Tian Zhuangzhuang

This is a Chinese name; the family name is Tian.
Tian Zhuangzhuang

Background information
Chinese name 田壯壯
Pinyin Tián Zhuàngzhuàng (Mandarin)
Born (1952-04-23) 23 April 1952
Beijing, China
Occupation Film director, producer, and professor at Beijing Film Academy
Years active 1980-present
Parents Tian Fang (father)
Yu Lan (mother)

Tian Zhuangzhuang (simplified Chinese: 田壮壮; traditional Chinese: 田壯壯; pinyin: Tián Zhuàngzhuàng, Mandarin pronunciation: [tʰi̯ɛ̌n ʈʂu̯ɑ̂ŋʈʂu̯ɑ̂ŋ]; born April 1952 in Beijing, China) is a Chinese film director and producer.

Tian was born to an influential actor and actress in China. Following a short stint in the military, Tian began his artistic career first as an amateur photographer and then as an assistant cinematographer at the Beijing Agricultural Film Studio. In 1978, he was accepted to the Beijing Film Academy, from which he graduated in 1982, together with classmates Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. The class of 1982 collectively would soon gain fame as the so-called Fifth Generation film movement, with Tian Zhuangzhuang as one of the movement's key figures.[1]

Tian's early career was marked both with avant-garde documentary infused films (On the Hunting Ground (1985), The Horse Thief (1986)) to more commercial fare (Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch (1991)). In 1991, Tian began work on a quiet epic about one of modern China's darkest moments. This film, The Blue Kite (1993), would eventually result in Tian's nearly decade long exile from the film industry, an exile he returned from with Springtime in a Small Town (2001). Throughout the 2000s, Tian Zhuangzhuang returned to the fore of Chinese cinema, directing films like the biopic The Go Master (2006) and the historical action film The Warrior and the Wolf (2009). Since his banning after the release of The Blue Kite, Tian has also emerged as a mentor for some of China's newest film talents, and he has helped produce several important films for these new generations of directors.

Early life

Tian Zhuangzhuang was born on April 23, 1952 in Beijing. He was the son of Tian Fang, a famous actor in the 1930s who became head of the Beijing Film Studio after 1949, and Yu Lan, an actress who later ran the Beijing Children's Film Studio.[2][3] Given his parents' busy jobs as studio chiefs, Tian was raised primarily by his grandmother, though his parents' positions also allowed him to live a relatively comfortable childhood.[4] But because of the Tians' prominence, Tian Zhuangzhuang suffered heavily during the Cultural Revolution, and both his parents were persecuted.[5] Unlike fellow director Chen Kaige, however, Tian never joined the Red Guards, and was eventually sent to the countryside in Jilin, like many youths from so-called "bad families."[6][7]

Though from a cinema family, Tian did not initially want to follow in the family footsteps. Instead, Tian enlisted in the People's Liberation Army in 1968 and served for three years.[8] There he met a war photographer, who introduced him to the camera. Working as a photographer for five years, Tian eventually decided to switch to cinematography and found a job as an assistant cinematographer at the Beijing Agricultural Film Studio.[8]

Professional career

Early career

In 1978, after three years at the studio, Tian applied for entrance in the Beijing Film Academy and was accepted.[9] However, he was forced to apply to the directing department rather than the cinematography department due to his age.[9]

While enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, Tian directed a short student film, Our Corner (1980), based on a short story by Shi Tiesheng. Technically, Our Corner stands as the first film made by Fifth Generation directors.[10] Years later, Our Corner would continue to be screened by professors at the BFA, introducing Tian to new generations of actors and filmmakers.[10] As a result of his role in the making of Our Corner, as well as his experience in film before entering school, Tian became a de facto leader among the students of the BFA. They admired not only his natural talent, but also his natural eye for talent and loyalty to his friends, most notably with Hou Yong, who would go on to serve as his cinematographer in many of Tian's early works.[11]

Upon his graduation in 1982, Tian was assigned to the Beijing Film Studio, though his early career was spent making films for other studios.[7] These included works for television, as well as the children's film Red Elephant (1982, co-directed with Zhang Jianya and Xie Xiaojing).[7]

International success

Tian reached international prominence with a pair of experimental films in the mid-1980s, On the Hunting Ground (1985) and The Horse Thief (1986), both about ethnic minorities in China.[7] Though On the Hunting Ground and The Horse Thief were warmly received abroad — American director Martin Scorsese named The Horse Thief as his favorite film of the 1990s (when The Horse Thief was finally released in the United States)[12] — neither film succeeded domestically, and both were considered commercial flops.[5] On the Hunting Ground, for example, sold a meager four prints.[7] Moreover, both films were criticized by the state and by traditionalists as elitist,[5] and as pandering to foreign audiences, a charge that Tian vigorously and defiantly accepted, arguing that films were for the sophisticated.[7] Nevertheless, stung by the rebukes, Tian followed up The Horse Thief with a string of commercially viable films, including Street Players (1987) (his first with the Beijing Film Studio), Rock 'n' Roll Kids (1988), and the historical costume film Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch (1991). Tian has since tried to distance himself from these films, often noting that they were part of a journeyman period of his career, where he would sign on to direct existing projects with funding and screenplays already in place.[13]

