New Year Films in Spring Festival: Documenting and Reviewing Life

Qi AI (Journalism and Communication School, Shandong University, China)

23 November 2023

During Spring Festival, going to the cinema for New Year comedies has become a consumption habit and part of the holiday ritual for many Chinese. New Year films are made to screen around the New Year holiday season and cater to the joyfully festive atmosphere. They depict the social changes happening in China over the past year.

Initially, in the 1920s, there were no strict genre requirements upon the films released in this season. The release was a marketing choice given China’s traditional year-end consumption of entertainment. The season was then flooded with both imported films like Monkey Business (dir. Norman Z. McLeod, 1931) and domestic ones like Between Tears and Laughter (Ti xiao yin yuan, dir. Zhang Shichuan, 1932). The resulting increase in seasonal competition led Chinese filmmakers to associate their filmmaking with the festival. Their works self-reflexively involved Lunar New Year celebration rituals and elements, from writing Spring Festival couplets and lighting firecrackers to preparing family reunion dinner and greeting relatives and friends.

A case in point is the 1937 film New Year’s Coin (Ya sui qian, dir. Zhang Shichuan). Made by Mingxin Film Company, the film describes a journey of one silver dollar, a girl’s luck money given by her grandparents on New Year’s Eve, passing from hand to hand. In Hong Kong, a Cantonese-language New Year comedy was released in the same year. Directed by Tang Xiaodan, the film Bloom and Prosper (Hua kai fu gui) tells a story of a family recovering the lottery they lost on New Year’s Eve, which is interwoven with a romance between a young man and woman.

Figure 1: The opening scene of ‘Happy New Year’ in New Year’s Coin, 1937

The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) discontinued the production of films of this category. The subsequent Chinese Civil War (1946-1949) continued the situation. From the 1950s, propaganda films had become mainstream in both Mainland China and Taiwan in a long time as the two sides had the demand for ideological consolidation. By comparison, the film category gained development within the Hong Kong film industry partly because of Chinese inhabitants’ nostalgic longing for home and the motherland. Regarding the mainland, similar films did not appear until the turn of the 1990s. Later, Feng Xiaogang’s works outshined others and became the most popular mainland version of the New Year films.

Both Hong Kong filmmakers and their mainland counterparts prefer the genre of comedy when making New Year films. Along with the mainland film industry’s development, more and more films were chosen to exhibit in this commercially viable season. This preference for comedy became less pronounced. For most of the films, what remains is their direct projection of situations of the societies of the time.

Hong Kong New Year films of the 1960s address Hong Kongers’ diasporic mentality and a collective homesickness pervading their society. The films’ themes usually revolve around homecoming, marriage and settlement. June Bride (Liu yue xin niang, dir. Tang Huang, 1960) and A Spring Celebration of the Swallow’s Return (Chun man hua kai yanzi gui, dir. Mok Hong-si, 1966), for instance, follow Chinese sojourners who desire to return home but fail and put down roots in Hong Kong.[i] Certain new features presented themselves in the 1980s. Hong Kong New Year films developed into comedy franchises. Clifton Ko Chi-Sum’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World series (Fu gui bi ren, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992) is a compelling case. Topics such as lottery and emigration to Canada are repeatedly represented in the series. They are given concurrent meanings, namely, being rich and the worry of the 1997 handover, which correspond to Hong Kongers’ common concerns of the time.

Figure 2: The scene of winning lottery in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1987

These concerns were even more evident in the comedies made in the 1990s as the deadline was approaching. The Stephen Chow vehicle film Fight Back to School 3 (Tao xue wei long, dir. Wong Jing, 1993) explicitly mentions the time point and captures many Hong Kong rich people’s distrust of the mainland. In another film starring him, All’s Well, Ends Well 97 (Jia you xi shi 97, dir. Alfred Cheung Kin-ting, 1997), a new character, a Beijing girl (played by Jacklyn Wu), appears and eventually becomes a member of the film’s Hong Kong family as the future daughter-in-law. Several misunderstandings and conflicts occur between the girl and the family. But the comedy ends with a grand celebration for the reopening of the girl’s restaurant in Hong Kong. Such reunion captures the indigenous people’s complex emotions regarding Hong Kong’s return to China.

