Interview: Noah Cowan on TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema



Editor’s Notes: The following interview with TIFF Bell Lightbox Artistic Director Noah Cowan is part of our coverage for TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema which runs from June 5th to August 11th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

Perhaps the largest show the young TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto has undertaken, the Century of Chinese Cinema (CCC) is a film programmer’s wet dream. Artistic director Noah Cowan (kind of an interviewer’s wet dream: indulgent with time and tangential questions) appears to have achieved the impossible: a magical meld of mainstream classics drawing in the civilians and obscure masterpieces fulfilling the film nut’s completist fetish.

Ambitious in only the way any serious attempt to understand China can be, the program is the result of a four-way collaboration between TIFF, Taiwan Film Archive, Hong Kong Film Archive, and the China Film Archive. The China Film Archive is probably the world’s only archive to be guarded by an army cadre. “So it’s not going anywhere!” laughs Cowan, an expansive talker, able to explicate in fluid prose without sounding like he is quoting press releases.

Cowan downplays any perceived comprehensiveness in the 80 films selected to screen, a huge number by curatorial standards. “I think China lends itself more to a larger survey look than other national cinemas,” he says at the start of our sit-down interview. Though his publicist has only given me fifteen minutes, we end up talking for forty, and finish less than an hour before Cowan has the enviable honour of introducing a spry Jackie Chan for a screening of The Drunken Master.

Noah+Cowan+BMidFE5e4uYm “I’d never call it comprehensive,” he says, “there are two hundred films – at least – we’d have to include to do that.” Shoving Chinese cinema – everything from elegant 1960s wuxia to Hong Kong shoot-em-up to Gone With the Wind-style World War II epics – into a seal-tight canon is a quixotic enterprise. At least temporally, all the major eras are touched upon. Cowan’s selection (in digital and, celluloid nerds will be happy to note, original print) ranges from the largely lost silent era to the 21st century.

“Chinese cinema has always been produced simultaneously in so many areas,” Cowan stresses. Unlike America, which has Hollywood, or France, which has Paris, China has never had an all-dominant filmmaking metropole. “Even today, when there seems to be a be a certain centralization in Beijing, it only lasts so long before there’s a new movement in Hong Kong, or Shanghai. I don’t know what it is about Chinese culture but it seems to resist this centrifugal force.”

As any first-year Chinese history student can tell you, the rise and fall of Middle Kingdom dynasties mirrors follows the push-and-pull between unity and polarization. “Those periods of disunion,” muses Cowan, a specialist on Chinese cinema, and, it seems, very well-read on Chinese sociology, “happen to be the times when the greatest creative ferment occurs.”

Now, we find ourselves in a relatively unified period. Hong Kong auteurs like Wang Kar-wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love) and John Woo (The Killer, A Better Tomorrow) are making grander high-budget extravaganzas funded from the mainland’s resources (and watched by the ever-vigilant censors). Good thing, or bad thing?

“What we’re seeing is a very common trend throughout the history of film,” says Cowan, ignoring my invitation to scold Wang and Woo for selling out. “It’s just that Chinese filmmakers haven’t been allowed to have extended careers in the way that they have now. We haven’t seen this playing out of late-stage careers of these filmmakers. As one of my colleagues put it, they become ‘infatuated with their own baroque’. Zhang Yimou (Hero) has almost made 30 movies! At that point, your own style becomes your greatest influence, and the circle starts to turn in on itself.”

“The fear is that these big-name directors are sucking up all the resources. How they’re going to redeploy resources to ensure that there are going to be generations underground…” Cowan leaves his sentence hanging for a moment before beaming a grin. “I’m confident that this is going to sort itself out. We don’t have to put all our eggs in the massive epic basket.”

As curator of a project somewhat dependent on Beijing’s backing, you’d think Cowan’s opinions on China would be squeaky clean. But, refreshingly, he is not jumping on the China-is-great bandwagon. “The fact that today the same Fourth or Fifth Generation and Second Wave Hong Kong talent [referring to artists who got their start in the late 80s]are dominating the large-budget movies means that the Sixth Generation reaction wasn’t enough! There probably needs to be another reaction in mainland China.”

Cowan predicts a revolt against the “highly patriotic” and “highly-staged” high budget historical epics. But, as he himself admits, who knows.

“Many of us believe that you can’t understand your future unless you understand your past,” says Cowan, speaking for the Chines archivists he worked with. “The danger in China right now us that not enough people are actually thinking about their cinema pasts. If we can champion what’s happening in Chinese cinema, not just in North America but in China as well, we might help those young Chinese filmmakers absorb lessons from the past.”

Easier said than done, but if the CCC means anything, it shows willingness from the PRC to open up the Pandora’s box of its short existence. “One of the things that the Cultural Revolution brought was the erasing of the past – ‘don’t bother with what we did then, we’re doing this now’ – and that’s got to end. Culture is built on foundations. We’re at a point now where the government of China has come around to that point of view and is looking for a way to help that process.”

With a smile that encompasses the satisfaction of rediscovering cinema culture, restoring lost classics, and introducing Jackie Chan to some of his most ardent fans, Cowan adds: “And I can only welcome that.”


About Author

Alex is a recent University of Toronto graduate. He is studying Mandarin, going to film festivals, and prepping on his film lore like QT in the 80s. If you're in Beijing over the next few years and do film journalism, get in touch!