Once Upon a Time in China Capsule Reviews
Dream of the Red Chamber (1944) — July 29, 2014
Very different from the musical version Li Han-hsiang made in 1977 with Brigitte Lin and Sylvia Chang. Directed by Bu Wancang, a mainstay of the Shanghai film industry, sometime between 1943 and 1945 (I’ve seen multiple dates for it, but I'm going with the hkmdb), it too is an adaptation of one of the Four Great Classical novels, albeit in black and white and with only a couple of songs, whereas the later film is a lushly colorful huangmei musical in the high Shaw Brothers style. My wife read the book in college and has been trying to get me to read it for years. She watched the later version and liked it, and she watched this one with me as well. She was initially excited by the appearance of her favorite character, an aunt who didn’t make it into the later film. But by the time the story reached its tragic conclusion, she’d fallen asleep.
It’s a Qing Dynasty story about a young man, scion of a wealthy family dominated by women. He falls in lovely with his sickly cousin, but the family wants him to marry another, less interesting girl. Li’s film plays this as mythic tragedy, similar in tone to his great 1963 Butterfly Lovers story The Love Eterne. Bu’s film, though, isn’t so much a tragedy as it is an indictment of the women who dominate the young man’s life. First they feminize him (he spends all day walking among flowers and reciting poetry, surrounded by female peers and servants, many of whom he’s romantically involved with — note too that just like in the other version, the man is played by an actress), then they screw him over by separating him from his true love. Instead of tragedy for its own romantic sake, we get the story of a boy learning to become a man by breaking free of the evil women in his home, then wandering off into the future.
I guess you can make it a war allegory and say the women stand-in for the Japanese.
The Spring River Flows East (1947) — January 13, 2015
Billed as “China’s Gone with the Wind” (by the way, how great would a series of movies billed like that, “_______’s Gone with the Wind”, be?), released in two parts in the interregnum between the end of the Anti-Japanese War and the end of the Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalist Kuomintang. The first part is an episodic chronicle of the life of a family split apart during the war (the wife, mother, and child trudge through refugee camps while the father, a battlefield medic, becomes a POW). Every few scenes an on-screen title jumps us ahead another year, creating an extremely choppy narrative of melodramatic high points that had me thinking this should have been more appropriately considered “China’s Cavalcade”. But in the second half, things first slow down, get pretty twisted (the father, after escaping the Japanese, marries into Chunking high society, despite probably knowing his wife is still alive somewhere) and then they begin to come together in a final 45 minutes or so that also doesn't really resemble Gone with the Wind either, but rather Mikio Naruse, or at least Kenji Mizoguchi in a didactic mood. I don’t think it's a coincidence that the film ends in the time and place that Shanghai Blues is set, but it might be.
Cave of the Spider-Women (1927) — June 3, 2015
The restoration which played at SIFF 2015 was a bit haphazard at times (there are title cards for “End of Act 4” and “End of Act 7”, but not for any other Acts) but for the most part it looks pretty spectacular.
I think this is the first Chinese silent film I’ve seen. It’s not exceptional by late silent standards, but it doesn’t look primitive either. Fits right in: wuxia and Expressionism are a natural fit.
Empress Wu Zetian (1939) — July 27, 2014
It’s not without interest, but certainly is nowhere near as technically polished as American, Japanese, or French film was in 1939, though this may be more a matter of the poor state of the source print (at one point the film actually goes out of frame for a few seconds, on the DVD!) than the Shanghai film industry. The period costumes and sets are certainly quite lavish. And the performances are pretty big too.
The film tells the story of Empress Wu, the Tang Dynasty monarch who holds the distinction of being the first and only woman to hold supreme power in China in her own name, rather than through a man. She is generally reviled by history, though of course it was the highly patriarchal Confucian historians doing the reviling. She’s a major figure in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee films, where she’s portrayed with nuance by Carina Lau. Little of that nuance is to be found here.
The first half is an episodic telling of Wu’s rise to power, as she manipulates the Emperor (a fat hedonist who complains of a headache every time he has to make a difficult decision), into raising her status by repeatedly framing the women ahead of her in the concubinal rankings, all the way up to the official Empress herself. This sequence plays a bit like a Tang Dynasty variation on Baby Face, but if Barbara Stanwyck would give an evil side-eye at the end of every scene.
Then somewhere along the way the film seems to lose interest. Wu becomes Empress, and after the Emperor dies, she takes power. It’s not explained exactly how she accomplishes this, which would seem to be important. Wu institutes some proto-feminist laws, but we don’t get much discussion of them or their impact. Instead the 90 minute film finds time for a lengthy musical performance, as Wu relaxes on the throne. The song is neat, and it’s subtitled in Chinese: the idea was to get the audience to sing along, karaoke style. There was apparently a whole genre of musical designed this way. After this, the movie just kind of peters out. Empress Wu dies. We saw her do some stuff, but we never got to know her.
