This program is
presented with the
support of the National Endowment for the Arts.
During a 1982 retrospective of Chinese cinema at Turin, one astonished Italian critic exclaimed, "Neorealism was born in the 30s--in China!" That these remarkable films generated such astonishment shouldn't surprise us, given the rarity of their screening. History may have conspired to keep Chinese cinema of the 30s and 40s largely out of international venues, but the talented filmmakers who produced consistently interesting work during this era never lacked for creative inspiration or ingenuity.
The first Chinese movie--Den Jun Mountain, made in 1905--was essentially a filmed dramatic episode already adapted for the Peking opera many times over. Audiences new to the movies delighted in filmed theater, "old wine poured into new bottles," and many early filmmakers were what the Chinese called "midway converts" from theatrical careers. Against incredible odds, China's film industry continued to develop during tumultuous times: feuding warlords in the aftermath of empire, repressive government, foreign imperialism and invasion. Nonetheless, by 1925, there were numerous filmmaking studios in China, of which 38 were located in Shanghai, new center of political and economic power. Between 1921 and 1937, Shanghai produced more than 1,100 films, including many of the popular "cape and sword" escapist variety. Still, in 1929, 90 percent of the movies being shown in China were American-made; and the left-wing intellectuals who dominated 30s filmmaking in China realized that Western domination of the film market meant cultural domination, cinematic colonialism.
1931 marked the coming of sound to China's studios--and the invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese, the beginning of a cruel conflict that continued until 1945, costing some 35 million Chinese lives. Film artists tried to make realistic, patriotic movies that would express anti-Japanese, anti-imperialist sentiments and the suffering of an economically oppressed people, while outwitting government censors on the side of appeasement and the status quo. Threatened and coerced to make "soft" movies, "ice cream for the eyes," these gifted idealists continued to make subversive art, brilliantly encoding realistic plots and dialogue with radical significance. After the Japanese took Shanghai and continued to advance, the men who made the movies retreated from city to city, often shooting at night to avoid daytime air raids. Still, from 1941 to 1943, not a single new Chinese fictional film was shown in the country's capital.
But between the Japanese surrender in 1945 and victory by the People's Liberation Army in 1949, Chinese cinema came back strong, with naturalistic works, such as Lights of Ten Thousand Homes, that married revolutionary politics with aesthetic standards. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is proud to present a unique series consisting of some of the finest and most representative of the "electric shadows"* produced in China between 1933 and 1949. Join us for revelations!
*The term for cinema in Chinese. (A useful history of this period in Chinese cinema can be found in Jay Leyda's Dianying / Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China, 1972.)
Those interested in this series may also wish to view the film listings on the
The Asia Society's Arts and Culture Web Page .
Note: all films are in Mandarin and subtitled in English.
VOLCANO IN THE BLOOD / HUOSHAN QINGXUE
Sun Yu, 1932; 100 minutes
Set in the 1920s, VOLCANO is a cinematic journey from pastoral order into chaos, arriving finally at a crossroads of self-destruction or transcendence. A peasant family's happiness is shattered when their beautiful daughter is carried off to be the concubine of a local tyrant. After her family is decimated and she herself has committed suicide, her fiancé flees the village to become a sailor in the South Seas. In an Indonesian harbor, he meets an exuberant and lovely young woman who tries to make him forget his grief and his rage for revenge.
Wednesday, September 9: 2 and 6:15 pm
Saturday, September 19: 4 pm
Sunday, September 20: 6 pm
SPRING SILKWORMS / CHU CAN
Cheng Bugao, 1933; 100 minutes
Note: Silent film without musical accompaniment
An adaption of a story by Mao Tun about a Chekiang village whose crop for uncounted generations has been silk cocoons. One family fights desperately for success, but a drop in the market ruins them, along with hundreds of others. The left-wing celebration of peasant life, with its emphasis on familiar conflicts, might have been formulaic, but here a lively story, engaging characters, and a fresh directorial attitude raise SPRING SILKWORMS far above mere didacticism.
Wednesday, September 9: 4 and 8:15 pm
Sunday, September 20: 4 and 8 pm
SMALL TOYS / XIAO WANYI
Sun Yu, 1933; 114 minutes
Note: Silent film without musical accompaniment
A beautiful and skilled village woman crafts small toys from clay and bamboo that her husband then sells in a nearby town. Ye's husband dies and her little son disappears, marking the beginning of her tragic slide into myriad catastrophes--warlords destroy the village, cheap modern toys begin to outsell the handmade works Ye and her equally gifted daughter create, and death dogs the once-happy toymaker. Mistaking New Year firecrackers for bombs, Ye--far gone in madness--takes up arms against imaginary enemies. Is humankind, the film seems to ask, only "small toys" in the hands of Fate?
Thursday, September 10: 2 and 6:15 pm
Monday, September 21: 6:15 pm
THE HIGHWAY / DA LU
Sun Yu, 1934; 104 minutes
During the Sino-Japanese War, a group of heroic young men work hard at building a strategic highway for the Chinese army. They are a diverse group--including happy-go-lucky Jin, melancholy Zhang, studious Zheng Jun, light-fingered Han, eternally dreaming Luo--but they always stand up for each other and are highly respected by their fellow workers. Love enters the picture in the form of two enchanting canteen girls, but Japanese spies are determined to find a way to stop the highway's construction--and their machinations bode ill for our high-spirited wild bunch. Obviously a "recruiting poster" for collective effort, THE HIGHWAY transcends the genre, thanks to its remarkable realism and the stand-out personalities of the film's fine young cast.
