Imperial Shadows

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

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.

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.)

Still, it's clear that traditions from other Chinese arts support these movies. The stories can often be episodic, moving incident-by-incident along a string of experiences rather than building to a (potentially) predictable climax. In the stirring Along the Sungari River (Thursday at 7:10 p.m. and Sunday at 9:35 p.m.), made in 1947 under the right-wing Guomindang regime but clearly anticipating the Communist takeover of 1949, peasants suffer indignities all in a row, thanks to the Japanese, and they survive mainly because they have to or because (as inspirational heroes) they're supposed to. In many respects, Sungari River is a Hollywood-style emotional/social epic à la The Grapes of Wrath: Simple/noble/humble people endure the evils of larger forces they can't control, and there's a sweet romance in the middle of it!

The sweeping visuals of this movie are in sync with Chinese aesthetics--where space or scenery exist not so much as location but as a way to represent emotion. There are often cuts away to "atmospheric" images of nature or a nearby setting. Sometimes this is done so that worse things won't need to be shown (especially violence or deep sorrow), and sometimes the inserts function like the mood-delaying "pillow shots" of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Space also exists in an often nonrectilinear way, with canted angles and asymmetric compositions. Some of this may derive from artier German or European influences; some may be from a desire to match the scroll or the calligraphic landscape in film terms.

There's plenty to speculate about in the creation of these "electric shadows," but as samples of the past, they also function as near-documentaries. The 1933 film Spring Silkworms (Sunday at 5:30 p.m., accompanied by Gao Hong's live music) is about a family in the silk trade and includes some hefty scenes of the whole cottage-industry process. By the same token, 1932's Volcano in the Blood (Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and Monday and 9:20 p.m.) includes a lush opening vision of rural irrigation: It's exposition, in that the family of farmers needs to be introduced in this fashion, but it's also a way to convey their innocence and purity. The fact that the movie ends up with a lurid romantic struggle in an exotic and seamy Indonesian port bar--with a bursting volcano at the center of a huge fight--doesn't take away from the original idea that the peasant's true work is both dignified and in danger of destruction.

In fact, many of these movies have at their core the idea that harmony or stability is bound to be threatened. This principle is no stranger to Hollywood's formulas, either, but in the context of Chinese history between 1932 and 1949, it's especially poignant. Here was a country that might have been a democratic republic, that had deep, ancient traditions, but that was thrown suddenly into violent disruption. Eager as they might be, those suit-wearing, happy-go-lucky intellectuals who sober up to save the country in The Crossroads could have ended up victims of the Cultural Revolution years later. And the education for her bright son that The Goddess's title character works so hard to establish could just as easily have been dismissed in one of many later cultural upheavals. There's a cloud bank hanging over these very passionate films, and some of it is generated by style and theme alone, but some of it also comes from history. And because these filmmakers and actors present their concerns so intensely, the whole package turns into "history" that is a story not just heard but experienced all over again.


Oak Street Cinema's "Electric Shadows: The Golden Era of Chinese Cinema" begins Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. with a screening of the silent Small Toys, played to live musical accompaniment by Gao Hong; the series continues daily through April 7. Call (612) 331-3134 for more information.

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