Thursday, 12 June 2014

Century of Chinese Cinema BFI

Just started, a month-long series "A Century of Chinese Cinema, at the British Film Insitute. It is worth going to if you don't speak Chinese and haven't seen many Chinese films or know much about Chinese history or culture. Perhaps this is inevitable, but it really would have helped if the choices had been more characteristic, and the introduction more helpful. Most people don't know anything about China, or the role film played in modernizing the country and transforming society. Without context, it's impossible to genuinely understand Chinese cinema.  Watching kung fu movies is no qualification.  Tourists can learn words like "chop suey" but that doesn't mean they can appreciate the Classics

 Nearly the whole of the first section features one film, Spring in a Small Town (1948). It's inevitable that the BFI would need to leave out other equally iconic films of the era, but it's a start anyway. The Director was Fei Mu, 費穆 (1906-1951). It's poetic and very beautiful but part of its impact comes from its context. A young woman is caught in a sterile marriage with an ailing husband. Once, the heroine, Wei Wei and her husband were progressive students in the big city, full of dreams. Now he's slowly dying, from physical ,or spiritual causes, it's not clear. But they're now in his feudal mansion, partly destroyed by war. The walls around the town are ruins, too, but hark to a time when the town was a centre worth defending. Now Wei Wei, much impoverished, walks the old walls, unable to face her sterile present. Of course it's a story about lost romance, but the film became an icon because it expresses a concept of China itself.  It inspired the director Tian Zhuangzhuang (田壯壯) who also made The Blue Kite to revisit Spring in a Small Town in 2002. His version is more than a remake, for it's informed by what was to happen to China after Fei Mu died. Tian faithfully studied every document he could get, and worked together with Zhou Yuwen, who played Wei Wei in 1948.  There is also a film about the remaking of the film which is exceptionally poignant. The actress who played Wei Wei in 1948 speaks with the actress who played the part in 2002. Incredibly poignant and almost as important to film history as the films themselves.

The BFI season includes milestones like Labourer's Love (1922) the earliest existing full film and Dream of the Red Chamber (1927),  and Song at Midnight (1937). Labourer's Love, also known as the Romance of the Fruit Pedlar, looks charming but has a savagely potent subtext, lost on those who think primarily in western terms. Dream of the Red Chamber, based on a traditional saga, was the most ambitious film of its time, made by Law Man Wai, the father of Chinese cinema, whose influence on both Cantonese and Mandarin cinema was far reaching. Song at Midnight isn't simply a horror flick but has musical/political significance.  But what about the many other important films, actors and studios left out? There are numerous DVDs around, many with English subtitles, so it's not as if BFI couldn't have tried harder. Indeed Chinese film seasons are nothing new in the UK. Channel 4 and BFI used to screen them in the past.

In the second section, "The New China", there are two films from the Red Guard period, Red Detachment of Women and The East is Red. These reinforce the stereotypes many in the west have about Chinese people, but strictly speaking, the Red Guard period was an abomination, not the norm. Why not show The White Haired Girl, which explains a lot more about why people thought Communism was a new dawn? It's worth seeing An Unfinished Comedy, This Whole Life of Mine and Two Stage Sisters to appreciate how the creative drive in Chinese film didn't succumb altogther. Without this period, we wouldn't have the later generation of directors, like Zhang Yimou, or Chen Kaige.

Run Run Shaw, who died last year aged 107, transformed Chinese cinema by making big budget extravaganzas based on Chinese history and literature, and distributing them on a world scale. Without Shaw, no Golden Harvest, No Bruce Lee movies, and the whole later genre of historic fight flicks.  Luckily, BFI will be screening one Shaw film,  Love Eterne starring Ivy Ling Po, one of its greatest hits. This is based on an ancient tale of a girl who dresses as a man to study, but falls in love with a fellow student. It's a beautifully made film and a wonderful example of why Shaw Studios was so special. Rights have been sold to a new distributor who hopefully will reissue than in clean format with English subtitles, so that new generations of Chinese - and overseas Chinese who don't speak Chinese - can engage with their culture. Ling Po wasn't the only Shaw Brothers mega star, and certainly not the only megastar in Chinese film. But BFI barely scrapes the surface, missing giants like Lin Dai,  Grace Chang , Li Li-hua, Yam Kim Fai and the myriad stars who combined careers in Chinese opera and Chinese  film. In the west, such crossing of genres would be unthinkable. In Hong Kong it was perfectly natural, because the stars were so good. Non-Chinese film critics and audience might not appreciate the finer points of Chinese opera in its different forms, but ignoring that aspect of Chinese cinema neutralizes  much of the cultural importance.

Two absolutely superb Cantonese dramas. First,  Parents's Love (父母心, 1955) stars Ma Si-Tsang, probably the greatest Cantonese opera star of all. Here, he plays an opera singer down on his luck who ends up singing on the streets for a pittance. He wants his sons to succeed where he's failed This is one of the finest films ever made anywhere, I think, and one of my all-time favourites. I've never seen a copy with English subtitles, so grab the opportunity to see it, even though it probably won't convey the pithiness of the Cantonese dialect. It's utterly amazing, tracing the father's growing humiliation and fear as he realizes that the world is changing and he can't help his sons succeed. Ma Si-Tsang is such a good actor that every muscle in his face expresses feeling: when his voice as the opera singer cracks, it's overwhelmingly painful to watch. His eldest son is played by Lam Ka Sing, the mega opera star/movie star of the next generation.

In the Face of Demolition (危樓春曉1953) isn't quite in that stratosphere, althought it's a beautiful example of the social conscience message in nearly all Chinese movies, at least up til the 1970's. In the 50's people used to live in apartments without walls, subdivided into bedspaces for mutltiple occupants, a microcosm of society. The good guys live by the motto "All for one, one for all". The "respectable" teacher dreams of being a writer, but sinks in desperation to becoming a rent collector, the lowest of the low in this small world. This movie is much loved though there are many others which are even better, such as Father and Son 父與子(1953) and Parent's Love 寸草心 (1953), made in Hong Kong, but in Mandarin. The director was the iconic  Li Pingquan and the cast Fujianese who had fled the Communists.

The last section in the BFI Century of Chinese cinema features "Swordsmen, Gangsters and Ghosts". Fists of Fury and other Bruce Lee movies transformed Chinese cinema. For the first,time a Chinese beat up foreigners! In colonial times that was shocking indeed. People who have grown up since, or who never experienced such things just don't know.  I wonder if people even begin to appreciate Bruce Lee, who was a child star in the golden age of Cantonese film and immersed in its traditions. The BFI is also showing Wong Fei Hung : the Whip that smacks the Candle (1949) which I've written about HERE. This is even more interesting than it might seem, because it's a movie that morphed with numerous retellings and changes of director, over many years. This first film, though, made with the co-operation of Wong Fei Hung's people, is particularly good because it was made lovingly by a company that valued Cantonese cultural heritage. .

More on Chinese film (in English) than almost anywhere else. Please explore. Try Chinese Carmen : The Wild, Wild Rose   and Street Angel (1936) for starters

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