Thursday, September 10: 4:15 and 8:30 pm
Tuesday, September 22: 6:15 pm
THE GODDESS / SHEN NU
Wu Yongang, 1934; 77 minutes
Note: Silent film without musical accompaniment
The story of a beautiful streetwalker ("goddess" is slang for prostitute) who sells herself to support her family. Bullied by the police and a local despot, she tries in vain to protect her son from similar treatment at school. Driven to the point of madness by oppression, this desperate soul strikes out, destroying the last remnants of hope in her beleaguered life. Socio-economic wrongs are the ostensible subject of THE GODDESS, but it is Ruan Lingyu's moving performance that deepens and universalizes the film's impact. (Ruan Lingyu, an Asian Garbo, was hounded to suicide at 25 by Shanghai tabloids; Stanley Kwan's 1991 Actress is a moving homage to her life and career.)
Friday, September 11: 2 and 6:15 pm
Monday, September 21: 8:30 pm
LIFE AND DEATH / SHENGSI TONGXIN
Ying Yunwei, 1936; 90 minutes
Life and Death: A jailed revolutionary succeeds in escaping during the burning of his prison. A young Chinese man from overseas, who resembles the revolutionary, is arrested in his place. (Yuan Mu-jih plays both roles.) After the wrongly imprisoned man's wife ruins herself in an unsuccessful attempt to buy his freedom, the revolutionary trains her as a fellow soldier and the two join an expedition to fight warlords in the north. "The wrong man" finally wins his freedom, while the revolutionary is killed in battle. The action is set in 1926 to put goverment censors off the scent, but the real adversaries should be decoded as the invading Japanese.
Friday, September 11: 4 and 8 pm
Monday, September 14: 4:30 and 9 pm
Tuesday, September 15: 2 pm
Tuesday, September 22: 8:30 pm
CROSSROADS / SHIZI JIETOU
Shen Xiling, 1937; 110 minutes
Lao Zhao is known for his confidence, Brother Liu for his courage, A Teng for his optimism, and Xiao Shu for his weakness--after university these friends all go their separate ways, to work as reporter and window-dresser, to fight the Japanese, and to wander aimlessly. As strikes break out in Shanghai, life becomes harder and harder, and each of these pals must confront his own crossroads.
Saturday, September 12: 4:30 and 8:50 pm
Sunday, September 13: 6:40 pm
Wednesday, September 23: 6:15 pm
TEARS OF A MOTHER / CIMU QU
Zhu Shilin, 1937; 110 minutes
When his father is accused of stealing grain, Lao San takes the blame to save him from going to prison. While he is gone, his father dies of shame and his numerous brothers and sisters become indifferent to their mother's plight--though she suffers, she never complains and remains unfailingly kind. When the good son is finally released, he returns to heap shame on his selfish siblings--until they repent, familial bonds are renewed, and mother and children celebrate with a great feast, food for body and soul.
Saturday, September 12: 6:40 pm
Sunday, September 13: 4:30 and 8:50 pm
Wednesday, September 23: 8:30 pm
ALONG THE SUNGARI RIVER /
Jin Shan, 1947; 130 minutes
Sungari River: Jay Leyda writes in Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China that SUNGARI RIVER "contains some of the finest filmmaking in China...original film poetry." In Manchuria, a village inn by a river is a regular stop for carters, so it's not surprising that the daughter of the innkeeper has a carter for a sweetheart. But all sweetness and tranquility is shattered by the invasion of the brutal Japanese in 1931. Quinnian and Sunnu end up as slaves in a coal mine, but are soon heading up a workers' rebellion to overthrow their Japanese masters.
Monday, September 14: 2 and 6:30 pm
Wednesday, September 16: 2 pm
Thursday, September 24: 6:15 pm
CROWS AND SPARROWS
Zheng Junli, 1949, 113 minutes
The tenants of a Shanghai boarding house band together against their corrupt landlord
during the last days of Kuomintang rule. Holt's Foreign Film Guide calls CROWS "one of the last fruits of a fertile period in the cinema of pre-revolutionary China...and also a landmark in its move towards a style not far removed from Italian Neo-Realism."
Friday, September 18: 2 and 6:15 pm
Saturday, September 19: 8:15 pm
Thursday, September 24: 8:45 pm
THE LIGHTS OF TEN THOUSAND HOMES / WANJIA DENGHUO
Shen Fu, 1949; 115 minutes
This tangled tale of familial warfare and sacrifice takes place in hard-pressed Shanghai at the end of the 1940s. Hu Zhiqing can barely support his wife and children, and soon his precarious economics are further threatened by the unexpected arrival of his mother, brother and sister-in-law. When Hu is unfairly fired by his unscrupulous boss, the whole family becomes embroiled in one emotional/economic contretemps after another. In the end, the film directs our gaze through a window, to see all of the myriad lights dotting Shanghai like fireflies--each representing a life struggling against oblivion.
Friday, September 18: 4 and 8:30 pm
Saturday, September 19: 6 pm
Friday, September 25: 8:30 pm