Figure 3: The scene of writing Spring Festival couplets (the Chinese characters highlight the film’s celebration for the upcoming year of 1993, the year of the rooster in traditional Chinese culture) in Fight Back to School 3, 1993

Coincidentally in the early 1990s, there were also some mainland films set around and released in the Spring Festival holiday season. Yet, both mainland filmmakers and audiences did not call them New Year films at that time. Huang Jianzhong’s The Spring Festival (Guo nian, 1991), for instance, directly borrowed the name of the holiday but also was released three days before the Chinese New Year Day. It describes a series of family conflicts around money between parents and their adult children that finally culminate at their homecoming dinner. The conflicts highlight the social changes under the country’s concurrent economic reform.

Since 1994, Hong Kong New Year films have entered the mainland market under the import quota system the government initiated in the same year. Following this wave, mainland filmmakers produced their version of New Year film on the basis of their previous filmmaking related to the holiday. A batch of New Year comedies, typified by Feng’s films, sprung up.

Similarly, these films address contemporaneous social issues and widely held concerns, a series of problems caused by the country’s social transformations of the day. For example, the film A Tree in House (Mei shier tou zhe le, dir. Yang Yazhou, 1999) reflects the housing problem in Tianjing. Beautiful House (Mei li de jia, dir. An Zhanjun, 2000) concerns laid-off workers’ reemployment and their children’s schooling problems. Thanks to his continuous production, Feng’s New Year comedies clearly exhibit the social changes happening each year and popular concerns such as the massive wave of layoffs in state-owned enterprises (Dream Factory/Jia fang yi fang, 1997), going-abroad fever (Be There or Be Square/Bu jian bu san, 1998), labour disputes (Sorry Baby/Mei wan mei liao, 1999), WTO challenges (Big Shot’s Funeral/Da wan, 2001), the ethics of technology and extramarital affairs (Cell Phone/Shou ji, 2003), rural migrant workers and issues of conscience (A World Without Thieves/Tian xia wu zei, 2004), and marriage trends in China (If You Are The One/Fei cheng wu rao, 2008). The last film unprecedentedly touches upon the subject of homosexuality.

Figure 4: The opening scene of a cartoon tiger (which highlights the film’s celebration for the upcoming year of 1998, the year of the tiger in traditional Chinese culture) in Party A, Party B, 1997.

Representing these hot topics leads mainland New Year films to become visual summaries of annual changes in China, thereby reinforcing the association between the festival and the film category. It builds audience expectation, which has developed into a consumption habit. The lasting expectation fuels the popularity of mainland New Year films over the years and up to the present day.

Recent mainland New Year films still deal with annual hot topics, albeit in a limited number. Some of them are road trip comedies, such as Lost in Thailand (Tai jiong, dir. Xu Zheng, 2012) and Lost in Russia (Ma jiong, dir. Xu Zheng, 2020) which describe stories of Chinese outbound tourism and reflect the rise of the country’s economy. Some of them are tailored to the current patriotic sentiment of Chinese people, such as the forthcoming war film The Battle at Lake Changjin 2 (Changjing hu zhi Shuimen qiao, dir. Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam Chiu-Yin, 2022).

A diversification of genres suggests that the mainland New Year film has become a film category for the season. Comedy is just one of the options. Moreover, mainland New Year comedies have evolved into stories of nostalgic romance or dream-seeking, for example, films starring Shen Teng such as Crazy Alien (Feng kuang wai xing ren, dir. Ning Hao, 2019), Pegasus (Fei chi ren sheng, dir. Han Han, 2019) and Hi, Mom (Ni hao, Li Huanying, dir. Jia Ling, 2021). Such films indulge the mentality of the post-80s and post-90s generations. These Chinese, born in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, have become the major drivers of film consumption. So, are the filmmaking intentions and outcomes of these films also a document record and review of life?

[i] Fiona Yuk-Wa Law, “Timely festivity: Chinese New Year films (hesui pian) in the 1950s-1960s,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 4, no.2 (2010), 105-126.

Qi AI is a postdoctoral fellow in media and communication studies at the School of Journalism and Communication, Shandong University, China, where he is the associate director of Research Center for Culture, Art and Communication of Film and Teleplay. He is a visiting scholar at the School of International Communications of the University of Nottingham (Ningbo) and also a member of Shandong Film Association. He holds a Ph.D. in film and television studies from the University of Nottingham, UK. His research interests primarily include genre and stardom studies, film industries and regulation, and film festivals.

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