Sunday, 31 January 2010

Chinese film - Weimar East

Chinese film is infinitely richer than the usual stereotype of kungfu potboilers. Within a few years of the advent of film in the west, films were being made in China, too. Very early on, Chinese realized that this new medium was ideal for transmitting new ideas. Films were the vanguard of modernization.

To understand how China modernized, study early Chinese film. The real revolution wasn't 1911 but 1919, with the May Fourth Movement. That movement focused on the concept that genuine, fundamental change came from influencing the way people think, not by overt force but through literature and the arts. Right from the start, Chinese film makers connected to modernization, and realized how film could reach people who didn't read political tracts, but happily watched the movies. Even the illiterate could be reached.

Like the films of Weimar, Chinese films address issues about modernization, change, urban lifestyles, political and social instability. Indeed, there were Weimar connections. Mei Lan Fang, the opera megastar, fascinated Bertholt Brecht, Paul Robeson and lots of 20's and 30's progressives. Indeed, you could trace Brecht's spare, didactic ideas to the symbolism of Chinese theatre. In a nutshell, Chinese film reflects modern Chinese history. But even the general history of film can't really be told without understanding films outside the west.

Below is a clip from the documentary about Lai Man Wai, "father of Chinese cinema". Lai, like Sun Yat Sen, whom he knew personally, was Cantonese. Hong Kong's role in Chinese history is much underestimated. However the real centre of film in China before 1949 was Shanghai, the biggest metropolis in the world. Unlike big cities elsewhere, Shanghai was brand new ij every way. Beore 1860, it was little more than a local fishing village. Its millions of inhabitants all came from somewhere else, dislocated from their roots. With its sophisticated skyscrapers and brutal hovels, Shanghai is a metaphor for the modern world.

Also watch for the reference to Lai's film of Mei Lan Fang. And note the footage of the 1925 General Strike, an extremely critical point in Chinese history, with which Hanns Eisler's brother (a Comintern agent) was involved. Watch also for the sequence from Lai's film Romance of West Chamber (1927) where the hero rides on an inkbrush (writing implement) through the skies and defeats the military warlord. Explicitly "the pen is mightier than the sword".

The full documentary needs to be better known. Buy it HERE. HK Flix is a good, reliable site which I've used many times. Lots of good stuff but check region code. Here's a review of the film in English. You can watch clips from other Chinese movies (including Lai's Romance of West Chamber) by clicking on the label "Chinese movies" on the right side of the screen here. Movies like this re-examine Chinese culture in the perspective of modern society.

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