In the 2004 movie《Jasmine Flower》(aka《Jasmine Women》), the character played by Zhang Ziyi is captivated by the actor Gao Zhanfei, at first hidiing from her mother a movie magazine featuring a photo layout of her screen idol, and then slipping away to the movies, where she sits enthralled watching a film starring him. (For those who may wonder, the film is 1934's《A Bible for Girls》, which we will review here later, and the actress doing the scene with Gao is Hu Die.) When a producer approaches the star-struck teenager about entering movies herself, her first question to him is, "Do you know Gao Zhanfei?" Years later, that same young woman, now middle aged and now played by Joan Chen, believes her own daughter's boyfriend greatly resembles her screen idol, calling him a "young Gao Zhanfei." Lu Yi, the actor playing the boyfriend, does have the physical presence of Gao, tall and with an athletic build, a "young Gao" indeed. In spite of his screen magnetism and popularity, for some reason Gao Zhanfei has not been as remembered by future generations as his contemporary 1930s leading men, such as Jin Yan and Zhao Dan. But Gao Zhanfei was one of China's most popular male stars of the 1930s and 40s, always ranking high in fan popularity polls, and a major box office draw, especially with women. In the mid-1920s, the dominant male onscreen image had been the delicately featured, slightly built and somewhat effeminate young man most appropriate for the "mandarin ducks and butterflies" romantic genres. But with martial arts fantasies becoming the rage, a new ideal of manhood emerged, the athletic and macho male that a more modern generation might call a "hunk." And while Gao Zhanfei's acting abilities might be suspect, there was no questioning the fact that his screen appearances set female hearts fluttering.
How popular was Gao Zhanfei? It is common knowledge among those familiar with Chinese movie history that in 1932, the famous actor and fellow screen idol Jin Yan was elected "Emperor of Movies" in a public poll. But less well known is that just two years later, in 1934 and with the "Emperor" at the peak of his career, another actor was voted "Best Actor" in head-to-head competition with Jin Yan. This other actor was Gao Zhanfei.
Gao Zhanfei 高占非 was born in October, 1904 in Tianjin. He was initially headed for a military career, enrolled as a student at the Baoding Military Academy in Hebei, where one of his classmates was a young man named Wang Yuanlong. It isn't recorded how the two young military cadets became so obsessed with movies (and disillusioned with military life) that they rejected their families' plans in order to make major career changes; but in 1924, Gao and Wang left school to go to the Hollywood of the East -- Shanghai -- and pursue their mutual dream: to become a part of China's fledgling cinema industry. Wang secured their entry: he knew someone who introduced them to Zhu Shouju, head of the Da Zhonghua Baihe studio, and while Zhu did not hire Gao, he recommended the former military cadet to Ouyang Yuqian, head of the newly founded Xingguang ("Starlight") movie studio, who cast Gao in the company's first movie. This initial production also proved to be the studio's last, as it collapsed financially soon afterwards. But Gao had been spotted by Zhang Shichuan, top director at Mingxing, Shanghai's largest studio, and he recruited Gao as a handsome and virile prospect, a raw talent lacking only training and experience. For the next three years, Gao Zhanfei attended Mingxing's acting classes while doing various uncredited bit parts in the studio's productions. But during this "apprenticeship" two significant events occurred in his life: first, he met a young actress at the Mingxing studio, Gao Qianping, and the two fell in love; second, he met and became close friends with Cai Chusheng, an assistant director on the verge of what would become a legendary career. The two aspiring young filmmakers became roommates, and their friendship eventually led to their making a joint move to the new Lianhua studio in 1931. [right, Cai Chusheng]
Later, Gao Zhanfei and Gao Qianping were married. (Although the couple shared the same surname - Gao - they were unrelated until their marriage.) They were devoted to each other, and had several children. Film fans and magazines considered "Big Gao" and "Little Gao" to be one of the movie industry's ideal couples, although like another screen couple of the time - Jin Yan and Wang Renmei - their relationship did not survive the coming war. Gao Qianping was a well-known actress, her own career on the rise at the time she met Gao Zhanfei. She had major roles in numerous films of the era, including such successes as《Children of Our Time》(1933),《Spring Silkworms》(1933)《Golden Valley》(1934),《A Bible For Girls》(1934) and《Homesickness》(1935), all of which belonged to the burgeoning "left-wing" film movement. But in 1936, at the height of her popularity, Gao Qianping made an unorthodox career decision and left motion pictures to go back to school, studying law at the Shanghai University of Law and Politics. She must have been successful, as four years later a directory of Shanghai lawyers included her in its listings, and again in the late 1940s.
Soon after Gao Zhanfei joined Lianhua, and still a relative unknown, his big break came when his close friend and roommate Cai Chusheng was assigned to write and direct《Spring in the South》(1932). Cai asked Gao Zhanfei to play the male lead opposite young Chen Yanyan, who the studio was grooming as a star. A romantic tragedy, the film propelled three people to overnight stardom: Gao Zhanfei, Chen Yanyan, and writer/director Cai Chusheng. After this, Gao joined Jin Yan as a mainstay leading man at Lianhua, appearing with Li Lili in《Daybreak》, with Wang Renmei in《Morning in the Metropolis》and Ruan Lingyu in《Perfumed Snowy Sea》. His co-starring in more than 10 major productions with Lianhua's "Four Great Dan" [young female leads] (Ruan Lingyu, Chen Yanyan, Wang Renmei, Li Lili) solidified his popularity and paved the way for his outstanding results in the 1934 "star elections."
But in 1934, Gao Zhanfei left Lianhua and returned to Mingxing. This time around, the studio decided to groom him as its "chief young leading man," repeatedly casting him opposite its "chief leading lady", the "Movie Empress" Hu Die, pairing them in such major films as《A Bible for Girls》,《Flowers Reborn》,《Orchid in a Empty Valley》,《Downtrodden Peach Blossom》,《Brothers》... This was the zenith of Gao's career. (We will discuss each of these films in upcoming posts.)