Domestic criticism

Many of Tian's earlier works had drawn fire from the Chinese government. For example, television producers refused to screen his short film Our Corner,[14] and his first major film, September (1984), suffered censor interference with several major scenes left on the cutting room floor.[15] But Tian would not face serious consequences as a result of his work until his masterpiece, The Blue Kite (1993), a film about the adverse effects of Communist rule from the Hundred Flowers Movement, through the Great Leap Forward, and especially the Cultural Revolution. The film's quiet criticism of Communist policies in the 1950s and 1960s quickly made it a pariah in the Beijing Film Studio, who refused to submit the film for central approval to be sent abroad for post-production.[16] The Blue Kite reportedly had to be smuggled out of the country by Tian's friends, where it would proceed to screen at foreign film festivals (including the 1993 Cannes Film Festival) without approval. Due to the controversy, Tian resigned from his position in the Beijing Film Studio in March 1994.[16] A month later, he became one of six filmmakers blacklisted by the government in April 1994, along with Sixth Generation helmers Wang Xiaoshuai, He Jianjun, Zhang Yuan, Zhang's wife, screenwriter Ning Dai, and the documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang.[17]

The ban would last officially until 1996,[18] though Tian would not make another film for several more years. In the interim, he focused on producing, and helped shepherd some of China's new generation of directors with their projects, including his former art director Huo Jianqi (1995's The Winner) and the Sixth Generation mainstays, Lu Xuechang (1996's The Making of Steel in which Tian also acted) and Wang Xiaoshuai (1998's So Close to Paradise, a film that would see its own share of controversy).[19] Tian's role as mentor for new filmmakers has continued into the 21st century and has seen Tian taking young talent such as Ma Liwen and Ning Hao under his wing.[20]

Career revival

After a hiatus from directing of some nine years where Tian mainly focused on producing other directors' works, he returned with a critically acclaimed remake of Fei Mu's masterpiece, Spring in a Small Town (1948), entitled Springtime in a Small Town.[21] As Tian's first film after his ban for The Blue Kite, Springtime was a small, intimate chamber piece with only five roles. To some critics, it reflected Tian's attempt to "play it safe,"[22] though the film's lack of political message did not dull its critical reception.[23]

In 2004, Tian returned to his favorite subject of China's ethnic minorities with Delamu, a HD-filmed documentary about peoples in Yunnan and Tibet. Delamu was followed by The Go Master (2006), a biopic of the legendary Chinese Go player, Go Seigen.

The latest work by Tian is a historical epic, The Warrior and the Wolf, filmed in China's remote Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The film was originally to star Tang Wei of Lust, Caution, but Tang was replaced by actress Maggie Q after the former was banned by Chinese authorities.[24]


As director

Year English Title Chinese Title Notes
1980 Our Corner 我们的小院 Short, co-directed with Xie Xiaojing and Cui Xiaoqin
1980 The Courtyard 校园 Short
1982 Red Elephant 红象 Co-directed with Zhang Jianya and Xie Xiaojing
1984 September 九月 Also known as In September
1985 On the Hunting Ground 猎场扎撒
1986 The Horse Thief 盗马贼
1987 Street Players 鼓书艺人 Also known as The Drum Singers; based on the novel by Lao She
1988 Rock 'n' Roll Kids 摇滚青年 Also known as Rock Kids
1989 Unforgettable Life 特别手术室 Also known as Special Operating Room and Illegal Lives
1991 Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch 大太监李莲英 Won an Honourable Mention at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival[25]
1993 The Blue Kite 蓝风筝
2002 Springtime in a Small Town 小城之春
2004 Delamu 茶马古道:德拉姆 Documentary
2006 The Go Master 吴清源
2009 The Warrior and the Wolf 狼灾记

As producer and executive producer

Year English Title Chinese Title Director
1992 Family Portrait 四十不惑 Li Shaohong
1995 The Winner 赢家 Huo Jianqi
1995 Rain Clouds over Wushan 巫山云雨 Zhang Ming
1996 The Making of Steel 长大成人 Lu Xuechang
1998 So Close to Paradise 扁担·姑娘 Wang Xiaoshuai
2004 Jasmine Women 茉莉花开 Hou Yong
2004 Love of May 五月之恋 Hsu Hsiao-ming
2004 Passages 路程 Yang Chao
2006 Love in Memory 爱的是你 Hsu Shu-chi

See also


  1. Berry, p. 51.
  2. "Banned In Beijing" 1994. Chicago Tribune.
  3. Yang, p. 91-92.
  4. Berry, p. 52.
  5. 1 2 3 Yang, p. 92.
  6. Berry, p. 57.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Zhang & Xiao, p. 337.
  8. 1 2 Berry, p. 54.
  9. 1 2 Berry, p. 55.
  10. 1 2 Berry, p. 58.
  11. Ni, p. 121-122.
  12. "Best Films of the 90s". Ebert & Roeper at the Movies. 2000-02-27. Archived from the original on 2008-05-17. Retrieved 2009-03-02.
  13. Berry, p. 65.
  14. Berry, p. 59.
  15. Berry, p. 60.
  16. 1 2 Clements, Marcelle (1994-04-03). ""The Blue Kite" Sails Beyond the Censors". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-03.
  17. Halligan, Fionnuala (1994-05-30). "In Surprise Move, Ministry Issues Blacklist: A Crackdown on Filmmakers". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-05-09.
  18. Yang, p. 93.
  19. Berry, p. 71-73.
  20. Branigan, Tania (2008-03-21). "Film and politics: it's all in the game". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-02.
  21. Though Tian's version is referred to as "Springtime" in a Small Town, rather than "Spring", its Chinese title is identical with the earlier film.
  22. Kemp, Philip (July 2003). "Springtime in a Small Town". BFI, Sight & Sound. Retrieved 2009-03-02.
  23. Two internet review aggregators, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, gave the film ratings of 100 and 89% respectively. See article for Springtime in a Small Town.
  24. Lim, Michael (2008-09-25). "Maggie Q to star in 'Wolf'". Variety. Retrieved 2008-12-13.
  25. "Berlinale: 1991 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2011-03-22.


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