Chinese Helmer Wu Tianming Dies at 74

Chinese director Wu Tianming, who helmed several films that reshaped Chinese cinema, including “Old Well” and “King of Masks,” died of an apparent heart attack on March 4 in his home in Beijing. He was 74.

The filmmaker, known as the “Godfather of the Fifth Generation,” was the former head of Xi’an Film Studios, and the films he directed, also including “Life,” “CEO” and his final film, “Song of the Phoenix,” earned Wu worldwide critical acclaim and garnered him multiple awards.

Wu, a native of China’s Shan Xi Province, developed an early interest in the theater and worked odd jobs at local playhouses in order to observe the actors. He later worked as a stage actor and became a film player with Xi’an Film Studios. By the time he reached his teens, Wu’s interest shifted to motion pictures, and Dovzhenko’s “Poem of the Sea” served as the impetus for his filmmaking career.

To realize his dream of becoming a filmmaker, Wu enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1970s and was soon hired by Xi’an Film Studios as an apprentice to the revered Cui Wei.

Wu co-directed his first film, “Tremors of Life,” in 1979 and earned awards from China’s Ministry of Culture, which helped pave the way for his second co-helming effort, “Blood Ties,” in 1981. He made his solo directorial debut with 1983’s “River Without Buoys,” which explored the effects of the Cultural Revolution on three men traveling together down the Pushui River.

As head of Xi’an Film Studios, Wu helped foster a creative environment for the first filmmakers to graduate from the Beijing film school after its reopening at the end of the Cultural Revolution. This group came to be known as the “Fifth Generation.” Under Wu’s leadership, films including Huang Jianxin’s “The Black Cannon Incident,” Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “Horse Thief,” Chen Kaige’s “King of Children” and Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum” were produced. Other films made by directors Wu mentored include global critical and commercial hits such as “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Farewell My Concubine,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero.”

Wu is survived by his wife, daughter, and grandson. Memorial services will be held in both Beijing and Xi’an.

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