Famed Chinese Director Wu Tianming Dead at 74

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Called the “Godfather of the Fifth Generation,” the influential filmmaker helmed such 1980s features as “Life” and “The Old Well” and was the youngest head of Xi’an Film Studios.

Wu Tianming, the acclaimed Chinese director and former head of the influential Xi’an Film Studios, was found dead Tuesday of an apparent heart attack in his home in Beijing. He was 74.

Known as the “Godfather of the Fifth Generation,” Wu directed several celebrated films that reshaped Chinese cinema, including The Old Well (1986) and The King of Masks (1996). These films, along with Life (1984), CEO (2002) and his final feature, Song of the Phoenix (2013), earned praise by critics around the world.

His films were simple, resilient and full of humanity.

Born in Shan Xi Province in 1939, Wu developed an early interest in the theater and worked odd jobs at local playhouses in order to observe the actors at work. By the time he reached his teens, he had shifted interest to motion pictures, crediting Alexander Dovzhenko’s Poem of the Sea as the primary impetus for his filmmaking career. But first, he put in time as a stage actor and became a film player with Xi’an Film Studios.

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In the early 1970s, Wu enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy. He was soon hired by Xi’an Film Studios as an apprentice to Cui Wei, a revered professor. In 1979, Wu co-directed his first film, Tremors of Life, which earned awards from China’s Ministry of Culture and paved the way for his second co-helming effort, Blood Ties (1981).

International attention came upon the release of his solo directorial debut, River Without Buoys (1984), a film that explored the effects of the Cultural Revolution on three men traveling together down the Pushui River.

After the release of Old Well, the village where he shot the film changed its name to Old Well Village to remember him.

Old Well was based on true stories from the people in this village and it reflected the really poor and difficult living conditions they faced every day,” he recalled in an interview published in October. “They spend five months out of the year walking two miles every day to get water.

“I heard a story that a 70-year-old man went to get water on New Year’s Eve and when he finally returned home, he accidentally tripped over at his door. The water splashed all over the floor … he cried his heart out. Hearing those stories broke my heart. These stories were my reasons for making this film.”

As he was gaining stature as a filmmaker, Wu was offered the position of head of Xi’an Film Studios in the early 1980s. As the youngest person to head the studio, he fostered a creative environment for “Fifth Generation” directors -- the first filmmakers to graduate from the Beijing film school after its reopening at the end of the Cultural Revolution. (China’s directors are grouped into generations depending on which era they emerged.)

Under his aegis, such acclaimed motion pictures as Huang Jianxin’s The Black Cannon Incident (1985), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (1986), Chen Kaige’s King of the Children (1987) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) were produced.

These students mentored by Wu went on to create such global critical and commercial hits as Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, House of Flying Daggers and Hero, among others. 

Survivors include his wife, daughter and grandson. Memorial services are planned for both Beijing and Xi’an.

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