Saturday, 23 April 2016

Shakespeare in Chinese movies 1931

Shakepeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona became 一剪梅 (One Spray of Plum Blossom) in Shanghai in 1931. The Chinese film industry was very well established, serving a huge internal market. Movies were big in China because they reached an audience fascinated by modern ideas.  One Spray of Plum Blossom had instant resonance with educated urban viewers, many of whom did know their Shakespeare, who is in fact cited in the opening credits. Incidentally, the fact that this shows modern Chinese people means simply that that's how some people lived at the time. Even when Proteus flies a bi-plane, he's only doing what rich young men liked doing then.  But this Chinese version tightens up the plot and embeds the drama so well in a Chinese context that it would appeal even to those who didn't know its origins.

Valentine and Proteus become Hu Luting and Bai Lede, good transliterations of their names, though the English subtitles made with the film retain the names Shakespeare gave them.  The two gentlemen have just graduated from the Whampoa Military Academy, the Chinese Sandhurst and West Point, which produced a leadership elite who were to shape modern China.  This gives the film  a much deeper subtext than the original play, particularly as its release coincided with the Japanese invasion and nearly 20 years of war.  The scenes shot on location with rows of soldiers on parade have poignant meaning for Chinese audiences.  Valentine (played by Jin Yan) is class valedictorian. Proteus (Wang Cilong) gets called "Perfume General" because he's not quite so morally upright.  Proteus spies Valentine's sister Julia, who falls for him. She's played by Ruan Lingyu, the biggest star of the Chinese screen. Proteus recommends Valentine to his uncle, the military governor of Canton (Guangzhou), and gets appointed chief of the Guards. The  Commander's daughter, Lady Sylvia, loves horses, wears riding gear and waves riding crops.  She's  the "masculine" side of Sylvia without actual cross-dressing.  She has a retinue of guards, some of whom are clearly female though they wear military uniforms.  This "Sylvia" type appears in other Chinese films and echoes historic heroines like Hua Mulan.  She taunts Valentine, but they fall for each other.

Sylvia is a spoilt heiress, who, despite her amazon exterior, lives in a girly fantasy. She loves plum blossoms, so her rooms are covered in plum-blossom motifs.  even the arches to her inner rooms are shaped like plum blossom. Julia's home is tasteful and Chinese; Sylvia's is vulgar, but treated with humour. When her father holds a dinner party, there is a wonderful shot, where she and the guests have their chopsticks pointed at the food in the middle of the table. Shot from above, the diners' bodies form "petals" around the round table and the chopsticks the stamens of the plum blossom.  Valentine and Sylvia declare their love by writing poems about plum blossom in a grotto surrounded by flowers.  Plum blossom, of course, is the symbol of Spring and of the New Year.

When Tiburio comes along, Proteus concocts a plot to eliminate Valentine, who gets banished and falls in with a band of bandits, becoming their leader. Being posh and morally upright he makes them follow new rules: to right wrongs, to help the poor and to respect women.  When the soldiers beat up peasants, masked bandits save them, firing arrows with identifying marks carrying the plum blossom symbol.   This Robin Hood meme also had precedent in Chinese culture.   Julia comes to Guanzhou and thinks Sylvia is marrying Proteus. As in the original play, the two women sort things out and plot for justice.  Interestingly, the two actresses were Cantonese, local to the area where the action takes place, unlike most of the crew and cast.

When Sylvia gets kidnapped, her father and his troops come out and are in battle with the bandits. Valentine appears, and Proteus acknowledges his guilt.  Valentine is reinstated and his followers absorbed into the Commander's guard because they've proved their virtue. Along the way, cameo parts which appear in the original play but in this film are extremely well acted and realized. The rape scene also makes more sense.  Sylvia fights back rather well.  In the last scene Valentine and Sylvia, Proteus and Julia all wear uniforms and presumably live happily ever after.  The fundamentals in Shakespeare's original are observed, and the story is retold coherently, making extra points relevant to a Chinese audience.  Opera audiences, who panic about "updating" don't understand the power of art. 

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