Zhu Shilin: A Filmmaker of His Times - Foreword

Zhu Shilin (1899–1967)'s film career spanned over 30 years. From his youthful stage at United Photoplay Service (Lianhua) in 1930s Shanghai, to his Zhonglian and Huaying stints during the 'Orphan Island' and Japanese occupation periods, and finally to his collaboration with Great China, Yung Hwa, Dragon-Horse, Feng Huang and Great Wall in post-war Hong Kong, he never ceased making films, turning in over 100 titles to his credit. As early as the early 1980s, he already caught special attention from Hong Kong critics—Lin Nien-tung lauded him as an influential artist in Chinese cinema; Shu Kei was amazed by the experimental and versatile film language in his early works; Lau Shing-hon hailed him as the representative of Chinese classical cinema; Evans Chan went further to suggest that he was likely the first world-class master in Chinese cinema history, his works making up an integral whole with a clear sense of coherence and traceable development1.

From his directorial and scriptwriting debut Suicide Pact (1930) to the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japan in 1937, Zhu Shilin had remained loyal to United Photoplay. This was largely due to his calm and stoic personality, and partly due to the relatively ideal filmmaking environment provided by the studio. Among his peers in United Photoplay, Sun Yu had an exuberant, cheerful character, clearly reflected in his 1930s works which exhibited a unique style. However, he had to move around during the war, working for China Motion Picture Studio (Zhongzhi) in Wuhan, Central Motion Picture Company (Zhongdian) and later China Education Film Company (Zhongjiao) in Chongqing respectively. The two feature films The Sky Rider (1939) and A Bloody Lesson (1941) were his only output in this period. His post-war epic The Life of Wu Xun (1951), a serious endeavour which took a few years to shoot, sadly became the butt of criticism in political struggle. The blow it dealt to the director proved too devastating for him to retain his creative vigour in works that followed.

Marked by an acute social awareness, Cai Chusheng's works were fondly embraced by leftwing critics. He evacuated to Hong Kong during the war and made such 'national defence' films as Orphan Island Paradise (1939) and Bright Future (1941). He continued to flee over the next few years, and finally returned to Shanghai after the war, producing The Tears of Yangtze (1947)—a magnum opus of Chinese cinema in the eyes of orthodox film historians. After 1949, hamstrung by his poor health and dwindling time for filmmaking, he came up only with Waves on the South China Sea (1963). Later in 1967, his wife Chen Manyun was framed as a spy and subsequently thrown into jail. He died a disillusioned man the following year.

Wu Yonggang was a bold experimenter among his fellow filmmakers. Pure and strikingly modern, his directorial debut Goddess (1934) catapulted him into fame instantly; Desert Island (1936) was pioneering at the time both in terms of subject matter and artistic style, but came under fire from leftwing critics. He remained quite prolific during the Orphan Island period. Unfortunately only very few of those offerings are available for view, nor is it certain if there are still surviving copies of his immediate post-war productions. He was embroiled in two catastrophes after 1949—the Anti-Rightist Movement and Cultural Revolution, but his masterly flair was still evident in his two Chinese opera films, The Jade Hairpin (1963) and Third Sister Yao (1966).

Fei Mu shared similar character traits with Zhu Shilin, but was more innovative and resolute in his artistic pursuit. Although only a few of his titles have survived intact, his tour de forceSpring in a Small Town (1948)—alone ensures his artistic immortality. The scarcity of his works has however been an obstacle to more comprehensive study of this master.

Compared to his big-name counterparts, Zhu Shilin's artistry was apparently more subdued and low-key. But a closer examination of his creative path will show him as one of that rare breed among Chinese directors—an auteur in every sense of the word. This does not mean that the abovementioned directors lacked artistic character, only that their film career was inevitably interrupted by historical turmoil. The physical dislocation and constraints on creative expression brought by the War of Resistance, coupled with the post-1949 arts and literary policies and the ensuing political movements, all had to varying extents hampered their development. This can explain why the once vibrant Chinese cinema in the 1930s was left staggering in the subsequent decades. Zhu Shilin was stranded in wartime Shanghai, and forced to leave for Hong Kong with a heavy heart after the war. But in terms of his creative output, it was a blessing in disguise, as he had the chance to sustain his film career to the last. His mainland productions first put him at odds with mainstream leftwing critics, yet he later emerged as a flag-bearer of the Leftist cinema in colonial Hong Kong. This may well be a historical irony.

