The 1940s marked the start of the heyday of Japanese Military Propaganda films in Chinese cinema. Alittle history is necessary here...Japan invaded China in 1937 at a hurricane speed spreading from Beijing to Nanjing to Wuhan, Guangzhou,etc such that by 1940, most of the populated Eastern Coastal area of China was under Japanese occupation and the majority of China's cities and population were under Japanese military control.
Shanghai was split into different areas, with the Chinese controlled parts of the city being over 70% of the city and the French and International Concession area making up the most prosperous part of the city and roughly 25% of the city area. There was also a small japanese concession area pre-war. The Chinese area of Shanghai fell to the Japanese in 1937 after three mths of heavy casualty fighting and thus many filmmakers went into the unoccupied French/International Concession area of Shanghai in hiding. This area unoccupied by Japanese Army (Japan only declared war on the Allies in 1941) was a safehaven for Chinese intellectuals,etc but its safety was always at the mercy of the Japanese Army since the surrounding areas and most of Shanghai were already under Japanese military control.
This period in history is called 'Orphan Island Shanghai' referring to the 'island oasis' parts of Shanghai unoccupied by Japan until Pearl Harbor and the subsequent moving in of Japanese troops and interning of Allied citizens of the French/International Concession area of Shanghai as well in 1941.
During the anti-Japanese war 1937-1945, as the Japanese speed of invasion was so unprecedented, there was very little facilities/equipments to make films given that almost all the cities of China were under Japanese occupation. In the occupied territories, the Japanese Army forced filmmakers and companies to collaborate by setting up Chinese film production companies nominally under Chinese control but in effect managed and censored by the Japanese occupation army. These film companies were to produce films in line with Japan's Greater East Asia War and military policy to promote the invasion/occupation of China as somehow necessary and justified. During this wartime period, one star stood out. She became the most famous actress/singer arguably during the wartime period and can be said to have become famous directly as a result of the Japanese wartime propaganda policy which sought to create the ideal 'propaganda wartime star' to pacify the Chinese resistance as well as garner support from the homefront in Japan for the war in China.
Her name was Li Xiang Lan (李香蘭). Until now, this name is still well-known amongst many Chinese ppl and her songs are still popular amongst segments of the older generation. She was part of the ManEi Film Production Company set up by the Puppet Government of Manchuria to assist Japan in its wartime propaganda. What many ppl didn't know then, and many still do not know now (besides Japanese ppl and the avid historians like me!) is that Li Xiang Lan was actually a Japanese woman born and bred in Manchuria (now, NorthEastern China). Her grandfather was a keen fan of Chinese history/studies and moved the family to Manchuria in the early 20th Century. She was born in a place called Fushun, China and grew up speaking Japanese at home, Chinese in school and socially, and also taking English lessons at a very young age.
The Japanese military felt that it would be good to 'create' an ideal wartime propaganda idol and actively promoted her as a Manchurian-born Chinese girl whom spoke fluent Japanese and Chinese and represented the goodwill of China and Japan. She appeared in many wartime propaganda movies which emphasized the positive role model of Japan and the backwards nature of China. Her characters can be read to represent 'China' and the male lead 'Japan' and the Japanese male is always shown as modern, bright, and leading whilst her Chinese character as mystical, oriental, backwards, and in need of salvation (read: China needs Japan's guidance and occupation).
After the war, she was tried for being a traitor to China for having appeared in such propaganda films but was deported to Japan after authorities realised her Japanese ethnicity and nationality. She later wrote in her memoir (i've read it, in Japanese no less! very challenging read for my Japanese skills.) how she regretted appearing in such wartime movies which were propaganda and hurt the Chinese ppl, and China, which she regards as her second home. After the war, she reverted back to her real Japanese name Yamaguchi Yoshiko and appeared in many Japanese films speaking Japanese as well as a few Mandarin language Hong Kong films in the 1950s. She even appeared in Hollywood films speaking English due to her early English classes.
Another star famous in the 1940s was Chen Yun Shang. She appeared in many films and was one of the few to participate in a Japanese-backed film in the early 1940s when many actors/actresses/directors refused to colloborate with the Japanese. After the war, she was tried for treason for having appeared in the film but it seems she was granted a pardon. The film in question was an ancient costume one and did not have any direct propaganda link with the war going on. It was more of an entertainment film produced by the Japanese.
And of cos, by the late 1940s, there was one sexy siren in Shanghai renowned for her sexy image. It was said she was the most sexy symbol at the time and her name was Bai Guang (白光). She appeared in movies as the sultry prostitute or mistress, and was the sex object of every Chinese man it seemed. One of her most famous films was made just before the takeover of Shanghai by the Communist in 1949 called 'a Loose Woman's Heart'( 荡妇心)
Links (Have a Look! These are the important bits of this series of posts):
1)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGQblCBvOBU (Bai Guang's a 'Loose Woman's Heart')
2)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahUr1fF7ISo ('China Nites' 1940 One of Li Xiang Lan's Most Famous Films)
3)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk79hTJe0jo&feature=related (Li Xiang Lan's famous song 'He Ri Jun Zai Lai')
4) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItjQVSBCFRc&feature=fvw(Li Xiang Lan in US Movie 'Bamboo House' 1955)5)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1CZDgwXgnI&feature=related (One of my fav's Li Xiang Lan's rendition of Ye Lai Xiang at her final show announcing her retirement from film.)
This is simply a summary of the films of that era, and like all posts in this series, Chinese cinema of each decade is simply too vast and rich for me to comprehensively deal with so i shall only be summarising the stars/movies which i think speak to me personally or are representative of the era...going on to 1950s in the next post...