WU TIANMING came into his own in the Chinese culture wars of the late 1980s. He’d been a “movie brat,” a village kid in love with films since childhood, and he first thought that he’d like to be an actor. In 1960, aged twenty, he managed to get into a training class for film acting run by the Xi’an Film Studio, of China’s sixteen state-run studios the one nearest to his home in Sanyuan, Shaanxi Province. Having joined the studio’s payroll he did some bit-parts in the studio’s productions of the early 1960s, but his dreams of stardom ended—along with almost everything else in the film industry—in 1966, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution turned most areas of Chinese life upside-down. Wu never talked about how he got through the “years of turmoil” but we know that he came out of them wanting to be a director. He spent the last three years of the Cultural Revolution (1974-76) studying directing at the partly re-opened Beijing Film Academy.

Back in Xi’an, he co-directed two features with his friend Teng Wenji and then made his debut as a solo director with River Without Buoys (Meiyou Hangbiao de Heliu) in 1982. It’s hard to overstate the impact this film had in China at the time. First, it was the most accomplished and original movie ever to come out of Xi’an Film Studio, a less than lustrous production center founded only to pay lip service to the communist government’s policies of de-centralization and regionalism. Second, its tale of rafters on the Xiao River played into the contemporary fashion for “scar fiction”—novels, poems, and films which lamented the emotional and psychological wounds inflicted on ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution—but transcended the genre by focusing on surly, hard-bitten men and doing without tear-jerk sentimentality. Shot entirely on location with an almost tactile immediacy, the film gave veteran star Li Wei (who had made his screen debut thirty-four years earlier in Fei Mu’s legendary Spring in a Small Town) his last great role as Pan Laowu, a hard-ass loner unjustly criticized by extremist leftists.

The prestige, the commercial success, and the emotional resonances of River Without Buoys led to Wu Tianming’s appointment as the new head of Xi’an Film Studio in 1983. Approaching his forty-fifth birthday, he was the youngest studio head in the PRC and, according to a 1987 New York Times report by Edward A. Gargan, immediately made his presence felt by telling the studio staff it was shameful that so many Xi’an Studio films appeared on “Year’s Worst” lists. A good five years before Deng Xiaoping called for sweeping economic reforms in the public sector, Wu began making radical changes in the studio. He went straight into production of his own new feature Life (Rensheng, 1984), attacking what he defined as the three main problems in Chinese society: having to accept assigned posts rather than choose one’s own employment, the practices of nepotism and favoritism, and “unhealthy tendencies in the Party.” All but unnoticed outside China, the film created national shockwaves at home and fueled intense debate.

Life inaugurated a policy of producing “westerns”—by which Wu meant movies with deep roots in the West China regions around Xi’an, although one of the films he greenlit, He Ping’s The Swordsman in Double-flag Town, actually was a brilliant “translation” of codes and conventions from the American Western. On top of high-grade entertainments, Wu insisted on producing a number of tansuo pian—literally “experimental films”—which he saw as important for raising aesthetic and conceptual standards, regardless of their commercial performance. They included Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (Daoma Zei, 1986), shot in Tibet and Gansu, and Chen Kaige’s King of the Children (Haizi Wang, 1987), shot in Yunnan; both films obliquely reflected their directors’ experiences in the Cultural Revolution.

By employing “Fifth Generation” directors like Tian and Chen and allowing them to make defiantly non-commercial films, Wu found himself at odds with Wu Yigong at the Shanghai Film Studio, who regularly spoke out against “elitist” films which the mass audience couldn’t understand or relate to. But Wu Tianming prevailed, not least because his once-moribund studio produced as many hits as Shanghai did, but also because his tansuo pian were premiered in international festivals and acclaimed as breakers of a “new wave” in Chinese cinema.

Wu cemented his strategic alliance with the “Fifth Generation” by making a deal with Chen Kaige’s cinematographer Zhang Yimou: in return for letting him turn director to make Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang, 1987), Zhang agreed to act in Wu Tianming’s new film Old Well (Lao Jing, 1987) as well as supervising its cinematography. Both films took the China market by storm and went on to achieve considerable international success. These triumphs strengthened and emboldened Wu. When the head of Shaanxi Propaganda Bureau criticized his policies, Wu Tianming fought back by publicly denouncing him as “a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand films but wants to control filmmaking.” As the International Herald Tribune commented, it was “virtually unheard of for a well-known Chinese artist or intellectual to criticize a Party official to a western reporter.”

Wu Tianming was traveling abroad in the spring of 1989, as the protest-occupation of Tiananmen Square gathered momentum: first in Australia, as the head of a Chinese film delegation, then in the US by the time the Party opted for military force to end the protest. He chose not to return home, and American universities queued up to offer him “visiting scholar” posts to get him through the crisis. By 1993, though, he was reduced to running a video-rental store in Monterey Park, California, and stumbling through daily English-language lessons; he told me that he learned five new words each morning and had forgotten four of them by the afternoon. It was inevitable that he would eventually return to China, and inevitable that his many enemies in the Communist Party would make his life difficult when he did.

There were two last films as director: King of Masks (Bian Lian, 1995), a charming fable about a 1930s street entertainer, financed by Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, and An Unusual Love Story (Feichang Aiqing, 1998), in which strong performances just about redeem the mawkish plot. There was also a return to his origins as an actor when he starred in the 2012 film Full Circle. But, like too many of China’s greatest film talents, Wu Tianming had a career curtailed by circumstances beyond his control. When it mattered in the late 1980s, though, he was a one-man reform movement—and boy, did he achieve.

Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.