The UCLA Film and Television Archive's eye-opening retrospective “Pre-Revolution Chinese Classics” marks the first time in more than 10 years that mainland movies from the '30s and '40s, a Golden Age for the Mandarin-dialect film capital of Shanghai, have screened here in Los Angeles. New movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic were a hot, new art-cinema commodity a few years back, but they often seemed to come out of nowhere, as if the nations in question had no film history to speak of. Four of the 10 films in the UCLA series were screened for the press, and not all were equally strong – or strong all the way through. But each is surprising and illuminating in some way. It won't do to dismiss any of these movies as being of historical interest only; when historical interest itself is such a novelty, it's justification enough.
Admirers of the Fifth Generation films of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, for instance, should take a close look at the stingingly anti-Japanese war movie Along the Sungari River (1947), or at least at its first half-hour, before the melodramatic machinery of atrocities and reprisals slips into gear. Director Jin Shuan evokes the daily life of a Northern Chinese village, and of the modest inn where freight-hauling carters stop off on their way upstream, with a richness of behavioral detail that's a match for anything in The Story of Qiuju or Life on a String, with grace notes of visual poetry that reach even higher, toward the best work of Pagnol and Renoir. It's a measure of how important a series like this one can be: For an audience without any real sense of context, even a snippet of one problematic movie is enough to demonstrate that Chinese cinema has a history, one that is continuous and well worth exploring; that it wasn't reinvented from scratch in the '80s by Chen, Zhang and The Blue Kite's Tian Zhuangzhuang.
Similarly, two accomplished melodramas in the series, the silent The Goddess (1934), with Ruan Lingyu (the deep-welled “Chinese Garbo” depicted by Hong Kong's Stanley Kwan in Actress), and the noir-inflected The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes (1948), clearly reflect the influence not only of imported American weepies but of the German Expressionist style that also shaped American films noir. Movies from Western countries were hugely popular in China well into the '40s, which means that the chain of influence discernible here isn't just national; it's global.
Connections are made throughout the series, programmed by the Archive's Cheng-Sim Lim. The 1937 Crossroads was the picture that Hong Kong's Tsui Hark took as his model when he crafted his homage to the Mandarin nerve center in his 1984 comedy Shanghai Blues, a key work of the “Hong Kong New Wave.” And the musical numbers that crop up in several of the films are examples of a flourishing school of Western-inflected Mandarin pop songs of the '30s and '40s that recently enjoyed a yuppie vogue in Hong Kong and Taiwan, sparking CD reissues and a string of “retro” movie musicals. The commanding Li Lili, a fixture on those CDs, warbles a couple of tunes in the 1934 solidarity-builder Highway (a.k.a. The Big Road), the only picture of the four screened that could conceivably be written off as unalloyed leftist propaganda.
Cheng-Sim Lim says she was aiming for something more radical when they began assembling this series – nothing less than a restorationist reassessment of Chinese film history. She wanted to showcase the work of director Fei Mu, whose 1948 Spring in a Small City, an avowed influence upon Zhang Yimou, is cited by Hong Kong critic Stephen Teo, in his book Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, as “one of the greatest Chinese films of all time.” Lim had her eye on Chinese horror movies influenced by James Whale, and on a 1929 silent martial-arts serial. Each of these would have helped give Westerners (and many Chinese) an even more accurate picture of the full range of Chinese film production, a picture systematically “revised” by ideologue historians after the revolution to retroactively anoint political precursors – “equating political consciousness with cinematic classicism” is Teo's tactful phrase.
A lot of terrain remains to be explored. The intensely competitive Western-style film studios of the Shanghai era churned out movies in every imaginable genre, even a long-running series of Charlie Chan adventures. All the UCLA movies are “official classics” of one sort or another, middle-of-the-road prestige pictures with some sort of (leftist) political message – as they would almost have to be, since the Beijing Film Archive is a government institution, not an independent arts organization on the Western model. But even an obstructed glimpse like this one means that the history of Chinese film is no longer just a rumor, a string of names and film titles in a textbook, all but abstract in the absence of the works themselves. “Pre-Revolution Chinese Classics” is a first-rate first step: It barely scratches the surface, but nonetheless leaves a mark. Now, at least, we know where to start digging.