The Man Who Has A Camera 持攝影機的男人 (1933)

China / Taiwan

Director: Liu Na’ou 劉吶鷗

Studio: N/A

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Japanese 日文

Genre: Silent / Travel

Running Time: 30 minutes

Recommended.


Although the most famous works of early Chinese cinema come from the so-called leftist films of the 1930s, a number of which have been covered on this blog e.g. Street Angel 馬路天使, it’s important when looking at the historiography of Chinese cinema to remember that it was mostly formalised during the initial years of Communist rule post-1949. One of these notable works is The History of the Development of Chinese Cinema 中國電影發展史 by Cheng Jihua 程季華.

Cheng’s analysis of pre-war Shanghai cinema puts great emphasis on the differences between leftist “hard” films, and reactionary pro-KMT/colonialist “soft” films. The hard/soft nomenclature had in fact been used previously, but Cheng’s work was the first time that these terms came to mean that “hard” films were serious political works whilst “soft” films were inherently tainted by impure ideologies and thus, less worthy pieces of art.

Subsequently, a large-scale abandonment of these films as serious viewing took place, until the 1990s, when those works that survived began to be reexamined by both domestic and international scholars. In the late 1990s, The Man Who Has A Camera was discovered in an attic by relatives of Liu Na’ou — famous not just for his own directorial work in Shanghai, but his critical essays and literature as a member of the cosmopolitan class.

Liu was truly a product of this particular moment in history. Born into a southern Taiwanese family during its time as a Japanese colony, Liu would go on to spend several years studying in Japan itself, before relocating to Shanghai in 1926. Thus, Liu was exposed to a great number of cultural influences that would influence his own world view and aesthetic.

The Man Who Has A Camera is clearly not a film that was intended for public audiences, being partially a study of Liu’s family and friends, mixed in with various scenes from travels around China, Taiwan and Japan. But its 30 minutes are a glimpse into the much-criticised world of elite, cosmopolitan, Shanghai.

Despite not featuring on film at all, the influence of the Shanghai lifestyle can be seen throughout. Comprising sections filmed in Tainan, Taiwan; Tokyo, Japan; Guangdong, China; and Mukden in then-Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (modern day Shenyang in Liaoning Province), Liu’s camera frequently focuses on his glamorous companions, or on a bustling mechanised cityscape. He travels by road, by boat and by air, interacting with people across cultural boundaries (notably finding a gurning foreigner in Guangdong). This is interspersed with more traditional street scenes, including an extended parade replete with lion dancers in Tainan, or a tranquil walk through the Japanese countryside. The calm, stillness, and simplicity of the scenes with his family in Tainan — an elderly woman, young children with their parents puzzled at this new kind of photography — is starkly contrasted with a military parade by Nationalist forces in Guangdong.

To watch The Man Who Has A Camera is to be taken to a world where the concept of national identities has been blurred into a cosmopolitan whole.  A private film, and as such one that has been made in order to convey emotions and memories of a time that we cannot truly understand. But, it still tells us much about Liu as a man and his style. Bearing many of the hallmarks of his preferred style of filmmaking, it has a wonderful kineticism on display in its numerous travel and street scenes.

Liu’s life was cut short in 1940 following his assassination in Shanghai, a fate he shared with friend and fellow author/filmmaker Mu Shiying 穆時英, apparently for collaboration with the Japanese. The life and times he portrayed in his work were but a brief snapshot in history, but they remain somewhat of an enigma, buried as they are under the politically unappealing headings of ‘collaborationist’ and ‘reactionary’.

There is no doubt, however, that The Man Who Has A Camera stands as an important record of that time, and the unique identity of those such as Liu who straddled cultures in 1930s Shanghai. 

The Goddess 神女 (1934)

China

Director: Wu Yonggang 吳永剛

Studio: Lianhua 聯華

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Silent / Drama

Running Time: 75 minutes

Recommended.  If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a great way to start.


 

Released during what can be considered the first boom in the Chinese cinema industry, the 1930s, The Goddess is perhaps the most famous film of the era, and certainly the most accessible, having had numerous Western releases.

The film is thematically typical of the so-called leftist cinema of the era — that of the struggle of ordinary citizens against an unjust and corrupt society. It’s a product of the Shanghai studio system, with all the major cinematic productions of that era emanating from the Lianhua 聯華, Mingxing 明星 and Tianyi 天一 film companies.

Familiar though its themes may be, The Goddess remains a powerful piece of cinema even today.

The film revolves around a woman working as a prostitute in order to provide for her son. Early on, she evades a police sweep by hiding in a man’s room, only for him to suggest she stays the night as payment. As it turns out, this man is a local gambler, who takes control of her life, despite her attempts to escape.

Throughout, her son is her solace, who she is determined to put through school so he does not suffer as she has. Unfortunately, word spreads around the school about her circumstances, and letters are sent to the school principal demanding he take action.

The principal, however, is moved when he goes to visit the woman to determine the truth of the matter. Seeing her devotion to improving her son’s life, he decides against expelling her son. His decision is not accepted by the rest of the school’s staff, however, and he resigns — unable to prevent the expulsion.

Realising that she cannot build a good life for her son where she is, she decides it’s best for them move. However, she discovers the money she’s been hiding away has been stolen by the gambler.

Furious, she confronts him at a gambling den, where he admits to having taken, and spent, the money. With his back turned, she strikes him over the head with a nearby bottle, killing him.

The film ends with her sentenced to jail for 12 years, and her son in an orphanage. The principal, who had been the one of the few in the film to treat her and her son with any humanity, comes by to let her know that he will look after her son. She tells him to tell her son she is dead, rather than let him know the shame of her life.

Although, like many of its contemporaries, the film leans heavily on the melodramatic mode, it is driven by the performance of actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉.

Ruan was one of the stars of 1930s Shanghai and her own life also ended in tragedy. Aged just 24, she committed suicide after a period of intense speculation regarding her private life. Though under different circumstances, perhaps she could relate all too well with the The Goddess in her inability to escape the judgement of those around her.

Despite its age, and mode, The Goddess remains an eminently watchable film — one who’s lessons are (sadly) just as relevant almost 100 years later — and an important piece of Chinese cinematic history.