Chinese silent films screened as part of the Century of Chinese Cinema season at the BFI Southbank…
“You’re in for a real treat!” season curator Noah Cowan announced, introducing two silent films during the first month in the mammoth five-month strand at the BFI Southbank, A Century Of Chinese Cinema. And he was right, with two of the earliest Chinese films still in existence: short comedy Labourer’s Love (劳工之爱情, 1922) and more elaborate production Romance of the Western Chamber (西廂記, 1927), a self-contained fragment of a longer feature; both with live piano (and flute) accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
It’s easy to be a little dismissive of Labourer’s Love, also known as Romance of a Fruit Peddler. It plays rather like a cheap version of an American Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin comedy of around the same time, but that in itself is significant. Zheng Zhegu plays Cheng, a fruit-seller with eyes only for the daughter of a doctor across the street, Miss Zhu (Yu Ying). Sadly his advances are thwarted when he father Dr Zhu (Zheng Gong) tells him that only the man who improve his (pitiful) business may take his daughter in marriage. After a fitful night kept awake by his noisy upstairs neighbours, a club, he decides to get revenge on the club’s patrons and get the girl with some carpentry-inspired ingenuity.
The earliest surviving Chinese film, it was produced in 1922 along with two other short comedy films by the Mingxing (Star) Film company, all written by Zheng Zhengqiu and directed by Zhang Shichuan. Both in terms of content and context, so much is lost when looking at the films from a modern perspective. Much quoted in the discussion that followed the screening, was the growing importance of the May Fourth Movement that grew out of student demonstrations in Beijing, May 4 1919. It shunned traditional Chinese conventions and Confucianism-based philosophies towards more scientific, scholarly ideas; celebrating the common man above deference to authority; and encouraging self-expression and sexual freedom.
Here the idea that a ‘labourer’ could fall in ‘love’ becomes immediately more daring against a background of arranged marriages; where even Miss Zhu’s harmless flirting might be seen as inappropriate. Cheng is an aspiring entrepreneur happy to look out for the individual (himself) in order to achieve his goal (the girl).
The comedy is pretty broad, as you’d expect from a silent movie of the time, yet it’s easy to see the filmmakers looking towards the West, both Europe and US, for inspiration, but that doesn’t lessen the techniques and innovation. When Cheng looks through Dr Zhu’s thick glasses, we see the world from this perspective. It might be a much-used idea now, but so easy to achieve when this film was made. Similarly, Cheng is shown absent mindedly daydreaming with the use of superimposed images. With intertitles in both Chinese and English, it was suggested that the filmmakers might have been looking to sell this film to the West, at a point when languages at least were easy to bypass, or at least reflect that cinema in Shanghai was not just for the Chinese but resident Westerners as well. The fact that the film’s title, which originally translates pretty closely to the one used here (Labour of Love) recalls Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably no coincidence.
Originally the film would have played ahead of feature-length imported US or European features. By all accounts it wasn’t very popular, despite the forward-thinking nature of the content – Chinese audiences were not particularly interested in contemporary local stories – but it compares well with Western silent films of the same time.
Far more ambitious comes Hou Yao’s version famous Chinese dramatic works, Romance of the West Chamber, also known as The Story of the Western Wing; produced by the Minxin Film Company (also known as China Sun Film Company) established in Hong Kong in 1922 by the so-called ‘Father of Hong Kong Cinema’ Lai Man-wai (Li Minwei). Informed by centuries of Chinese literature and theatre, the film presents familiar themes that exist to this day.
Here young scholar Chang Kung (T.K. Kar) arrives at a Buddhist monastery to find the daughter of the late Prime Minister Ying Ying (Lin Chuchu) also staying there. He immediately becomes besotted, but (mirroring the previous film) is stopped in his tracks while Ying remains under the watchful eye of her mother and protective servant Hung Niang (Li Dandan).
When the presence of Ying comes to the attention of bandit king Sung Fei Fu (or Tiger Sun, Lee Wha Ming/Li Huamin), who sends his forces to besiege the monastery, Ying mother declares that whoever drives them away will win her daughter’s hand in marriage. He calls on the White Horse General (Hu Chichang) stationed nearby to come and help, but can he defeat the bandits?
