art because he believed that “swimming in the nude” was a catharsis of repressed emotion for the hero; but he was also conscious that at that time, it was indeed a problem. Later, Wu thought of a compromising approach: Let the actor put on a woman’s nylon pantyhose. In this way, the hero seemed to be “in the nude” on the screen but he did wear something, which satisfied the leader’s instructions.
This has become the first male nude scene since the founding of New China.
River Without Buoys was wrapped in 1983. This was Wu’s solo directorial debut. With the features of “Local Literature”, the film is natural, simple, plain, and subtle, not only moving the audiences at that time, but also winning praise from critics. The film won the “East-West Center Film Award” of the Fourth Hawaii International Film Festival and the “Outstanding Film Award” by Chinese Ministry of Culture in 1983.
River Without Buoys is an important step for Wu “to explore the road of truth”. It was from this film that Wu started to find his own “buoy”. And with infinite dedication and enthusiasm, he is gradually realizing his dream.
A Pioneer in Producing Chinese “Westerns”
The shooting of Life in 1984 is a milestone in Chinese film history and the film inaugurated a policy of producing Chinese “westerns”, by which Wu meant movies with deep roots in the West China regions around Xi’an.
Adapted from the same name novel written by Lu Yao, Life depicts the life course of a high school graduate: come to the land—left the land—back to the land. Although this is a traditional story of an infatuated girl deserted by a heartless man, it truly reflects the spirit of that time when educated youth desired to return to town from rural area and climb up the social ladder at any price, causing a sensation all over the country. As a result, it became one of the films having the highest attendance in that year and the first Chinese entry at Academy Awards.
Life is groundbreaking not only for substantially showing China’s vast northwest plateau on the screen for the first time, but also for integrating the natural strength of northwest plateau with the kindness, simplicity and generousness of people there for the first time. Therefore, it was the first Chinese film with both national characteristics and the essential elements of “westerns”. In the film, Wu describes the Northwest China customs with an appreciative tone and displays the essence of life through the characters. Whether it is a lively market, or a complicated wedding ceremony, audiences will always find the scene colors pleasing to the eye and refreshed in spirit. This is what sets “life” apart from traditional films—customs are used as people’s living environment instead of merely the decorative and ornamental background for the scenes.
Life won the Hundred Flowers Awards for Best Picture, Best Actress and won the Golden Rooster Awards for Best Music in 1984. On that day, 12,000 students and teachers from Sichuan University stood in the rain to watch the award ceremony. After it was over, no one left. They were all waiting to watch Life. When the film watching ended, crew was invited to stand on the podium. Suddenly, the crowd burst into loud cheers with spontaneous shouting from students: “Long live the film! Long live Life’’.
Faced with this situation, Wu, a strong man born and raised in West China regions, was moved to tears.
His another film Old Well (1987) continues the style of Life. The film depicts the life style on the barren Loess Plateau in northern China. To solve the water shortage in Laojing Village, a return educated youth Sun Wangquan led the villagers to dig deep wells and finally had their dream come true after enduring lots of hardship. Unlike Life which features the conflict and difference between moral judgment and historical judgment, Old Well only implicitly reflects the conflict between historical theme and humanitarian theme. Instead of merely telling the story of any individual, Old Well focuses on the story of the whole “Chinese people”, represented by many generations of well-diggers such as Sun Wanshui and Sun Wangquan who struggled with nature in order to survive and developed the unyielding collective spirit of seeking self-improvement (a symbol of the national spirit). In the film Old Well, the scene of ordinary people fighting for their survival against the backdrop of barren and bleak Loess Plateau is very touching.
A sensation in domestic and overseas film industry then, Old Well becomes Wu’s magnum optus and won several awards at Golden Rooster Awards and Hundred Flowers Awards in China and the Tokyo Film Festival, the Hawaii International Film Festival, Salsomaggiore International Film and TV Festival in Italy. Interestingly, at the beginning of the filming, Zhang Yimou, then photographer of the film, attracted the attention of Wu who thought Zhang’s temperament was similar to the hero Sun Wangquan. Wu made up his mind to look for actor by Zhang’s image. After meeting with unsatisfactory results multiple times, Wu realized Zhang was the man for this role and let him to play it.
With Life as the starting point, Wu not only created the Chinese “Westerns”, but also helped make the most glorious era of Chinese “Westerns” happen. During his tenure as the head of Xi’an Film Studio, Wu risked appointing a number of new directors including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Huang Jianxin to respectively shooting Red Sorghum, King of the Children, The Horse Thief, Black Cannon Incident, which came out sensational in the film industry. Wu really deserves the title of the “Godfather of the Fifth Generation Directors”. Thanks to his efforts, the previously little-known Xi’an Film Studio also attracted the attention at home and abroad.
Sticking to Traditional Narrative
In 1994, Wu ended five-year stay in the United States and returned to China. However, his golden era had slipped away with the passing time. He suddenly felt unfamiliar with the filming strategies he was adept at previously. Before he went abroad, China’s film industry, due to the time of planned economy, spared directors from worrying about investment. In the mid-1990s, Chinese film industry, under market economy, adopted “film producer system”. The film market had been totally packed with commercial blockbusters.
In 1995, Wu received the investment from Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong) Limited and shot The King of Masks. The film revolves around the succession issue of face-changing, a folk art in Chinese traditional culture. It still explores interpersonal- trust and warmth. Although the film won 29 major awards at 13 national level film festivals, it only sold very few copies in Chinese film market.
Wu was quite upset and wondered if the market had totally been occupied by commercial, action, comedy and love-triangle films? Why do good artistic movies fail to dominate at the box office?
Zhang Yimou once said that Wu did not lead a happy life in his twilight years for having a sense of unrealized ambition. “In an era when the values of movies are decided by the performance at the box office, I have made lots of attempts in commercial films like many other directors. When getting together with ‘Chief’, he seldom asked about my works over the past ten years. I know it’s because he dislikes these alleged profit-making commercial films.”
After shooting The King of Masks, Wu still stubbornly sticks to the traditional and classic narrative and resolutely keeps himself away from “vulgarity” films. Afterwards, he shot the films C.E.O. and An Unusual Love with industry-related theme and TV series Soul in the Yellow River, Bad Cop and The Gadfly. However, highly-rated as these works are, they generated very limited economic benefits.
Song of the Phoenix (2012) is the last film directed by Wu. It tells the story of two generations of suona players holding on to their dreams. This art film, in a sense, has a strong symbolic meaning. In the film, Song of the Phoenix is the highest level of melody the old player only working for weddings and funerals can do. But he only plays this melody for those who deserve it based on his personal judgment instead of for whoever is rich or powerful.
This might reflect Wu’s attitude of sticking to shooting films with traditional narrative. In an era of entertainment-driven public aesthetic taste and film marketization, he holds fast to the creation of thoughtful films carrying lofty humanistic spirit and concern.
From Life to Song of the Phoenix, Wu has stuck to his principle and attitude for the entire era.