Zheng Pei Pei and King Hu's Come Drink With Me (1966)

(April 6-21 2001)

In 1975, Jacques Tati presented his film Parade (1974) at the London International Film Festival. It was a low budget, video-shot picture with a slight fictional premise and more importantly it documented Mr. Tati’s celebrated pantomime routines, some of them familiar from his earlier film comedies. He was bankrupt at the time and his creditors had impounded the earlier films due mainly, he said, to a budget blow-out on his meticulously designed Playtime (1967). Parade, on the contrary, was a lightweight, one-set wonder, shot mostly in and around a circus tent. But it was a charming, personal document of a screen idol whom I was lucky enough to interview after that presentation.

At one point, Mr. Tati scorned some critics for writing nonsense due to an ignorance of film basics. For example, someone had praised his Parade for its subtle “pastel” colours though these were the degraded result of blowing up video tape and 16mm film to a 35mm format – an irritating flaw, not good design.

Cool Or Dead?

Which brings me to Wong Kar-wai, who figured prominently (four films) at the 25th Hong Kong International Film Festival, (HKIFF) including in its main retrospective program, A Century of Chinese Cinema: Look Back in Glory, in which two of his films played, In the Mood for Love (2000) and Days of Being Wild (1991).

Unfortunately, Mr. Wong’s flaws have been hailed as marks of genius and ultra-Cool. The films look great, if you like slide shows. Tony Leung Chiu-wai, a fine screen actor, pinpointed the problem – mine, anyway – at the Melbourne premiere of In the Mood For Love, starring Mr. Leung and Maggie Cheung. Neither actor, he said, received specific direction. After he and Maggie Cheung had failed to develop their characters together, each went off to figure them out alone; his main self-direction was to reduce expression to a minimum. But, since actors powerfully represent the director’s vision, and actually crave intelligent direction or something concrete to act, why not benefit from their professionalism instead of paying more attention to lens filters?

In the Mood for Love is less awful than Days of Being Wild. But, for all its prolonged shooting time, it may as well have been scripted efficiently then shot in a few days á la Roger Corman in his heyday – or as a straight “re-make” of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small City (China, 1948), which it resembles, just as both films resemble David Lean’s Brief Encounter (UK, 1945).

Spring in a Small City, likewise an acknowledged classic, stars Wai-Wai who in some scenes reminds one of Mood’s Maggie Cheung. Wai-Wai was a luminary of Hong Kong’s Mandarin cinema (the “leftist” side) from the 1950s, though she originally worked in Shanghai. She still lives in Hong Kong and – from my meeting with her in 1997 – remains a vigorous, unaffected and elegant woman 50 years on from Spring. Mr. Wong approached her about a possible appearance in Mood though this never materialised in the finished film.

A Century of Chinese Cinema – Films Beget Films

Which returns us to the tributes, retrospectives and other programmes that comprised the 25thHKIFF.

The inclusion of In the Mood for Love in the Festival’s main retrospective programme, A Century of Chinese Cinema: Look Back in Glory, can be read as an homage to Hong Kong films of the ’50s and ’60s that also concerned frustrated love, only these were much more moving thanks to great female stars of the era like Tsi Lo-lin, Lin Dai, Grace Chang and Betty Lo Ti. Examples include two very successful films of the early ’60s: the HK/Japanese co-production, Star Of Hong Kong (Yasuki Chiba, 1963), starring Lucilla Yu Min, and Love Without End (HK, Tao Qin, 1961), for which Lin Dai won a Best Actress award at the Asian Film Festival.

Century was curated by the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) and was presented in two parts: Part 1 as the HKFA’s contribution to the Festival; and Part 2, which ran after the Festival had ended, from April 22 to June 10. Both parts were screened in the Archive’s own cinema. Part 2 consisted of a similar range of archival treasures from all eras, for example, it screened a ’30s Ruan Lingyu movie called Toys (aka The Little One, Sun Yu, China, 1933), Lung Kong’s Teddy Girls (Lung Kong, HK, 1969) with Josephine Siao and King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966). The latter starred Cheng Pei-pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), perhaps the first international ‘face’ of Hong Kong’s “New Martial Arts” films, which later introduced stars like Jimmy Wang Yu and Bruce Lee. Part 2 of Century was a more spread out series of screenings than the compacted Part 1, which was shown every day within the HKIFF, and there was a separate catalogue for Pt 2 as well.

