Imagine a retrospective of only 32 feature films celebrating all of, say, American or French cinema. That’s how many the Walter Reade’s celebration of the centenary of Chinese cinema offers. There is cause to cheer this restricted list of classics, though: It features 18 pre-1949 films, 10 of which were digitally restored by the Venice Biennale Cinema Department. This project undertook badly needed restorations of deteriorated sources.
Within the confines of a pretty conservative reading of what constitutes a canonical mainland Chinese film, the series offers a parade of masterpieces that should surprise and dazzle North American audiences who haven’t yet had concentrated exposure to these works. A key caveat about the “canon” of Chinese films: It was established by Chinese film scholars working under the constraints of Maoism, with all that implies. The state-controlled China Film Archive makes available only those films sanctioned by this system. So scholars and programmers are today still working within the parameters of a field whose great works are defined by the criteria of a “leftist” or progressive cinema, a monolithic reading that modern scholarship is only now dismantling, piece by piece. Other, nonconformist discoveries await.
The first and, I’d argue, still the supreme “golden age” of Chinese cinema came from 1930s Shanghai, where companies like the progressive Lianhua and posh Mingxing film companies produced socially idealistic, politically engaged, relatively highbrow fare featuring the most glamorous stars. Shanghai in the ’30s meant “modern,” and Shanghai modern was largely defined by the images from its wildly popular cinema. For art deco chic, neon nightlife, dance hall swing, and a sense of menacing social decadence, Cai Chusheng’s silent New Woman (1934) is peerless. This key proto-feminist work was scandalous when released, for presenting the true story of a film actress driven to death by the attacks of right-wing critics, and foreshadowed the tragic suicide of its star, Ruan Lingyu, at age 24.
Ruan Lingyu is the greatest star Chinese cinema has yet produced, one of the (as yet unrecognized) greatest film actors from any country. Once you see the quicksilver passions animating her face, marrying a volcanically passionate energy with a soul-catching vulnerability, you’ll never forget her. Two early roles, in the charming melodrama Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood (1931) and the strangely campy faux-Shakespearean A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), led to her acknowledged masterpiece, Goddess (1934), in which she incarnates, as an indomitable prostitute arrested for murdering her pimp, the ferocity and despair lacing Shanghai’s increasingly corrupt society.
As in Japan, sound came relatively late to Chinese cinema. Two key early sound films from Mingxing, Crossroads (1937) and Street Angel (1937), shouldn’t be missed. The former is a Hollywood-style screwball comedy, with a trick set, interlocking couples, and mistaken identities, all effected with a high-flying giddy humor and that requisite dollop of social conscience. Street Angel is darker, a brooding melodrama in montage style (the opening collage of the super-modern city is a stunner) with classic songs and career-defining performances by the comic dynamo Zhao Dan and winsome songbird Zhou Xuan.
After the Japanese occupation (1937—1945), Shanghai filmmaking recovered in a second burst or “golden moment” during the final, chaotic years of the nationalist government. These were urgent responses to a time of crisis. Crows and Sparrows (1949) takes place in a tenement building, a microcosm of collapsing Shanghai in which the landlord’s shaky power over his tenants (intellectuals and workers) collapses in one incandescent moment—a true revolutionary instant—when the characters realize they can fight back. This Life of Mine (1950), with a great performance by director Shi Hui, synopsizes Chinese history from 1911 to 1949 through the eyes of a policeman, an ordinary individual caught up in extraordinary times.
But the greatest film of this period, and perhaps of all Chinese cinema, is Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948). Narrated in stream-of-consciousness voiceover by the female member of a delicately limned love triangle, the film, once criticized as “rightist,” points toward a potential China sadly never realized. Grab the rare chance to see this almost unknown modernist masterpiece, a visual poem, sealed in amber, that speaks of society and cinema, poised between a past about to be forever lost and a future saturated with anticipated regret.
A survey of the post-1949 work will appear next week.