Tracing his development through his early attempts at scriptwriting like Love and Duty (1931) to his last directorial endeavour Garden of Repose (1964), shot in Hong Kong, a clear picture of the filmmaker emerges—one who did not drift with the tide, but rode out the turbulent waves of history through tact and perseverance. By staying true to his passions, he miraculously maintained creativity against all odds2. Fortunately, more of his films have been found in recent years. In the last two years, some colleagues and I had the privilege of seeing a few titles he shot in occupied Shanghai, including Universal Love (1942), Changing Hearts (1943), Eternal Fame (1943), and The Modern Couple (1944). This strengthens our claim in view of Zhu's thematic coherence and stylistic consistency, he is indeed an auteur. During Shanghai's roaring 1930s, he was not keen to pose as the progressive, but instead drifted uncertainly between tradition and reform. In the 1940s, surviving in the filthy, repressed occupied city, he sealed himself off in the dream factory, polishing his craft by weaving anecdotes about romantic couples and marital dramas. In the 1950s and 1960s, uprooted to a city shadowed by economic hardship and British colonial rule, he found his niche at Feng Huang, and cultivated his cinema world like a diligent gardener trimming his little orchard. From initial days of wholesome simplicity, to his twilight years of spiritual despair, Zhu Shilin's cinematic arc mirrored the trajectory of a generation of Chinese intellectuals—from hope to compromise to nihilism. Despite all these, he had seemed to retain his sharp mind and strong faith in himself all the way through.

Since the Hong Kong International Film Festival published A Comparative Study of Post-War Mandarin and Cantonese Cinema in 1983, it took another decade for a publication dedicated to Zhu Shilin to be released. That was Zhu Shilin and Cinema jointly published by Zhu's children Chu Fung and Chu Yan in 1999. The book contains a collection of Zhu's personal letters that provide an intimate doorway into his inner world, enabling us to gain better understanding of his predicament. From then onwards, no further research has been undertaken on Zhu in Hong Kong. It was Beijing's turn to mount a special feature on the master in the fifth issue of Contemporary Cinema in 2005. It enabled a reappraisal of Zhu's accomplishments and his influence on Hong Kong and mainland cinema. The supervisor of this special feature was the veteran film historian Li Shaobai. Zhao Weifang, Li Daoxin, Pan Jian, Chen Mo and Hong Kong film scholar Law Kar were among the contributors. Based on the research framework detailed above, writers of this volume set out to offer new insights from thematic, aesthetic and historical angles to vindicate Zhu's place in Chinese cinema.

Here, we wish to extend special thanks to Mr Zhu Shilin's children—Ms Chu Fung and Mr Chu Yan. They not only spared the time for our interviews but also donated to us their father's memorabilia. Among the items are four unpublished screenplays of Zhu's films, which have been collected in the Chinese edition of this publication. Filmic records in the Orphan Island period are extremely scarce. For this reason, the screenplays of Fragrant Princess (1940) and Dangerous Mission (1941) are precious reference materials to fill the void. Life and Death (1953) was written by Zhu's protégé Cen Fan with no surviving print to date; The Imperial Concubine Yangwas written in the late 1940s but never materialised as a production. From our Zhu Shilin film retrospective and these textual materials, one gets a broader picture of an artist making discreet explorations in an age of great turmoil, making wise adjustments and unavoidable compromises along the way, and finally reaching a state of intellectual burn-out and heavy-heartedness. This volume also includes an interview we conducted with director Cen Fan some years back. We recently learned that Mr Cen passed away on 23 January 2008. Let us take this opportunity to pay him our heartfelt respect.

Wong Ain-ling
12 February 2008


  • For essays by Lin Nien-tung, Shu Kei and Lau Shing-hon, see Shu Kei (ed), A Comparative Study of Post-War Mandarin and Cantonese Cinema: the Films of Zhu Shilin, Qin Jian and Other Directors, the 7th Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1983. Evans Chan's essay titled 'Liuying Geshi Ting: Zhuimo Zhu Shilin' ('The Nightingale's Voice Lingers On: In Memory of Zhu Shilin') was originally published in Film Biweekly, No 112, 26 May 1983, pp 25-30; later collected in Evans Chan, Zuihou De Zhongguo Ren (The Last of the Chinese), Hong Kong: Su Yeh Publications, 1998 (in Chinese).
  • From the viewpoint of career history, Griffin Yue Feng (1910–1999), one of Zhu Shilin's co ntemporaries , is a good example for cross-reference. Yue entered the film industry in the late 1920s. His 1930s works scripted by Yang Hansheng—The Wrath of the China Sea (1933) and Escape (1935)—received rave reviews from leftwing critics. Similar to Zhu Shilin, he stayed behind in wartime Shanghai to make films, and settled in Hong Kong after the war to further his career. He had been in the service of several companies since then—Great Wall, MP & GI and Shaw Brothers. His last film was Village of Tigers (Co-dir: Wang Ping, 1974).