CHINA'S leaders should be proud that their country has produced some of the world's most exciting filmmakers in recent years. Yet fear seems to outweigh good sense where movies are concerned.
When the superb film ``Ju Dou'' was nominated for an Academy Award two years ago, Chinese authorities tried to yank it from the race, complaining that Zhang Yimou's powerful drama - banned in China - painted too unflattering a portrait of Chinese life.
More recently, Chen Kaige's epic Farewell My Concubine shared the Cannes Film Festival's top prize. And again the officials showed more pique than pride, barring the movie from exhibition in China because of some political implications and because one character - a male opera star specializing in female roles - is apparently a homosexual.
Happily, the spirit of Chinese cinema refuses to be squelched, and the atmosphere surrounding it may now be improving. ``Farewell My Concubine'' has been approved for release after a small amount of editing, albeit with a warning from censors that they are not reducing their vigilance toward future films.
And a healthy number of Chinese filmmakers keep working vigorously despite the bureaucratic obstacles they are liable to confront with each project.
This was demonstrated anew at last month's Montreal World Film Festival, which presented no fewer then seven movies listed as Chinese productions or coproductions. Among them were at least two that deserve high praise: ``Farewell My Concubine,'' having its first North American screenings, and Xie Fei's exquisite drama The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls, which came to Montreal after winning the Berlin festival's top award.
The quality that links these movies most closely is a vivid sense of Chinese historical evolution. ``Farewell My Concubine'' examines this on a grand scale, using the careers of two opera stars as a vehicle for tracing Chinese life from the 1920s through the 1970s.
The film's first hour concentrates on experiences under the old feudal system, showing how the chance for artistic training serves as both a difficult burden and a promising opportunity for the young protagonists. The second hour becomes more melodramatic as one of the main characters falls in love with a beautiful but dissolute woman, sparking an emotionally complex rivalry with his partner. The final portion of the film takes place during the Cultural Revolution, when art and ideology become inextricably mingled.
Of the movie's three main sections, the first and third are the strongest, using personal and cultural events to illuminate broad social and historical issues. The middle hour is less brilliant.
This is a minor quarrel with a major film, however - directed by Chen with extraordinary energy, and superbly acted by a talented cast including the magnetic Gong Li, known for her starring roles in Zhang's most exciting movies.
``The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls'' is more intimate and even more stirring. It takes place in a provincial village where a sesame-oilmaker is thrilled to learn that a wealthy Japanese woman wants to invest in her operation, upgrading its technology and increasing its output.
Another story line deals with the oilmaker's son, beset with mental and physical ailments, and with a young woman who is forced - through a financial debt - into becoming the man's wife.
At first, the film's two narrative lines appear to be unrelated except for their occurrence in the same village. But the movie's unity soon becomes apparent, since all of its elements are connected to the difficulties of adapting to a modern style of living - and more specifically, the impossibility of simply erasing the social and psychological habits that dominated premodern life for centuries.
On a social level, the townspeople think foreign investment and improved equipment will bring them squarely into the modern age, but they learn that progress is a less dramatic process than they'd hoped.
On a personal level, the sesame-oilmaker remembers with desperate grief how she was sold into marriage under the old society. She utterly fails to recognize that her money-based scheme to acquire a daughter-in-law is merely an updated version of the same sad scenario. She eventually sees the error of her plan and decides to reverse it, but it's clear to everyone that damage has been done and any correction will be hopelessly inadequate.
Directed and edited by Xie with uncommon thoughtfulness and sensitivity, ``The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls'' deserves a worldwide audience.
Also on view at Montreal was Consuming Sun, a Chinese production by John Zhang, who emigrated to the United States a few years ago. The film is a fictionalized biography of Mai Kebo, a Chinese author who received his education in Japan and later - during the violent confusion of the World War II era - was forced to become an interpreter for the Japanese armed forces.
The movie gives Mai a variety of reasons for accepting his collaborationist position, yet holds him morally responsible for his decisions.
The images are too static and the narrative too disjointed for the film to be called a complete success. It has strong moments, however, and affords a vivid lesson in Asian history.