An important figure in China's "Fourth Generation", Wu Tianming also served as mentor to such "Fifth Generation" directors as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang while heading the Xi'an Film Studio. Born in 1939, Wu developed an early interest in the theater and worked odd jobs at local playhouses in order to observe the actors at work. By the time he reached his teens, however, he had shifted interest to motion pictures, crediting Dovzhenko's "Poem of the Sea" (1958) as the primary impetus for his filmmaking career. But he first put in time as a stage actor and, after 1960, a film player with Xi'an Film Studio. Six years later, he was on the way to realizing his dream of attending the Beijing Film Academy but the stirrings of the Cultural Revolution derailed those plans as his father, a local government official, was purged from his post and imprisoned.
In the early 1970s, as the thaw began, Wu finally enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy and began his career in earnest. Almost as soon as he had completed the two-year program, he was hired by Xi'an as an apprentice to the revered Cui Wei. In 1979, Wu co-directed his first film "Tremors of Life", which earned awards from China's Ministry of Culture and paved the way for his second co-helming effort "Blood Ties" in 1981. International attention came upon the release of his solo directorial debut, "River Without Buoys" (1983), a film that explored the effects of the Cultural Revolution on three men traveling together down the Pushui River. As he was gaining stature as a filmmaker, Wu was offered the position of head of Xi'an. With governmental regulations and censorship loosening, Wu was able to foster a creative environment for "Fifth Generation" directors, many of whom explored the hardships of peasant life in a less melodramatic manner. Under his aegis, such acclaimed motion pictures as Huang Jianxin's "Hei Pao Shi Jian/The Black Cannon Incident" (1985), Tian Zhuangzhuang's "Daoma Zei/Horse Thief" (1986), Chen Kaige's "Haizi Wang/King of Children" and Zhang Yimou's "Red Sorghum" (both 1988) were produced. Wu's films from this period, "Life" (1984), which was not released internationally, and "Old Well" (1986) earned praise. The latter picked up numerous awards including the top prize at the 1987 Tokyo Film Festival.
Having achieved a level of success and notoriety, Wu was courted with numerous offers. In 1989, he accepted a position as a visiting scholar under the auspices of the Asian Cultural Council of the United States. While touring America, the Tiananmen Square incident occurred and fearful of reprisals against artists, he opted to remain in the USA, first as a visiting scholar at NYU and later as guest lecturer at both USC and UCLA. Despite his renown, Wu found his financial status compromised and once his wife and daughter joined him in California, opened a video rental store as a means of support. Perhaps ironically, that venture also allowed the director to examine the works of other filmmakers he might never have seen otherwise. After nearly five years in the USA, Wu received an offer from a Hong Kong-based producer interested in financing a script about Chinese exchange students in America. When that opportunity fell through, he opted to return to China where he was greeted favorably by the authorities.
While he has said he has no regrets about his time in the West, Wu has said that he was creatively stifled. Once back in China, he began a flurry of activity. The hero of his first film in a decade, "Bian Lian/The King of Masks" (1996, released in the USA in 1999), can be read as a stand-in for Wu: an aging artist who fights to preserve his traditions by passing them on to the next generation despite all odds, just as Wu nurtured the "Fifth Generation" (and he was mentored by Cui Wei). He then crafted "Stand by Your Man" (1997), which traced the relationship between high school sweethearts who overcome several obstacles to remain together. In addition, Wu turned his attention to directing episodes of television serials. Among the films he wishes to make is an adaptation of "The White Deer Garden", a novel that spans some 40-years in the lives of two families.