The retrospective underscored the “generational” view of Chinese/HK/Taiwanese movies – that is, films of today which draw on local masterworks of the past. For example, it included Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner (HK, 1969), an acknowledged model for John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), which made super-stars of the director and his leading actor Chow Yun-fat. Woo’s film was no “remake” but the link between the two is clear. Lung’s film was less a bravura piece (like Woo’s) than a HK film noir as coating for his social critique of contemporary Hong Kong. Lung’s other entry, Teddy Girls – a “rebel youth” movie starring Josephine Siao Fong-fong – is also a film of social concern, a hallmark of this interesting director. Let us hope that someone may introduce the work of Lung Kong to a much wider circle. He deserves it.

Century was a wondrous trip though Chinese movie classics, book ended by Romance of the West Chamber (Hou Yao, Shanghai, 1927), one of the first major martial arts films, and its descendant, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, HK/USA, 2000). Modern classics included Ann Hui’s Boat People (1982), Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987). Films from the ’40s era included Spring in a Small City and Zhu Xilin’s Sorrows of the Forbidden City (HK, 1948), which was set around the time of the “Boxer Rebellion” in 1900.

Zhu died in 1967, the year in which his Sorrows of the Forbidden City – also known as Inside Story of the Qing Court – received the longest “film review” in memory. In 1954, Mao Zedong had attacked it as anti-progressive and in 1967 others used that critique to condemn the film and other cultural “poisonous weeds” during the “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-76. “At no time since it was shown all over the country” (1), wrote Mao in 1954, “has the film Inside Story of the Qing Court – described as patriotic though in fact a film of national betrayal – yet been criticised and repudiated.” (2) Early in 1967, the Party organ, Hongqi (“Red Flag”), vilified the film in an essay subsequently splashed over a staggering 30 pages in Chinese Literature (3). The film focussed on a conflict between Empress Dowager Cixi, her son Guangxi (the nominal emperor) and his wife, Zhenfei. Its “attitude” to the Yi Ho Tuan (Boxer) movement was the nub of the controversy though the exact nature of its political incorrectness eludes me. Some critics regard this work as one of the finest post-war HK releases. I found no mention of its HK origin in the above attacks (4).

Ruan Lingyu – Love & Duty

However, for me, the greatest experiences offered by the retrospective were two silent classics of the 1930s, both starring Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) – namely Love and Duty (Bu Wancang, 1931) and Goddess (Wu Yonggang, 1934). It is absurd that we in the West still know so little about Ruan, the greatest actress of the silent era in China, apart from our exposure to the biopic, Centre Stage (Stanley Kwan, 1991), starring Maggie Cheung as Ruan in an irritating “experimental” treatment of its great subject. The existing prints of Ruan’s films sit mainly in the state film archives of Beijing and Taipei and if ever an impresario co-operates with them in touring her films around Europe, the Americas and Australasia, they should include Ernie Corpus in the package. His solo orchestrations beautifully underscored both films during the HKIFF.

Personally, viewing silents or any movie more two hours long is usually more duty than pleasure but Love and Duty (1931), at 159 minutes, is a marvellous exception. Ruan who was then 21 and already a veteran star, played two roles, one of them aging almost 20 years in the story. There is a classic two-shot of the actress as both mother and daughter, with the hand of one crossing the image of the other. Directed by Bu Wancang, Love and Duty was one of the earliest productions of Lianhua Production Company, roughly the MGM of China throughout the 1930s.

Screenwriter Zhu Xilin adapted an original story by S. Rosen-hoa:

It begins in a city street, where a young man is struck by the appearance of Yang, a quietly sexy young woman on her way home from college. He follows her home, leading to further, tentative meetings between the two. That ends when Yang’s father forces her into an arranged marriage – loveless on her side despite the kindness of her husband and the birth of two children whom she dearly loves. One day, her former amour meets her by chance in a park, rekindling their former love, and so she abandons her husband and children to go with him. They survive in a poor apartment and soon have a baby daughter but overwork and unemployment combine to kill young father. For the sake of their daughter, Yang resists an impulse to commit suicide.

