Old Gems Brightened SIFF

At the end of the Shanghai International Film Festival, which ran from June 14 to 22, 2014, few people cared too much about which film won the Golden Goblet award, who won the best actor and actress titles, but almost everyone was excited about the old films, I mean old Chinese films, they saw at the festival. Digitally restored and remastered, these old flicks brightened the otherwise lackluster films in competition.

Monk Xuanzang on his journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India, is tempted by beautiful spider spirits in "Pan Si Dong" or the Cave of the Silken Web.

Monk Xuanzang, on his journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India, is tempted by beautiful spider spirits in “Pan Si Dong” or the Cave of the Silken Web.

Top the chart was The Spiders (盘丝洞), a 1927 Chinese silent film produced by the Shanghai Shadow Play Studio, long thought to be lost but recently discovered in the archives of the National Library of Norway (intertitled with both Chinese and Norwegian). It remains a mystery as to how the film traveled to Norway, but according to the National Library of Norway, The Spiders is the first Chinese film to be shown in Norwegian cinemas, a testament to a period when cinema was considered a truly international medium that was not so much bound by national borders and languages. Thanks to the Norwegian government, which not only returned the film to China but also restored the nitrate print and remastered the film digitally, the Chinese audience, particularly film historians and scholars, were able to see this rare gem first-hand. It is of vital importance for China’s ongoing project of re-writing early history (especially Chinese cinema of the 1920s) of Chinese cinema, which has been long neglected and relegated  to a less important position.

Ruan Lingyu plays a young girl, apparently growing up in a rich Shanghai family, in "Love and Duty," a 1931 silent film released before leftism dominated Chinese cinema and culture.

Ruan Lingyu plays a young girl, apparently growing up in a rich Shanghai family, in “Love and Duty,” a 1931 silent film released before leftism dominated Chinese cinema and culture.

Another silent gem was shipped from Taiwan. Titled Love and Duty (恋爱与义务), the 1931 production features China’s silent movie queen Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide four years later after this film. Ruan shows her versatility and remarkable talent by playing four different roles in the film: a teenage girl full of romantic dreams, a runaway wife enduring hardship with her dream lover, an old woman who must pay the price for her moral betrayal, and a young girl who grows up not knowing the old woman in front of her is really her biological mother. Not tinted by leftist messages, Love and Duty reveals to the audience another dimension of early Chinese cinema. The film’s screening at the Shanghai Film Museum was accompanied by a “benshi” from Taiwan, who provided live narration in addition to live piano performance.

A snapshot of the 4K restored "Stage Sisters" (Xie Jin, 1964), featuring one of the sisters (left) being enlightened by an underground female Communist agent.

A snapshot of the 4K restored “Stage Sisters” (Xie Jin, 1964), featuring one of the sisters (left) being enlightened by an underground female Communist agent.

Behind the restoration of Love and Duty was the magical “brush” of Italy’s  L’Immagine Ritrovata Film Restoration Laboratory in Bologna, which was also responsible for the full 4K restoration of Stage Sisters (舞台姐妹; China, 1964), Xie Jin’s propaganda piece with high historical values. The meticulously restored print actually opened the Shanghai International Film Festival on the 14th of June. The festival also screened another Chinese film restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata, In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子; Jiang Wen, 1994), completed in 2013 for Orange Sky Golden Harvest Entertainment.

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