When Wu Tianming died in March 2014, commentators around the world were aware that a page of Chinese film history had definitely been turned. Born in 1939, Wu had to wait, like many people of his generation, for the end of the Cultural Revolution to be able to start making films. After co-directing a first feature, Reverberations of Life (Shenghuo de chanyin, 1979) with Teng Wenji, he was appointed deputy director of the Xi’an Film Studio, then promoted to head. At 45, he was the youngest man to occupy such a position in China at the time.
The studio was where he left his biggest mark, continuing to direct as he produced the work of young directors who became famous as “The Fifth Generation”: The Black Cannon Incident (Hei pao shijian, 1985) by Huang Jianxin, The Horse Thief (Dao ma zei 1986) by Tian Zhuangzhuang, King of the Children (Haizi wang, 1987) by Chen Kaige, and Desperation (Zhuihou de fengkuang, 1987) by Zhou Xiaowen.
Wu’s feature River Without Buoys (Meiyou hangbiao de heliu, 1982), following the lives of three men working as rafters on the Xiao River, is credited as the cinematic harbinger of the post-Cultural Revolution “thaw,” and was followed by Life (Rensheng, 1984), about the travails of a young rural schoolteacher facing an environment of corruption.
For his next project, Wu cunningly and elegantly combined his two vocations. A graduate from the Beijing Film Academy’s Cinematography Department wanted to become a director. He had already left his mark as the cinematographer for major Fifth Generation films produced though the Guangxi Film Studio – Zhang Junzhao’s One and Eight (Yi ge he ba ge, 1984), Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (Huang Tudi, 1984) and The Big Parade (Da yue bing, 1986). His name was Zhang Yimou, and not only was he skilled with the camera, but Wu sensed that the camera loved him: he was both good-looking and charismatic. Interviewed in 1990 (1), Zhang recounted that Wu presented him with an offer he couldn’t resist: he would shoot The Old Well (in collaboration with Chen Wangcai) and star in the film, and in exchange Wu would produce Zhang’s debut feature, Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang, 1987).
The Old Well turned out to be Wu’s most successful film, winning the Grand Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and paving what could have been a road to international success. Instead – and accurate historical facts may take a while to emerge – as Wu was traveling through North America the crackdown of June 4, 1989 took place, and either something he said, or a fallacious report, made his return to China impossible.
He stayed in the Los Angeles Chinese suburb of Monterey Park, opening a modest video store with his nephew. The place was a treasure trove of impossible-to-find VHS tapes, and, as I was writing a book on Chinese cinema at the time, I would visit him often. “This is the continuation of my work to promote new Chinese cinema,” he would say smilingly, always the modest, compassionate and gracious gentleman.
A few years later, Wu was finally able to go home and direct a few more movies, but he was not reinstated at the Xi’an Film Studio, which cut short the ground-breaking role he had played in the history of Chinese cinema.
Meanwhile, The Old Well has masterfully resisted the passing of time and its influence keeps growing. Its minutely observed, yet humorous and non-ideological depiction of the lives of ordinary people, and its generous rendering of the bawdy folk culture existing in rural areas, have been a source of inspiration for cutting-edge filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke or the younger Hao Jie, who so lovingly described the sexual obsessions of peasants in Single Man (Guanggun’er, 2010) and The Love Songs of Tiedan (Mei Jie, 2012).
The Old Well does not pit a hero figure or a victimised protagonist against a bad system. It’s a multi-polar film, in which nature, common greed, lust, passivity, gossip, bureaucratic pettiness and each character’s personal agenda play a part, like many instruments in an orchestra, allowing for strident or comical dissonances, or “values clashing with each other.” (2)
Old Well, a Taihang Mountains village in the arid northeastern Loess Plateau, has been without water for generations. Hundreds of wells have been dug, but they all ended up dry. Returning home after studying engineering, Sun Wangquan (Zhang Yimou), represents hope for the villagers. He is sweet on another educated youth, Zhao Qiaoying (Liang Yujin), but his domineering father has arranged for his wedding with a beautiful widow, Duan Xifeng (Lv Liping) (3).
In spite of the difficulties of the rugged terrain, Wangquan accepts the task of digging yet another well, with the help of his younger brother, Wangcai, a sexually-obsessed slacker, and a reluctant Qiaoying. The well collapses, killing Wangcai and trapping the other two. In an echo of a similar scene in Emile Zola’s coal-mining novel Germinal, Wangquan and Qiaoying, believing they are going to die, make love.
Aboveground, the villagers have teamed up and manage to rescue them. Things return to normal: Wangquang goes back to his now-pregnant wife and Qiaoying leaves Old Well forever.
Later, at Wangcai’s funeral, an official comes to investigate, having heard that one of the villagers commissioned “bawdy performances” from a troupe of itinerant singers. Usually considered a marginal character in the film, Wangcai, the “bad” little brother who steals women’s underwear and who had, indeed, brought the troupe of singers to the village, may be its most modern – a link to Hao Jie’s horny peasant bachelors. The title of the film is, ultimately, a double entendre, as the phrases “stirring of ripples in an old well” (Gujing qingbo) and “dredging an old well” (taogujing) mean re-awakening a woman’s sexuality. (4)
Wangquan, the well digger, fulfils this function for both Xifeng and Qiaoying, turning Zhang Yimou into a universal object of desire for the spectator. A fine critic of Chinese mores and psychology, Wu Tianming also had a keen sense of humour.
1. Bérénice Reynaud, unpublished interview with Zhang Yimou, Taiyuan, December 1990, translated by Shan Dongbing.
2. Wu Tianming quoted in Harry H. Kuoshu, Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society (Carbondale: SIU Press, 2002), p. 234.
3. This was Lv Liping’s third film role, triggering a brilliant career in which she graced the films of Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite/Lan fengzheng, 1993), Zhang Yang, Yu Lik-wai, Peng Xiaolian, Jia Zhangke (24 City/Ershisi cheng ji, 2008), Zhang Yimou and others.
4. See Rey Chow, Primitive Passions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 69.
The Old Well (Lao jing) (1987 People’s Republic of China 130 mins)
Prod Co: Xi’an Film Studio Prod: Dir: Wu Tianming Scr: Zheng Yi Phot: Zhang Yimou, Chen Wangcai Ed: Chen Dali Art Dir: Yang Gang Mus: Xu Youfu
Cast: Zhang Yimou, Liang Yujin, Niu Xingli, Lv Liping
NB: Names in this article follow the Chinese order, with family names first.