Years pass as her daughter grows into an attractive teenager while Yang, a gifted seamstress, enables them both to survive. One day, her former husband, hires her to design some costumes for his teenaged children (daughter also played by Ruan). Of course, they are Yang’s children too though she just manages to control her emotions when measuring them for the costumes, and her husband fails to recognise her. Eventually, Yang believes that her past sin of abandoning husband and children threatens her daughter’s future. She commits suicide, leaving a letter begging her husband to take care of her daughter as his own. This he does and it is clear that he has never stopped loving Yang. (5)

The above melodramatic outline conveys little of this film’s emotional power. One striking feature of the film is how Western it looks – not only in the upper middle class lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthier characters but also in their faces. I have never had a “problem” with Caucasian actors blacking up or, say, playing “Chinese”, as the practice is not in itself racist, though the usual result of bad stereotyping is. Indeed, photographs of Chinese professional actors during the 1950s show them to be convincingly made up as Westerners to resemble (for example) the French men and women of a Molière play; the impersonations actually went that far. Love and Duty achieves this effect, intentionally or otherwise, without make-up but through the acting and overall ambience. I had to look hard to determine the race of the actors though I knew they and their characters were Chinese, for the manners, dress and hairstyles would have suited ’30s American movies. It is an extraordinary impression from a wonderful film.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1935, Ruan Lingyu, like more than one of her characters, committed suicide, not yet 25. It was a tragic loss, as her films make painfully clear.

Father Of Chinese Cinema

Space precludes raves for the many other gems in the retro, among them, King Hu’s great ’60s and ’70s classics, Come Drink With Me and A Touch of Zen (1971) – both surely models for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Instead, we may consider a documentary, which was screened outside the retro and introduced the formation of Chinese cinema as a whole. That is, Lai Man-wai – Father of Hong Kong Cinema (HK 2001), scripted by Law Kar and Stephanie Ng, and directed by Choi Kai-Kwong. This is squarely aimed at quality TV programming along the lines of Britain’s Channel 4, Australia’s SBS or certain cable outlets, and it is a first rate documentary (140 minutes) though overweight in my view by about 20 minutes.

Lai Man-wai is arguably the father of Chinese cinema, depending on which mainland critic you address, and certainly the father of Hong Kong cinema. He was equally a man of the theatre, performing in wenmengsi (“civilised plays”),one of the earliest “Western” theatre forms in China, as professional Chinese theatre only adopted Western-style dramas or “spoken plays” from the early 20th century. In 1911, Lai performed with a Hong Kong stage group called Qing Ping Lok (roughly: “When the Qing dynasty falls, happiness will reign.”). He was a fervent supporter of Sun Yat-sen (d. 1925), the “father of modern China” who headed the revolution that finally ousted the ruling Qing dynasty in 1911. As a documentary filmmaker, Lai recorded Sun’s “Northern Expedition” in the 1920s – the drive to unify China then partitioned by regional warlords – and it is an invaluable film document, seen many times in China but, until recently, with little or no acknowledgement of its director.

In addition to co-producing and/or acting in Hong Kong’s earliest films (1909-1913, 1925), Lai was instrumental in the formation of Lianhua, China’s greatest film house in the 1930s, well after he and his associates had moved from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

This is a great documentary, and deserves wide distribution. For those interested, details are as follows. Source: Dragon Ray Motion Pictures Ltd. HK, Tel: [852] 9752 1961 or via [email protected]

Our Host – The Hong Kong Film Archive

Finally, a word about the Hong Kong Film Archive, which was responsible for the Century retrospective after recently settling into its new premises in Sai Wan Ho on Hong Kong Island.

A Planning Office for the Archive was founded in 1993 following years of concern by scholars in and out of the film industry that Hong Kong’s film heritage would completely disappear, either through physical corruption or by the sheer destruction of unwanted prints to clear storage space. The permanent archive was completed in 2000 in Sai Wan Ho, Hong Kong Island, as originally funded by the late Urban Council whose arts role passed to the new Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD).

The brilliant excavations over the years by the HKIFF through its retrospective programmes (like Century above) and detailed catalogues arguably provided the strongest case for a government-backed archive in the early 1990s. Perhaps its most exciting activities lie in exhibitions, screenings and acquisitions of archival treasures, especially rediscovered films once thought to be lost forever.

