The secret history of China’s taboo-breaking cinema

A brief history of the controversial, confrontational and crazy films that have come out of the People's Republic

The fact that China even has something like the ominously–named Central Propaganda Department is enough to arouse suspicions of limited artistic freedom. They have been known to bar directors from making films for several years, while even national treasure Jackie Chan’s 2009 film Shinjuku Incident failed to make it past the censors. Then they banned time travel in films, because they “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots”. Meanwhile, films from Ben-Hur to Lara Croft and Despicable Me 2 have fallen foul of the censors.

It’s a bizarre state of affairs without even considering the well–documented travails of Ai Weiwei, and the country’s un-asked for nickname: the great firewall of China. It recently led US filmmaker Oliver Stone to criticise Chinese filmmakers for failing to confront their country’s past. But despite all that they have to contend with, there is a rich vein of taboo–breaking cinema in China’s cinematic history.

As the BFI begins a huge, five–month season called "A Century of Chinese Cinema", marking roughly 100 years of Chinese cinema, we are taking a look at some of the most controversial, riotous, and progressive of them.

1929 - Red Heroine

Although both the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists tried to ban swordplay (wuxia) movies, Red Heroine was even more radical than most: instead of the usual masculine fighter, the protagonist is a swashbuckling woman. An orphan, Yun Mei survives a brutal attack from a warlord – known for enslaving very scantily–clad young women – that kills her grandmother, but after being trained by a monk in martial arts she exacts her revenge, becoming an unstoppable killing machine.

1944 - Remorse in Shanghai

Perhaps the most controversial Chinese film ever made, Remorse in Shanghai was created in the city while it was occupied by the Japanese. Set in 1862, after the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion that shook the country, we follow a young Taiping leader who finds refuge from his Manchu pursuers in the Japanese consulate, who try and convince him of their cause. What follows is anti-British, anti-American, and some say treasonous.

1948 - Spring in a Small Town

The apex of Shanghai’s Golden Age of cinema, Spring in a Small Town is an exquisitely-told story of adulterous desire and unbearable guilt. After eight years of marriage to her now depressed, bedridden husband, Yuwen becomes distraught after a secret lover from a long time ago turns up at her house. She is torn between loyalty to her family, or a new stimulating life. It was rejected by the Communists as rightist because of its apparent lack of political grounding.

1957 - An Unfinished Comedy

Performing for a group of Communist party cadres, An Unfinished Comedy shows two famous comedians putting on a series of sketches that parody Party propaganda and ideological orthodoxy. However, its formal audacity and radical critique of Party censors landed it in hot water, meaning the film was never screened upon release and has rarely been seen since. Director Lü Ban himself was heavily persecuted, and never made another film again.

1972 - Ai Nu (Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan)

The legendary Shaw Brothers were known for pushing boundaries and smashing taboos, and their film Ai Nu was no exception. It breached the dangerous subject of homosexuality, with a lesbian relationship suggested between a lusty brothel madame Chung and the beautiful girl Ai-Nu, who had been abducted and sold into prostitution. The film combines glamour and erotica with Chinese cinema’s more familiar images of gory violence.

1987 - Woman–Demon–Human

Woman–Demon–Human was hailed as the first truly feminist film made in China, and is a lightly fictionalised biopic of a Chinese opera star, Pei Yanling. She is seen to buck tradition by specialising in martial male roles, raising questions about identity and gender. But although the actress's career brings wealth and fame, it is attained only through considerable struggle against an anti-female system and an unhappy personal life.

1993 - Farewell to my Concubine 

To date, the only Chinese–language film to win the Cannes Palme d'Or, Farewell to my Concubine, is an epic spanning over half a century of modern Chinese history, which tells of life backstage at the famed Peking Opera. We follow two orphan boys: the delicate Douzi, who is assigned to the transvestite role of the concubine in a famous traditional opera, and the more masculine Shitou. Although an essentially heterosexual relationship, Dieyi is petty and jealous when Xiaolou marries a prostitute bride. It was banned for a period due to homosexual themes and negative portrayal of communism.

2007 - Lust, Caution

An intriguing combination of spy movie and perverse romance, Ang Lee's thriller set in WWII–era Shanghai sees a young woman, Wang Jiazhi, enter a perilous relationship with a powerful political figure. Not only contentious for the graphic nature of the offending sex scenes (full frontal nudity, aggressive and sweaty activity in acrobatic positions, violence that borders on rape), but also the transgressive nature of the plot – a love affair between an undercover Chinese nationalist and a Japanese collaborator.

2013 - A Touch of Sin

Set in the current day and inspired by four true tales taken from the Chinese social media website Weibo, A Touch of Sin is a virtual state of the nation report on China in 2013. Full of random acts of violence and murder, the movie's intention is to portrait the reality of a generation that feels confused and out of place on a new reality that clashes modern capitalism with former communism. A leaked directive from China’s Central Propaganda Department instructed media not to conduct interviews, report or comment on the film.