The Wells Report

By Michael Wells

Bright Stars, Big City: Chinese Cinema’s First Golden Era, 1922-1937

at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

December 2-22, 2005

OK, this is it: I’m officially out of superlatives to describe this past season’s glut of Asian cinema offerings.  So I’ll simply say, please see below my take on the four films I saw from the second exhibition of rare Chinese classics in a three-month period (see my report on the first here).  Not surprisingly, there was a substantial overlap between the two series, although this one was more narrowly concentrated, focusing on the heyday of the Shanghai film industry when it was the “Hollywood of the East,” before the Japanese invasion, civil war and finally the Communist victory shifted that honor to Hong Kong.  Note that most of the movies in question are silents, a form that, unlike in the West, survived in Asia well into the ‘30s.

See the complete online catalog for this series here .

New Woman1935, Cai Chusheng.  This contemporary, urban romantic melodrama is one of the most famous of golden-age Shanghai’s films, more than anything because its plot parallels the tragic fate of its star, legendary actress Ruan Lingyu (I read somewhere that it was the unflattering portrayal of newspapermen here that turned the gossip-mongering fourth estate against Ruan, though I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the claim).  Even that aside, it’s a striking example of the leftist/progressive trend that was at the cinematic cutting edge in that era – it certainly is way ahead of anything I can recall seeing in Western film of the ‘30s in its portrayal of societal hypocrisy about women’s power and sexuality.

It takes a while to notice all of that, though – on a technical level, the film is the most bizarre and awkward hybrid of silent and talkie I’ve ever seen.  There are Chinese intertitles, but sometimes the dialogue is redundantly spoken, and not always in sync with the actors’ lips.  Meanwhile, electronic English subtitles were video-projected by the museum onto the bottom of the screen, usually a little behind or ahead of the onscreen dialogue.  All of this was amidst an often incongruous music score and a torrent of superfluous sound effects.  It’s an especially unfortunate example of how the brief vogue for silent/sound half-breeds could vititate the virtues of both forms.

But once I let myself get used to this mess, I found everything else pretty involving and Cai a director with a fine eye.  The real engine here is Ruan, as is typical of anything I’ve seen her in.  The fluidity and transparency of her face is remarkable and singlehandedly lifts New Woman to another level.  She was a Midas of screen performers – everything she touched turned to gold.  Whoever the bastards were who drove her to an early grave, I find it very easy to loathe them.

Song of the Fishermen1934, Cai Chusheng.  It’s refreshing to be reminded that, occasionally, glamorous escapism isn’t the only thing a mass audience will sit still for – that this movie was a record-breaking blockbuster in its day is flabbergasting from my vantage point.  It’s a harshly downbeat tale of a poor family from a fishing village struggling, and mostly failing, to make ends meet, first at home and then in Shanghai.  It does have lovely, lyrical images, a crowd-pleasingly sentimental title song that I imagine inspiring sing-a-longs from repeat viewers, and big star actress Wang Renmei.  These elements help the medicine go down, but it’s also worth remembering that a major portion of the audience was in very much the same boat (pardon the play on words) and maybe they found it refreshing to see their lives portrayed onscreen with dignity and sympathy.

It also has the good sense to tell its ultra-spare story in a lean, fast-paced fifty-seven minutes.  That plot is nothing remarkable in the sufferings-of-the-underclass genre – the strong acting and Cai’s aforementioned visual sensibility carry it.  I’m sorry to say I didn’t actually enjoy it more – the museum had one of the most abominable prints I’ve ever seen of a movie, as well as a voiceover translation of the Chinese intertitles that was delivered in a dull and sometimes hard-to-decipher drone.  Surely the China Film Archive must have a better print somewhere of what’s supposed to be one of the nation’s great classics.

Red Heroine1929, Yao Shiquan (aka Lincoln Yao!).  The thing that pained me the most about the three-day NYC transit workers’ strike was that it caused me to miss the screening of part of the wuxia serial Swordswoman of Huangjiang.  But Red Heroine makes me wonder if maybe that wasn’t a good thing.  I’ve long craved a chance to see some of the early wuxia films that enjoyed a tsunami of popularity in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, and I’d like to maintain an assumption (fantasy?) that there were far better examples than this one.

The cinematic technique, like that of much silent Chinese film I’ve seen, is at least a decade behind the West: banal, stagey blocking and visual compositions, sluggish pace with minimal editing or camera movement, barnstorming acting and way too many redundant titles explaining stuff we already know.  The action (in the sense of people jumping around and hitting and slashing each other) is minimal except right at the beginning and end, and doesn’t exactly light up the screen. The most potentially interesting part of the story, during the middle third, is the title character’s martial arts training with your classic white-bearded old mentor in his mountain lair – and it takes place offscreen while the movie sleepwalks through a subplot that could have been set up in five minutes.

Perhaps I’m not plugged in to some culturally specific conceptions of pacing, storytelling and the like, since this was apparently a hit in its time.  There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.  I found little in the way of even light amusement once I had tired of the camp value of the garish and anachronistic costumes (check out the shiny bikinis on the villain’s harem girls) and broken-English intertitles.  You have to be a real hardcore genre geek to even find the “historical interest” makes it worthwhile.  And even hardcore genre geek that I am, I was sighing and fidgeting well before we got to the powerful concluding moral: “The only roult for the Bad Ones is punishment.”

The Goddess. 1934, Wu Yonggang.  Like a lot of these movies, this one took a little time to grow on me.  But by the halfway point or so, I was firmly in its clutches.  I’ve seen no better example of the instinct of the era’s Chinese filmmakers for didactic melodrama.  Wu hurls his gauntlet in the face of traditional Chinese social and sexual mores, unabashedly presenting them as just so much ignorance and hypocrisy; and he does it so well I was practically pounding my armrests in sympathetic fury.  Of course, he couldn’t pull it off without the deft touches of tenderness and humor that makes his protagonists (who live up to the word’s literal Greek sense of “the one who suffers the most”) sympathetic and real.

Once again, I can’t overestimate the importance of Ruan Lingyu, in probably her most famous role, a single mother and prostitute (the title is slang for the profession) struggling to raise her little son.  Of course, the social order, in the form of a bullying boyfriend/pimp and judgmental neighborhood gossips and authority figures, practically makes it a duty to see that she fails.  Ruan turns in her usual, seemingly effortless work.  But she’s aided by two co-stars unusually worthy of her.  The little boy who plays her son is unforced and genuinely endearing in a way that few child actors can manage.  The big boy who plays Ruan’s loathsome man has a potentially thankless one-note role, but assays it with a casually vicious, “it’s a man’s world” arrogance that imparts the chill of real-life, not movie, villainy.  The two-shot confrontations between them are striking – his bearish bulk towers over the willowy, wispy Ruan and yet the ferocity of her body language and facial expressions almost knocks him off the screen.

Given the exhilarating lack of equivocation in Wu’s jeremiad, it’s doubly disappointing to see a copout ending complete with benevolent, patriarchal deus ex machina.  Still, try as it might, the failure of nerve in the last couple of minutes can’t do much to blunt the keen edge of all that comes before.

Michael Wells can be contacted here.