Take The Orphan, the “lost” colour movie starring Bruce Lee.

A Bruce Lee Coup

The Orphan (1959/60) was produced by the late Hong Kong actor/producer, Ng Chor-fan (1911 – 1993), a much loved and enduring figure in the history of Cantonese cinema. Mr. Ng’s last quest was to find the colour original of his long-lost The Orphan. Sadly, he died a disappointed man, close to the time when the HKFA formally began. The film starred 18 year old Bruce Lee as a HK rebel without a cause just before he quit HK for the US – the standard starting point of Bruce Lee biographies.

In 1994, Cynthia Liu Chu-fun – then, as now, HKFA’s Senior Manager – was in London searching through laboratories on the off-chance that old negatives of HK films had been stored and forgotten there. At Rank Laboratories, she was immediately handed about ten of them, mostly from the ’50s or ’60s, among them the long-sought The Orphan! Rank simply gave her the negatives, most of them in mint condition. “They did it without charging me a penny,” she recalls.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hong Kong had no technology for developing colour films so colour negatives were processed in either Japan or London, and sometimes remained there. “That’s how we found Bruce Lee’s The Orphan,” says Ms Liu. “The negative was just there and nobody realised. I am sure there are HK films everywhere all over the world.” It was a major break for the then year-old Archive, housed at the time in a temporary hut in Eastern Tsim Sha Tsui.

The Lee coup was part of a slow, painstaking but exciting search for Hong Kong’s film heritage whether in film prints, posters, old scripts or industry memorabilia. “We think that about 30% of the films ever produced in Hong Kong have been lost,” said Ms Liu back in 1997. Some 9,000 titles have been produced in HK since the first local feature (Love is Dangerous [Lai Buk-hoi] aka Rouge) appeared in 1925. The most exciting purchases to date have been two packages: around 600 titles from the World Theatre in San Francisco where the films (and their colours) have survived much better than was possible in humid HK; more recently, scores of films, mostly from the ’50s and ’60s, that had been thrown out of an old basement in Oakland, California, then dumped into a garbage skip, ready for the tip. Other discoveries have been made, for example, in Japanese laboratories, in private American homes, and throughout South East Asia, which has been a major market for Cantonese-dialogue movies since the early 1930s.

The HKFA is now a full member of FIAF (Federation des Archives Internationales du Film), which began in Paris in 1938 for the purpose of “proper preservation and showing of motion pictures.” There are now more than 100 film archives worldwide able to match FIAF’s high standards.

Finally, says Ms Liu, film companies have increasingly entrusted old prints to the Archive which in turn acts as their trustee. All screening requests whether by festivals, broadcasters or anyone else are directed, where possible, to the original rights holders for direct negotiation.

Film preservation has often been the work of dedicated eccentrics and the daddy of them all was Henri Langlois, “the greatest preservationist and exhibitor ever of lost and obscure films”. Langlois, who directed the Cinémathèque Française, one of the world’s great archives, from its inception in Paris in September 1936 until his death in 1977, greatly inspired young filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Langlois, said an admirer, “combined a prescient understanding of the need for film preservation and an enduring passion for world cinema.”

The genesis of the Hong Kong Film Archive has been a long and complex process, but the feeling behind it is in the spirit of Langlois himself as simply expressed on the Archive’s leaflet: “When one watches an old film, browses through still photographs, listens to an old song, or gazes mesmerisingly at every gesture of stars on the silver screen, one will surely be moved by cinema at its various stages of development and how intimately it influenced our lives.”

Endnotes

  1. It was widely released in China in 1950.
  2. Noted in Chinese Literature, July 1967, referring to Mao’s October 16, 1954, letter to “comrades in the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Party.” He and Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) also attacked the film The Life of Wu Hsun (SUN Yu, 1950), but the biggest attack seems to have been launched on Zhu Xilin’s film.
  3. Chinese Literature, #7/1967.
  4. The Cultural Revolution of course affected Hong Kong – not least in the cutting or banning of local films by nervous colonial censors – and it coloured HK’s 1967 civil riots.
  5. An excerpt from the Century of Chinese Cinema catalogue, 2001.

About The Author

Frank Bren is a Melbourne actor, playwright and director.