Romance of the West Chamber (1927) — February 18, 2017
An adaptation of a famous Yuan Dynasty play, itself based on a Tang Dynasty short story, about a young scholar who stops at a picturesque temple to study before taking the imperial examinations. There he meets the daughter of the late prime minister, mourning her father with her mother and a servant girl. The two fall in love, naturally, but when a local bandit hears of the woman’s great beauty, he rushes out with his army and lays siege to the temple, as one does. The scholar, promised by the mother that whoever defeats the bandits will get the girl, sends for his old friend, who just happens to be a general stationed nearby. The two armies fight, and the bandit is defeated. Then the scholar dreams he fights the bandit with a giant ink brush. Then the mother won’t let the two kids get married until the scholar passes his exams. Then the movie ends, because only half of its ten reels have survived.
The early comic romance scenes depict the kind of lush costuming and set design typical of the Chinese historical film in all its eras, but the fight scenes are impressively modern, as director Hou Yao uses overhead shots to emphasize the precise geometry of his actors’ opera-inspired movements and double exposures to express the chaos of combat, with ghost images of two armies locked in battle, rapidly intercut with close-ups of clashing swords, also in double exposure. The battle scenes are preceded by long shots of soldiers running serpentine through and over hillsides, recalling no less than Kurosawa’s Ran.
Hou Yao was a significant figure in Chinese cinema throughout the 20s and 30s: he wrote the first Chinese film theory book in 1925, had a reputation for progressive activism, and was a mentor to director Fei Mu. When the war broke out, he made a series of Anti-Japanese propaganda films for the Shaw Brothers, eventually moving from Shanghai to Singapore. He was murdered there by the Japanese in 1942 at the beginning of the Sook Ching massacre.
The Big Road (1934) — June 1, 2016
Something like an amalgam of Our Daily Bread and Mrs. Miniver for the Anti-Japanese War, by which I mean that it’s a propaganda film celebrating first the communal virtues of collectivist rural life (the hard work of uniting the nation through literal road-building) and then the bold heroism of that collective as it stands against Imperialist aggression, in the form of the traitorous land-owning, but not land-working, class (relics of Old China, these rulers wear 19th century clothes, and live in Qing mansions — the feudal system in opposition to the power of the Modern Industrial Worker). It ambles, plotless for most of its length, but it’s accumulated enough power that by the end, as its hero (eight characters combined to form one hero, a communist Voltron) is smashed to bits by advanced machines of war, it resembles nothing less than “Guernica” in its devastation.
Queen of Sports (1934) — May 23, 2021
Probably not the only sports movie where the hero deliberately throws their final match out of disgust with the insanity of fandom, hyper-competitiveness, and the nationalistic and economic structure of the sport, but it’s the only one I can think of right now.
Hell yeah. Fuck ’em up, Sports Queen.
The Goddess (1934) — March 1, 2017
Old fashioned story about a prostitute with a maternal heart of gold that would be trite if not for the elegantly precise filmmaking of Wu Yonggong (making his first film, he served as director, screenwriter, and art director) and the fact that Ruan Lingyu sets the screen on fire.
Street Angel (1937) — February 5, 2019
A semi-musical (think René Clair) set among the urban poor, a boy and a girl who live in buildings on opposite sides of a narrow street, windows facing each other. The scenario is typical 30s melodrama, evincing a strong Frank Borzage vibe (it’s not, however, a remake of his Street Angel, though a different Borzage film, 7th Heaven, was remade in Hollywood in 1937), alongside sing-along musical performances (complete with a bouncing ball on the lyric subtitles), social-problem film dramatics (the refugee influx into the city has created unsustainable living conditions for all involved), and dense and shadowy images that at times recall Josef von Sternberg’s late 20s films like Docks of New York and Underworld. Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues is basically this plus late 30s Hollywood screwball comedy. Street Angel was Yuan Muzhi’s second and final film as a director. After the war and the civil war that followed it, he worked higher up in the PRC’s film production system.
Romance of a Fruit Peddler (1922) — February 17, 2017
Apparently the earliest surviving complete Chinese film, it’s a two-reeler, alternately titled Laborer’s Love. The first half shows the peddler, a former carpenter adapting his old tools to his new trade, in the marketplace flirting with the daughter of the doctor in the stall across the street and defending her from the local toughs in the bar next door. When he asks the father to marry her, the doctor, who has had trouble finding customers, tells him that whoever can save his business can marry his daughter (makes sense). In the second half, the peddler finds a mahjong parlor on the upper-floor of some dive. He rigs the staircase outside to collapse into a slide, so as the drunken gamblers exit the building, they get hurt and go see the doctor, and thus he wins the girl.
It’s moderately funny and told in a style not too dissimilar from Hal Roach’s mid-20s shorts, although without the spark of genius that someone like Stan Laurel or Leo McCarey would bring to those films. Zheng Zhegu plays the peddler, and while he takes a certain infectious delight in injuring people, he doesn’t have much of a presence on camera. Director Zhang Sichuan was one of the pioneers of Chinese cinema, directing both the first wuxia (the massive serial Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, almost all of which is lost) and the first sound film (Sing-Song Girl Red Peony). The extant print is in such bad shape that it’s hard to get a read on how well he frames things, but he seems to have a knack for staging in the tableau style of European film of the late 1910s.