[left: in《Downtrodden Peach Blossom》(1935), with Hu Die on the left and Gong Jianong, center]
Eight Years of Chaos
In 1935, as the Japanese threat grew, Gao Zhanfei made the overtly anti-Japanese movie《Loyal Patriots》. (Until then, Chinese government policy confined the studios to making patriotic films which vaguely referred to "the enemy.") After the outbreak of full-scale war in 1937, Gao Zhanfei said goodbye to his wife and children and traveled alone to Wuhan to make patriotic films advocating resistance while bolstering civilian morale. After Wuhan fell, he went to Chongqing and made《The Vast Sky》, about Chinese airmen. Although leaving for the rear area was an admirable patriotic gesture, it proved to be a mistake, for in wartime many things happen beyond the control of the individuals caught up in it, and in the years away from his family, Gao succumbed to loneliness and temptation. He began a romantic relationship with someone Chinese sources identify only as a "well-known movie actress" and they cohabited for a few years. When the couple at last broke up, he returned in 1942 to occupied Shanghai.
After returning to Shanghai, Gao made films for Huaying, a wartime studio which the Japanese allowed to make entertainment films for the residents of the occupied city as well as some other movies which, although supposedly non-political, usually carried an anti-Western message. One of the latter, in which Gao Zhanfei appeared, was 1943's《Everlasting Fame》, the story of the incorruptible Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785-1850), and his courageous efforts to stamp out the evil of opium in Guangzhou, efforts which resulted in the Sino-British Opium War of 1840-2. The film was made at the initiative of Japanese authorities in China, and was an attempt to foment anti-British feeling among the Chinese people while making the Japanese occupation of China more acceptable.
But Gao Zhanfei also returned to find his marriage in a hopeless shambles: news of his wartime affair had spread to Shanghai, and while Gao Qianping accepted his return after five years of separation, their previous relationship was at an end. They obtained a quiet divorce, and while he was allowed to move back into the family home, the couple's relationship was now, as one Chinese publication expressed it, "housemates but not roommates," or in the words of an old American song, "just friends, lovers no more."
Farewell to Film
In 1948, Gao Zhanfei headed south to Hong Kong, where he made four Mandarin language films, returning to Shanghai in 1950. His last screen appearance was in 1952's《Fang Zhenzhu》adapted from a novel by Lao She. In the film, Gao played a thoroughly nasty character, a lascivious and degenerate Chinese general who collaborates with the Japanese in persecuting the film's title character, a patriotic entertainer. By this time, Gao was in middle age, overweight, his matinee idol good looks gone.
After leaving movies, he went into business selling fire protection equipment. He retired from this in 1964, but soon afterwards the chaos of the "Cultural Revolution" descended on China, and like so many other Chinese artists of the classical era, Gao Zhanfei was subjected to relentless persecution. On the cold winter night of December 26, 1969, the one-time matinee idol gave up and closed his eyes for the last time, age 65.
Filmography (all as actor):
[Note: although Gao Zhanfei is believed to have appeared in over 100 movies in his career, this filmography is incomplete, for early in his career Gao was in many movies in which he had uncredited roles, and the written records regarding some of his World War II movies are lost, as are the films.]
Strange Woman ... Zou Kecheng
The Little Detective
Blood of the Lovers ... Third Doctor
Papa Loves Mama ... Zhang Guangzhu
An Actress's Revenge (aka Blind Love) ... Yu Runan
Hot-Blooded Man (aka Her Love) ... Zhang Qisheng
A Duel of Swordsmen
New Journey to the West, II ... building commission member B
A Red Egg
Pink Dream ... Luo Wen
Spring in the South ... Hong Yu
Meet the National Crisis Together ... eldest son
Stirring of Love
Early Morning in the Metropolis ... Xu Qinling
Daybreak ... Cousin Zhang
Wind ... Xiao Ming
Pear Blossom in the Storm ... Liu Liangcai
Cottom Blossom Village ... Wang Ahua
Return ... Gu Bin
A Bible For Girls ... Gao Guojie
Perfumed Snowy Sea ... Gao Zhanfei
Give Back My Home ... Huang Yingwu
The Iron Bird ... Gao Xiang
Bigamy ... Huang Wenhua
Big Family ... Fan Zuji
Loyal Patriots (aka Soul of a Nation) ... Wu Xiaowen
The Boatman's Daughter ... Fuer
Downtrodden Peach Blossom ... Liu Huajian
Brothers ... Zhong Qizhi
Spring Flower ... Gao Ming
Secret Code ... Zhang Boping
Night Rain by the Xiang River ... Zhang Youxin
The Vast Sky ... Gao Fei
Everlasting Fame (aka Eternity) ... Lin Zexu
Everlasting Greeen (HK) ... Huang Haishan
The Soul of China (HK) ... Du Hu
The Hunchbacked Dragon (HK) ... Wang Dalong
Floating Family (HK) ... Yu Jinhua
The Blood-Stained Begonia ... Liu Dakui
Fang Zhenzhu ... the general
Guo, Hua. Lao Yingxing - Lao Yingpian (Old Movies - Old Stars). Beijing: China Film Press, 1998. pp.41-43.
Yang, Biao . "Shanghai's hottest male star of the 1930s and 40s -- Gao Zhanfei." [posted July 10, 2010; retrieved February 21, 2012]
Zhao, Shihui. Cinema Anecdotes. Zhengzhou: Elephant Press, 1998.
[In addition, Gao Zhanfei is a frequent topic of Chinese movie blogs, and a Baidu blog search produces other useful sources]