Imperial Shadows

Oak Street's series of '30s-era Chinese films proves again that social turmoil can inspire great cinema

The curator needs to be more like a big-game trapper than an archaeologist. If history is going to come back alive, if selections from the past are going to catch our attention, then those selections need to be treasures that breathe, that continue to speak and tell their stories. Just listen to those stories on PBS's Antiques Roadshow: Those people and those curators are making dramatic connections to the past, and the inert objects they put prices on are just catalysts for a deeper discovery process.

The same could be said for the ten movies at Oak Street Cinema that make up "Electric Shadows: The Golden Era of Chinese Cinema," a series that was wisely curated (by the Film Society of Lincoln Center) to include works you've likely never heard of, from a period and place that don't immediately come to mind in connection with films or stars or courageous, inventive directors. Yet we might be vaguely aware, as Westerners, that China in the 1930s suffered tremendous upheaval. Didn't the Japanese do something awful? Didn't Pu Yi have a really dark period in The Last Emperor? And we might give Chinese movies, or movies from any other place and time, the benefit of the doubt and realize that surprising treasures can be found just about anywhere.

Streets of sorrow: Li Keng and Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess(1934)
Streets of sorrow: Li Keng and Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess(1934)

In Chinese, electric shadows simply means "movies," but it also implies an inspiringly vital message. What comes across in many of these films--made before Communism took over, and during both a horrific Japanese occupation and a prolonged civil war--is the sense that stories need to be told whatever the circumstances. I suppose that several years from now, a package could be assembled of such "former Yugoslavia" movies as Underground and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, which were made under similar conditions. Once again, the lesson is that confusing social turmoil can inspire surprisingly resilient and amazingly multipurposed movies.

For example, consider The Crossroads, a 1937 movie set in cosmopolitan Shanghai. In it, college graduates who can't get hired try to maintain their sophistication, and even the possibility of romance, in an unforgiving city loaded with skyscrapers but lacking jobs. Much of The Crossroads (screening at Oak Street on Saturday at 9:10 p.m. and Wednesday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m.) is a dippy mistaken-identity romantic comedy on the order of You've Got Mail (squabbling apartment neighbors realize they could also be lovers), yet it begins with an aborted suicide and ends with a stoic group promise to fight for national glory, amid harrowing strikes and industrial decline and Japanese invasion.

Even while the romance is budding, the hero writes sensationalized investigative news stories about exploited workers--in part because he's trying to woo the woman who's a major source! This mixture of coy comedy and angry political shorthand is typical of other "Electric Shadows" films, which often try to satisfy at least two agendas at a time. The Highway (Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday, April 7 at 9:30 p.m.) is a heroic and often comic 1934 adventure of strapping young men and the women they love--it's social realism to the core. But it also documents the fight against the Japanese, as the men build a highway for the war effort and deal with sinister Japanese spies.

The Highway is also a part-talkie in that it opens with a synch-sound song, then devolves into silent-movie-style unheard dialogue--yet there's some cartoony sound effects accompanying the Three Stooges-like horseplay of its heroes. "Style" in these movies is neither fish nor fowl, neither "East" nor "West." Many of the writers and directors working at this time were liberal in their politics and worldly in their interests, yet they also felt an obligation to Chinese aesthetics and to the idealized proletariat. Whether or not the workers or peasants of 1937 even saw (or could see) some of these films, they had the chance to see a rich combination of inspirations: German Expressionist lighting, Hollywood and Russian montage sequences, French-style winsome comedy.

No use making jokes about huge menus, but it helps to recognize that Shanghai has long been one of the world's most polyglot ports, and Shanghai is where many of these movies were made. So it's understandable that influences from all over would show up in these films, and it's clear that these directors and cinematographers saw themselves in a global context. This is true even though they were trying to boost domestic production at a time when Western films typically dominated the marketplace. One of the impoverished ex-students in The Crossroads has a Mickey Mouse doll on his desk, and he plays Spanish-sounding melodies on a badly tuned Western guitar. Another silent film, The Goddess (playing Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with live musical accompaniment by Gao Hong), is about a noble prostitute ("goddess" is slang for hooker) who struggles to preserve her dignity and give her son a fair shake in life despite social ostracism and the threats of her burly pimp. This sacrifice for the next generation may be authentically Chinese, but the woman's woes are frequently framed in dramatic, "German"-style shots that match the best of F.W. Murnau's work in either Berlin or Hollywood. (The powerfully moving actress, Ruan Lingyu, is also famed as an equal to Garbo; she killed herself at a young age because of the smears of a tabloid press.)

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