Sunday, November 2, 2008

Princess Iron Fan (1941)
Romance of the Western Chamber (1927)

November 6th, 6:30PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Enjoy two early Chinese films, each with a fairly short viewing time that together is under two hours.

Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Animation began in China in the early 1920's, less then a decade after the birth of Japanese animation. Like the early animation of almost any nation it began with silent shorts, then longer more developed talkies finally leading to features. China’s first feature was largely the result of the efforts of the Wan Brothers who also created early shorts and the first Chinese animated talkie. They used a rhotoscope process for much of the film, which gives it a fairly unique look compared to many other early animated features.

The films story was adapted from a popular chapter of The Journey to the West, a novel regarded along with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber and The Water Margin as one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. The plot revolves around a Monk who is traveling to India to find and bring back the original Buddhist scriptures to China. He is accompanied by the impish Monkey King who is forced to become his protector and guide as well as sever other magical helpers. During there journey they encounter all manor of magical creatures that attempt to halt their journey.

The continued popularity of this story has continued since it was written in the 16th century. There have been many media adaptations of the story including animated and live action films, TV series and video games. In the United States the story is most well known through two Japanese animated series, the first being Dragonball which uses a loose adaptation of the story and the short lived series Monkey Magic from the 1990's. Even with this limited exposure, its story is arguably the most well known of the four novels in the United States.

The circumstances surrounding the film are also somewhat unusual. It was made in 1940-41 during a time when China was being invaded by the Japanese. It was actually exported to Japan where it helped spur the creation of the first Japanese animated feature Warriors of the Wind a anti Western propaganda film promoting the goal of a Japan centered Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere.

China, Director Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming, Mandarin with English subtitles, 72 mins.

Romance of the Western Chamber (1927)

During the 1920's Shanghai developed a vibrant film industry. Much of this history is completely unknown to many Chinese much less western viewers. Aside from a few super stars like actress Ruan Lingyu, most of figures behind the films are equally as forgotten. Romance of the Western Chamber was made by important figures engaging in an early struggle to shape the direction of Chinese cinema.

Lai Man-Wai was one of the films co-directors and at the time of the films making he was on a self proclaimed mission to improve the quality of Chinese cinema. Lai had become deeply interested in film from the time he encountered it. Early on in his film making career he developed close ties to Sun Yat-Sen and the Nationalists, even accompanying the army on its Norther Expatiations against the warlords, making a documenting the events on film.
Later after some difficulties he relocated to Hong Kong where he attempted to set up his studio Minxin. After many difficulties and the unhelpful attitude of the British administration governing the region, he returned to the mainland and was able to establish his studio.

The stated goal was to make films of superior quality which included lavish historical epics. He was able to use his Nationalist connections to engage thousands of government troops as extras on some of his films. Despite this support he frequently lost out to his rivals which typically made much cheaper films at a faster pace, giving much less thought goals of fine cinema. This meant that while one of his epics was filming, another studio might knock off a film copying its story, only made in less then half the time and using a small fraction of its budget, thus saturating the market before the Lai film finishes its production.

Romance of the Western Chamber is a film of a much smaller scale then the greatest of Lai’s epics. Its short, only forty-three minutes, it really is a medium level production for its time. The chief claim to fame of the film is an early dream sequence which uses sever in camera effects shots that were rare for the period. The dedication to quality is also still present and it shines through even more then eighty years later.

China, Director Lai Man-Wai, Cast Ge Cijiang, Hu Chinchang, Lam Cho-Cho, Li Dandan, 43 mins.

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