Despite the traditional trappings, once again the idea of romance rather than arranged marriage echoes the May Fourth sentiment that was rising. Interestingly, that element had been a part of the story since it’s first inception as short story by Yuan Zhen in the time of the Tang Dynasty. Over time the story was returned to in song and Zhugongdiao (a performance combing narration and song) until Yuan Dynasty playwright Wang Shifu came to write his defining version in the 13th Century. As the story evolved an upbeat conclusion over time, it came to be seen increasingly as an attack on traditional values and marriage, and even stations in society.
(In fact Wang Shifu’s original is said to unambiguously allude to Chang and Ying Ting ‘fulfilling their love’ outside of marriage, a daringly provocative idea that is said to have made it an ‘indecent, immoral, and licentious work’ that was forbidden in good families. It also probably accounts for its continued popularity.)
It’s an early example of a genre known as the scholar-meet’s-beauty romance, or ‘caizi jiaren’, which is extremely popular in Chinese fiction. Perhaps some of the best-known examples can be found in the work of Pu Songling, who combines the idea with supernatural pretext in several of his Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, including the tale became Enchanting Shadow and later A Chinese Ghost Story. It’s also echoed and subverted in King Hu’s classic A Touch Of Zen, where the student falls for a female knight who is far from defenceless.
But here we find lots of ideas that would recur in Chinese and Hong Kong film. Finding sanctuary with the monks; the martial art skills of some of them are well illustrated and choreographed, particularly the heroic staff-wielding Wei Hing (Lu Ying Lang/Li Yinlan) who seems the precursor to Gordon Liu’s portrayal of San Te in The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, or Jet Li’s Wong Fei-hung in Once Upon A Time In China. Perhaps even more than Red Heroine because of its sophistication, we see strong echoes of what wuxia and historical films will become.
The cinematography is exceedingly sophisticated for the time, making use of what seem to be real locations and outside photography above studio recreations, and creating beautiful compositions that capture the very essence of Chinese landscape art. One scene shows Chang silhouetted from a distance on his travels as he crosses a bridge.
As with Labourer’s Love, images are superimposed: firstly when Ying is shown imagining Chang’s face on the surface of her embroidery, then more explicitly when we see an extended sequence of Chang’s dream. He is shown flying atop a giant size calligraphy brush chasing after a kidnapped Ying, and then defeating Sung Fei Fu with the same brush, literally proving the pen is mightier than the sword. Though this hints at fears of impotence from the scholar, that he wants to be as brave and strong as the General – which might suggest what some of the missing footage might be. (In the original story Ying’s mother takes back her word, claiming her daughter is already betrothed to the son of another high official of the court.)
The influence of Soviet montage can be seen, as the fight sequence becomes an abstract series of flashing spear and sword blades (some drawn on later); multiple exposures of the sides fighting build up a picture of masses of more soldiers fighting. But perhaps influence is also obvious the very Western use of colours; Black for the bad guys, White for the good.
Thankfully this print is in good enough condition to fully appreciate the subtitles here too. There’s inventiveness in how some of the battle is seen, showing it from the lowly monk’s point of view as he waves his broom (and eventually accidentally throws it, nearly hitting someone). When the bandits arrive, the monk is screams directly into the camera, so hysterical he is unable to actually communicate their arrival (until his superior taps him on the head).
You could deduce an allegory here that gives away the politics of director Hou Yao: the scholar represents the students that led the May Fourth Movement; the lowly monk the common man; and the bandit king the Warlords that brought chaos to China after the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 (and were still in control when this film was made). Later an outspoken advocate to Japanese oppression, Hou would be publicly beheaded by the Japanese Army in Singapore, 1942, having attempted to flee persecution.
The original film was said to run to 10 reels, only five remain (meaning it would have originally been twice as long, some 80 minutes or so). The suggestion of the discussion that followed the screening was that it had always been the intention of the filmmakers to sell the film elsewhere. This version includes French intertitles, having made it to export of a sort. And perhaps we’re lucky it did, or it might not have survived at all. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, so many Chinese films were lost, with these two some of the very few examples of silent movies known to exist – a great loss from an incredibly creative period.
Labourer’s Love & Romance of the Western Chamber were part of the BFI A Century Of Chinese Cinema season. The screening on 18 June 2014 was followed by a discussion with Noah Cowan, Victor Fan (Kings College London/Chinese Visual Festival) and Bryony Dixon (BFI Curator of silent film).