With the advent of the 1930s, film changed from functioning solely as entertainment to reflecting social life realistically. Chinese filmmakers also began to grasp the basic law of film, to move beyond the limits of the stage, and began producing modern dramatic films with suspenseful plots and performances that favored realism over stylization.
This progressive period lasted until the late 1940s, nourishing important directors such as Cai Chusheng, Wu Yonggang, Fei Mu, Sun Yu, and Zheng Junli, and actors and actresses such as Ruan Lingyu, Hu Die, Jin Yan, and Zhao Dan. Responsible for the biggest box-office draws of both the 1930s ( The Life of Fishermen ) and the 1940s Yi jiang chun shui xiang dong liu ( The Spring River Flows East , 1947), Cai Chusheng made films that were well knit, rich in connotation, and broad in social background. Among Wu Yonggang's (1910–1935) twenty-seven films was The Goddess, a classic that starred Ruan Lingyu, the first film actress to win extensive public praise, who performed in twenty-nine movies in her short twenty-five-year lifetime. Hu Die was known for her leading role in the first sound movie and for playing dual roles in Twin Sisters , while Jin Yan, called the emperor of Chinese cinema in the 1930s, usually portrayed intellectuals.
The Second Generation came into prominence when the Japanese invaded China in 1937, and many of their films were associated with resistance and the fight against imperialism. From 1931 to 1937 films often reflected disasters brought about by the Japanese invasion, such as Sun Yu's Da lu ( The Great Road , 1934) and Xu Xingzhi's Feng yun er nü ( Sons and Daughters in Stormy Years , 1935); a second stage (July 1937–August 1945) portrayed the heroism of the Chinese against Japanese aggression, as in Shi Dongshan's Bao wei wo men de tu di ( Defend Our Nation , 1938), Ying Yunwei's Ba bai zhuang shi (Eight hundred heroes, 1938), and films of the Yan'an Cinema Troupe under the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Postwar movies until Mao's coming to power in 1949 both analyzed and reviewed the war and the reasons for victory and focused on the strife in ordinary people's lives as the Communist Party and Kuomintang battled for control of the government. The Spring River Flows East depicted wartime struggles of the people and the humiliations they faced in the postwar period, while other films such as Tang Xiaodan's Tian tang chun meng ( Transient Joy in Heaven , 1947), Shen Fu's Wan jia deng huo ( Lights of Myriad Families , 1948), and Zheng Junli's Wuya yu ma que ( Crows and Sparrows , 1949) exposed other dark sides of society at the time.