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The Epic Tradition Dies Hard in Chinese Films

TO understand the state of Chinese film, one must look not only at the sort of governmental repression that erupted most chillingly in the Tiananmen Square massacre, but also at artistic and aesthetic issues with long histories of their own.According to Phillip Lopate, a US author and critic who recently visited China, today's younger directors "thought they were turning away from the propaganda of Maoist cinema, but actually continued to carry forward a lot of the same elements" such as a penchant for melodrama and large, heroic gestures. A film like Zhang Yimou's popular "Red Sorghum," which played in US theaters about three years ago, has innovative elements yet is still part of a continuum with roots in the cinema of Mao Zedong's heyday . These traits include focusing on conflict between good heroes and bad antagonists, positing the special virtue of ordinary people, and avoiding complex psychology by concentrating on colorful events in China's prerevolutionary feudal period. Mr. Lopate observes that Chinese storytelling has a long tradition of fairy tales and allegories - as exemplified by "Life on a String," the new Chen Kaige film - but that China also has a strong heritage of realism and psychological narrative. It's this second element that has been slighted by today's directors, says Lopate, who finds echoes of Steven Spielberg in the leaning of many Chinese filmmakers toward visual sweep at the expense of psychological complexity. China's current emphasis on epic stories and rural landscapes is due partly to real enthusiasm for visual expansiveness, according to Lopate, and partly to the fact that such films can be made with less government intervention. Chinese critics agree with Westerners, however, that more psychological depth is needed if Chinese film is to move forward again. Lopate feels that the complex characterizations of Mr. Zhang's recent "Ju Dou" represent a step in this direction, and adds that dense psychological st orytelling has made Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-hsien the region's most talked-about young filmmaker - suggesting that psychology may take on more importance in future Chinese movies, if official policies allow this to happen.

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