China Institute Launches New Film Program with Two Classics from the 1940s:
Feb. 4, 2019 By Aaron Nicholson
On January 16, China Institute launched The Film Society at China Institute, a series of programs for Sinophiles and Cinephiles to join us in exploring the diverse and dynamic world of Chinese film.
When China Institute moved to our new downtown home in 2015, we uncovered boxes of old films that hadn’t been shown at the Institute in many years- some for decades. This year, we catalogued the films, and hope to use this new series to share many of them with our members and friends. The discovery led to the creation of this new series which will screen a pair of films from our archive and other sources that are thematically connected.
The first two films, Myriads of Lights (万家灯火) and Crows and Sparrows (乌鸦与麻雀) are from 1948 and 1949 respectively, and are both standout films from what is known as the Second Generation of Chinese cinema.
The “Second Generation” refers to filmmakers who were active in 1930s and 1940s, a period of great political upheaval in China. Throughout these two decades, the Nationalists and the Communists fought a civil war for power, which included a struggle to exert control over the country’s major film studios to be used for propaganda. The biggest contribution of this generation of filmmakers, was their help in executing a transfer from silent films, to films that included sound, ushering in what is believed to be China’s first cinematic golden age. Artistically, films from this era are heavily influenced by “realism,” a movement that focused on the real lives of ordinary people.
Set during the turbulent years of China’s second Civil War, the family saga Myriads of Lights recounts the heart-wrenching story of Hu Zhiqing and his family struggling to live through those difficult times in Shanghai. At the outset, the father Hu Zhiqing lives a modest but decent life in the city with his wife Lan Youlan and daughter Ni Ni. However, the status quo becomes hard to maintain as domestic inflation starts to spiral out of control.
In Crowns and Sparrows, which is set during the same time period, a corrupt Nationalist (KMT) official, Hou Yibo, forcibly takes over an apartment building from its original owner, Kong Youwen. As the defeat of the KMT is about to take place, Hou attempts to sell off the property to profit one last time before he escapes to Taiwan. His tenants, including Mr. Kong, Mrs. Xiao, Little Broadcast and Mr. Hua and his wife, have to find ways to avoid being thrown onto the street.
Both films feature Shangguan Yunzhu, a Chinese actress active from the 1940s to the 1960s who was considered one of the most talented and versatile actresses in China. She was said to have had an affair with Mao Zedong, for which she was severely persecuted by the followers of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution.
Myriads of Lights was introduced by Aliza Ma, the head of programming at Metrograph, a Manhattan art-house movie theater.
Crows and Sparrows was introduced by Zheng Dali (郑大里) is a research assistant at Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, whose father, Zheng Junli (郑君里), was the film’s director. According to Zheng, his father would be “deeply honored by the group gathered to view his film, almost 70 years after the film was completed.” Following the screening, we were joined by Richard Peña, a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, and former Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Director of the New York Film Festival, who led a discussion about the film with the audience.
Professor Peña replayed key scenes from the film to show ways in which the film reflected the complex political dynamics of the ongoing Chinese revolution. According to Peña, the tenants living in different floors of the house in the film are allegorical of the hierarchy of Chinese society. At the top of the house, a rich KMT official lived, and extracted rent from the tenants below. Below him, the school teacher represents learned intellectuals, and on the bottom, the merchants and an older tenant, Mr. Kong, together form the petty bourgeoisie. Over the course of the film the official and his wife ousted, and the tenants take over the home, mirroring the fall of the KMT, and the rise of the masses that fueled China’s Communist takeover.
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