Films from mainland China have arrived steadily in the U.S. since the mid-80s, when such “fifth generation” filmmakers as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou broke onto the international scene. Yet there have been few serious attempts to introduce American audiences to the first several decades of mainland Chinese cinema, which has existed since the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s, the Chinese film industry developed along similar lines as national film industries in the west. By the early 20s, Shanghai was home to multiple Chinese-owned production companies, and by the early 30s, the national cinema had developed a variety of popular genres, each with its own conventions.
This Friday at 7 PM the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago (which has hosted at least one great event per week since the start of the year) will screen two Chinese features from the late sound era: Romance of the Western Chamber (1927) and Two Stars in the Milky Way (1931). Both films screen from 35-millimeter prints and with a live accompaniment by composer Donald Sosin. Visiting Scholar Kristine Harris, a professor of history and Asian studies, will introduce the program.
Western Chamber is an adaptation of a classic stage work written in the 13th century (and whose source material dates from a few centuries before that) depicting the illicit love affair between a young scholar and the daughter of a high-ranking official. The play has inspired countless adaptations over the centuries, and has been banned at different points for its descriptions of physical love outside of marriage. One episode in the story concerns a gang of bandits besieging a temple, which in the film becomes an opportunity to showcase martial arts choreography (the Film Studies Center summary describes this as “one of the first films from the martial-arts-magic-spirit genre cycle”). This passage of Western Chamber is, thankfully, still with us—according to the web journal the Chinese Mirror, only five of the film’s original ten reels survive.
Two Stars is a modern-dress drama set within the world of filmmaking. To quote Chinese Mirror again: “The story center[s] on a paradox, in that the relationship of the two lovers, leading workers in one of the most modern of technologies—motion pictures—[are] stymied and eventually destroyed by one of China’s most timeworn traditions: the practice of arranged marriage.” A beautiful young woman in the outskirts of Shanghai (Zi Luolan, later known as Hong Kong opera star Violet Wong) is discovered by a film crew shooting near her home. She lands the lead role in a new studio production and enters into a romance with her costar, unaware that he’s stuck in an arranged marriage. It might be interesting to compare this with George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?, an American movieland melodrama which was made the following year.