From April 22 through May 16, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present "Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema," a three-week festival of rarely seen masterworks of Chinese cinema before 1949. Presented in collaboration with The China Film Archives, "Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema" accompanies the Guggenheim's landmark exhibition China: 5,000 Years. The sixteen motion pictures in the series offer insight into early modern life in China, in particular Shanghai, and demonstrate how early Chinese filmmakers experimented with a new medium to tell their own stories. Many of these films have never been seen in North America. "Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema" is the inaugural series in the Guggenheim Museum's new Film and Video Exhibition Program, created under the direction of John G. Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts. The curatorial team responsible for "Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema" includes Manon Slome, Assistant Curator; Xiaoming Zhang, Curatorial Assistant; and Esther Yau, Curatorial Consultant and Visiting Associate Professor in the Program of Film Studies, University of California, Irvine. The film series will be accompanied by a program containing a scholarly essay by Prof. Yau.
The film series is presented in the Peter B. Lewis Theater under the auspices of The Sackler Center for Arts Education, a major facility for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's education initiatives that supports programs throughout the museum. Several of the films in the series dramatize the effects of urbanization on people's lives: the hardships facing displaced rural people looking for work; the alienating aspects of big city life; the new possibilities for women joining the work force; the increasing significance of money in shaping human relationships; the new luxuries, opportunities, and perils associated with indigenous capitalism and international finance. The earliest film in the series, A String of Pearls (Yichuan Zhenzhu) (1926), directed by Li Zeyuan, is an adaptation of Maupassant's The Necklace. It is one of the earliest surviving Chinese features and is a production of Great Wall, a company established by a group of Chinese from New York.
Chinese filmmakers also turned to traditional theater and literature for source material. Tale of the Western Chamber (Xi Xiang Ji) (1927), based on a well-known Yuan dynasty music drama, tells the tale of a chance meeting and the subsequent ephemeral romance between Cui Yingying, a wealthy court lady, and Zhang Hong, a poor scholar. Director Hou Yao transforms Chinese verse with imaginative special effects. One of the highlights of the series is The Peach Girl (Taohua Qi Xueji) (1931), a Chinese-style melodrama considered one of early Chinese cinema's great classics. The life of a peach tree is used as a metaphor for the heroine's development in this love story featuring actress Ruan Lingyu, who at 21 was one of the country's bona fide movie stars. A tragic figure in real life, Ruan committed suicide at the age of 25 after making 29 films in nine years. Song of the Fishermen (Yu Guang Q) (1934) is the tale of a fisherman's family living on the coast of the East China Sea, left helpless by the death of the father in a storm. It is an early example of location filming used in order to heighten the realism of the story. Director Cai Chusheng struggled to incorporate synchronous sound into the film, employing a new Chinese-developed sound technology produced by The Three Friends System. Sound entered general use in Chinese cinema later than in Western film because silent films continued to draw large audiences in China, and monopolies controlled by American film companies did not allow Chinese filmmakers easy access to sound equipment.
Street Angel (Malu Tianshi) (1937) makes references to American films of the 1920s, including Frank Borzage's Street Angel (1928). Director-screenwriter Yuan Muzhi employs sharply delineated characters, sparse dialogue, and sophisticated camera work to tell the story of lower-class Shanghai citizens living under Japanese occupation. The film opens with a montage sequence reminiscent of German and Soviet experimental work of the 1920s, including a sweeping shot that pans from the highest roofs of Shanghai to the cluttered surface of the canal. High-contrast lighting in the style of German Expressionist cinema creates an oppressive mood which is offset by comical performances by the actors.
Screenings will take place in the Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street). All films are 35 mm prints in black-and-white, with English subtitles. Silent films will be presented with live piano accompaniment. Tickets are free of charge with museum admission and are available on the day of the screening at the Museum Admissions Desk.
All prints provided courtesy of The China Film Archive, Beijing. Because English translations of film titles vary in filmographies, alternate English-language titles have been provided in some cases. An asterisk (*) indicates a film that has not survived in its entirety; although these films are incomplete, their historical and artistic value merits their inclusion in this program. For further film-program information, please call (212) 423-3587. For museum hours and general information, please call (212) 423-3500. Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema is organized in collaboration with The China Film Archive, Beijing. YAMAHA is the official piano of the Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema series. Translation is provided by Softitlerª Classical Titles System. (c) 1998 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.