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Novels into Film: Chinese Cinema’s Literary Legacy

"Winter Vacation" (dir. Li Hongqi)

A recent profile of Chinese novelist Yan Geling, author of the novel “The Thirteen Women of Nanjing,” which inspired Zhang Yimou‘s 2011 war epic The Flowers of War, is shedding light on the increasingly significant role literary figures are playing in shaping the Chinese film industry.

While the publishing community also faces its share of censorship restrictions, many independent filmmakers are finding compelling stories and collaborative touch-points in various corners of the literary world. Peng Tao‘s 2007 narrative feature Little Moth (Xue Chan), which tells the harrowing tale of a disabled young girl’s struggle as she is shuffled between families and would-be guardians, was adapted from the novel of the same name by Bai Tianguang. While Bai’s novel is a contemporary story brought to life–and international circulation–by Peng’s film, other filmmakers have delved into classical literature for inspiration. Zhao Dayong‘s Street Life, a documentary of the hustle of life on Shanghai’s Nanjing Lu, is an admitted allegory inspired by the classic novel A Journey to the West.

While drawing from literature is the cornerstone of much filmmaking and presents a natural narrative affinity, some inspirations and collaborations in the sphere of Chinese cinema are notable for the way films may proliferate otherwise-untranslated Chinese literature to international audiences. While subtitles may still endure a difficult slog towards widespread acceptance, it is perhaps more common to witness contemporary Chinese stories in cinematic than literary form outside of China. While many figures of Chinese independent cinema, such as Winter Vacation director Li Hongqi, Knitting director Lin Yichuan, and Guo Xiaolu, director of She, A Chinese, are also known for their literary accomplishments, these artists have largely found their audiences abroad through cinema. In any case, the strong literary backgrounds and affiliations of these filmmakers seems to set these stories apart—creating depth and a multidimensional look at contemporary China.

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