Saturday, 2 October 2010

Early Chinese cinema - Two Stars in the Milky Way

More Chinese Weimar - Two Stars in the Milky Way (1931).  Art Deco Shanghai in all its glory, and documentary about Chinese film making. Essential background viewing for anyone interested in cinema, China and social mores.

Violet Wong plays Lee Yuenying, daughter of a scholarly gentleman who composes entirely in western style - piano, bust of Beethoven etc. Perfect life of gentility, "western style" adapted to 1920's China.

Outside their villa on the China coast (near Shanghai by the shape of the sails on the junks) a film company is making a movie. The crew hear Yuenying singing (western song though it's silent). Great shots of how they set up on location filming in those days, complete with hordes of onlookers, peasant farmers and coolies in the background. No need for extras, bystanders just turned up and were incorporated into the film. Watch the hand wound cameras, look at the director with white scarf and solar topee. No costumes needed, they just filmed each other.

Being a nice girl, Yuenying doesn't do public shows, so the film crew go to watch her give an "exhibition dance" for charity. Fantastic 1920's theatre. You can see why Shanghai was the greatest art deco city in the world - the angular lines and patterns fit seamlessly with Chinese geometric concepts of design. Yuenying dances a vaguely "Egyptian" dance, arms bent at angles, elegant poses, very "moderne". Definitely influenced by Ballets Russe. the Tutankhamen craze of the 1920's etc. Shanghai absolutely up to date with what was hot in Europe.

Cut to the film studio and its big 1920's mahogany boardroom. Boss says about the future of Chinese cinema, "We of the film industry have a mission to fulfill, to propagate the values of our people  and contributing knowledge to the public through the screen".

Eventually  westernized, educated Yuenying agrees to act in a movie about traditional China, and sings, too. Not Chinese opera though  as the scenario is highly realistic. As the film is silent, we don't know what she sings. Could be anything, as in China, the lines between genres aren't so strict, like in the west. Yuenying and the actor hero, Yang Yeeyan, fall in love. They have a date playing mini-golf where they meet a rival actress who fancies Yang too. Mini-golf with mini pagodas and mini Chinese bridges - kitsch even then. Watch out too for the fancy car they ride in,  with Dad in the pull down jump seat!

Film is success, and studio hires the art deco theatre for dinner party. Orchestra on stage, first violin takes bow - wonderful authentic looking shot. Yuenying's father and studio boss decide to arrange a marriage, but Yang's cousin reminds him he has a "country-bred" wife at home in the provinces. Too scared to tell Yuenying he's already married traditional style, Yang pretends to be cheating on her with other actress. Heartbroken, Yuenying and father leave the "evil" city and return to their villa by the sea. Film ends with shot of Yang as an old man with stick, and Yuenying, now orphaned, singing by her father's empty chair. Two sequences, transposed. Honour wins over love, but love doesn't end. The title refers to a legend about lovers who were torn apart, turned into stars in the Milky Way.

This is a keynote film, because it shows how Chinese cinema was every bit as up to date as in the west. It's also important because it's "about" Chinese cinematography and moral values.The bosses' speeches in the studio come straight from the heart. Cinema in China was part of the process of becoming modern, and was an expression of progressive sociual principles. What wonderful sets! Also authentic - cheaper to film live than build sets. Read more by searching on this site and also The Chinese Mirror, the best English-language resource on Chinese film on the net. Both films on the DVD have English subtitles. The other film, Spray of Plum Blossoms stars the iconic Ruan Lingyu and is based on Shakespeare. It's worth watching too. Ruan deserves whole posts on  her own - search her name on this site. Violet Wong was a relative of Marion Wong, who made the first Chinese American movie, the Curse of Quon Gwon, in 1917. Although second-generation ABC she easily integrated back to China, quite different to Anna May Wong.  Please take some time to explore my site as there is a lot about Chinese film and culture, Chinese stereotypes, western, Chinese and Japanese film. Spercial emphasis on vintage film and the way film fits into society.

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