The director’s widow opens her front door. A single strip light illuminates the living room, reflecting off a bronze bust of the late Tang Xiaodan in the entrance. Portraits of Tang, who died last year aged 102, line every wall. There’s one of him from 1955 bedecked in a beige suit, hair slicked and gaze fixed off camera. Another one, from 2010, shows a withered man in a wheelchair in front of the China Expo pavilion, clutching a stuffed Haibao.

Tang was one of China’s longest-serving directors. Beginning his career in the Leftist movement of the 1930s, he would go on to make 50 films, living and working across borders, wars and decades of socio-political turmoil. His films, including Reconnaissance Across the Yangtze and Red Sun, were some of the most popular during the Cultural Revolution, and he served the Party for much of his career. When he died, his obituary in the Oriental Morning Post read: ‘The saying “silence is golden” is used to describe Tang…he is the only director who managed to work before and after liberation as well as through the Cultural Revolution.’

Lan Weijie, his widow, ushers us into her former French Concession high rise and settles into a wicker chair. Aged 88, Lan is diminutive yet sprightly. Dressed simply in black trousers and a green tunic, she sports a silver pixie cut and is missing her bottom teeth. Over her shoulder a shelf bulges with mementos: watercolour oxen painted by Tang, VHS tapes, flattened gift bags, plastic awards and framed newspaper cuttings. Yet more possessions are packed in boxes shrouded in dust-sheets. It looks like Lan is readying for a move.

She starts at the beginning. Tang was born in Huaan, Fujian province, in 1910 and moved to Indonesia with his family aged six. ‘The experience influenced his life,’ Lan says, abandoning her chair to retrieve a biography with an introduction written by Tang himself. She reads: ‘“When I was young, living in Indonesia, I sometimes was taken to cinemas. I was amazed by the moving images on the screen: cowboys riding horses in the Wild West, Charlie Chaplin…I fell in love with film then. Later my mother bought me a small film projector in a toy store and my favourite thing to do was project The Great Train Robbery [1903] onto the wall.”’

The family returned to China in 1920. It wasn’t long before Tang was in trouble and expelled from university for participating in anti-Kuomintang student movements. Tang moved to Shanghai’s Hongkou district in 1929: ‘At that time, you could stay in the cinema with one ticket for the whole day as long as you didn’t walk out,’ says Lan. ‘My husband would just stay in the cinema watching the same film on repeat, reciting the lines and teaching himself how to shoot.’

On January 28, 1932, a Japanese aircraft carrier bombed Shanghai. Thousands of Japanese troops stormed their targets, including the de facto Japanese settlement in ‘Hongkew’ and other areas north of Suzhou Creek. The majority of the foreign settlements remained unscathed, so Tang fled to the French Concession where the Tian Yi Film Company was located. He began working as a set decorator for free.

For Tang it was the right place at the right time. The company was preparing to shoot The White Golden Dragon (1933) directed by Runje Shaw (the eldest of the Shaw Brother media moguls). But Shaw and the lead actor clashed and the film was assigned to Tang, who had gained a reputation for a steady temper. Between 1933 and 1948, Tang worked between Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, moving with the winds of political upheaval. (He had to leave Hong Kong after refusing to make a film glorifying Japan’s capture of the city.)

In 1948 he arrived at the China Movie Studio in Chongqing and met Lan. ‘Back then things like love at first sight didn’t exist,’ says Lan, who was working at the studio to earn money to support her seven siblings. ‘We spent every day together for nearly two years in Chongqing, but didn’t say anything that wasn’t above board.’ Eventually matchmaker colleagues intervened, and the two married and moved to Shanghai. ‘It’s a dull beginning, but we spent the following 70 years of our lives together,’ Lan says.

For the rest of his career, from the 1940s until the 1980s, Tang made films as dictated by the Party. ‘It wasn’t easy shooting films in this period,’ says Lan. ‘Most of his films shot after the liberation [in 1949] had a difficult history – you can imagine. The army would send a consultant to supervise these war-themed films. All the director could do was shoot, not speak.’

Yet it was during this period that Tang made the films for which he is remembered. Reconnaissance Across the Yangtze (1954), an action film glorifying the Cultural Revolution, resembles the socialist realism art of the time – straight-backed, square-jawed Communist forces investigate a Nationalist stronghold across the river. Tang’s mastery of the camera, though, is clearly evident, particularly the carefully framed moonlit scenes leading up to the fateful swim.

Tang’s personal favourite, yet most arduous work was Red Sun (1963), a war story about the Kuomintang and Communist Party. ‘The censoring process was all twists and turns and suggestions for revision from the Ministry of Culture, the film bureau and the army,’ says Lan. After suffering much public and media criticism, Tang’s reputation was spared when Chen Yi, a powerful official, watched the film and advised that it be compulsory viewing for the People’s Liberation Army.

Lan is candid when she talks of her husband’s political allegiance. ‘A reason my husband didn’t criticise the Communist Party is that he had deep feeling for the Party, which supported his career from when he was young,’ she says. A famous Tang Xiaodan quote from the 1950s goes: ‘I will never say what my favourite themes are. As long as I have an assignment from the Party I will finish it conscientiously and diligently.’ It was a work ethic that allowed Tang to make films well into old age.

Link to Time Out Shanghai