In Search of Old Chinese Films

By Amanda Shuman

Last Friday, former Time Out: Beijing film editor Simon Fowler introduced his book 101 Essential Chinese Movies (Earnshaw Books, 2010) and some of his favorite Chinese movies at the Bookworm International Literary Festival. Fowler, who admits he has an unhealthy obsession for watching obscure old Chinese films, spoke about the difficulties in making choices for the book, which covers mainland China cinema but not those of Taiwan or Hong Kong. Fowler states in the introduction that “so much has already been written” about Taiwan and Hong Kong that most people imagine “Chinese” cinema they often think of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The emphasis in his work, however, is on movies that have influenced the cinematic history of mainland China.

After viewing a clip from the internationally-acclaimed Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬 Bawang bie ji, 1993), Fowler highlighted the difficulties in writing a book that covers “essential” Chinese cinema. How does one account for films that are more popular abroad than in China and vice versa? Although he feels he never truly solved this problem, for the purposes of the book he chose movies that he feels best illustrate cinematic history at a particular moment in time. For example, This Life of Mine (我这一辈子 Wo zhe yi beizi, 1950), based on the novel by Lao She, serves as a prime example of China cinema’s investment in strong (specific) political messages during the early PRC period. The film harbors a deep contrast between the hardships of “old Beijing” society and the optimistic belief that things would get better with the arrival of the Communists. Additionally, as Fowler notes in his book, political tides often heavily influenced Maoist period cinema, such when director and lead actor Shi Hui was labeled a rightist in 1957 and subsequently committed suicide.

Fowler led the audience through several other movies that he considers to define particular cinematic moments in time, including the brilliant camera work behind Xie Jin’s Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (女篮5号 Nü lan 5 hao, 1957) (” ‘Finally!’ I thought, ‘someone who knows how to use a camera!’ “) and the advent of a distinctive animation-style under the Wan brothers. Lastly, he highlighted what he considers some of the best modern Beijing movies, including Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车 Shi qi sui de dan che, 2001) and Lost in Beijing (苹果 Pingguo, 2007). Fowler argued that Beijing Bicycle serves as the quintessential Beijing movie not only due to its highly believable plot (a power struggle between the high school boy from Beijing and the rural migrant) but also because of the numerous bicycle scenes set in hutongs. Fowler pointedly asked, “why would any movie in Beijing include a car chase scene?”

With all of this talk about films, one might wonder how Fowler had access to so many old movies. In the Q&A, Fowler listed some of his favorite places to acquire movies in Beijing (the area south of the Jishuitan subway station) as well as outside of China (the YesAsia website).

In fact, finding copies of old mainland Chinese movies has probably never been easier. Unless you’re looking for movies pre-1922 (all of which, according to Fowler, burned or were destroyed at some point and no longer exist), internet and high-quality DVD or VCD copies of post-1922 films can be obtained in several ways. Gone are the days when you needed to wait days or weeks to order from Interlibrary Loan, travel to the film archives in Beijing, or scour knock-off DVD stores asking numerous people whether or not they have a copy of Xie Jin’s《舞台姐妹》 (“Two Stage Sisters”) or something more obscure like 《两个小足球队》(“Two Small Soccer/Football Teams”) .

Many films are now accessible for free on tudou.com and youku.com, but if you’re looking for a more reliable copy or ad-free viewing, several companies have begun releasing old movies on high-quality DVDs. Companies like Boying and Beauty Media sell copies of many older movies. Beauty Media even has a subdivision that specializes in producing films with English subtitles (called “Follow Me Chinese”). (Although the quality of English subtitles varies, they are more than suitable for teaching purposes.) Many DVDs can easily be purchased at large bookstores in mainland China, such as the main Wangfujing bookstore or the Xidan book building in Beijing, both of which hold an especially good collection of movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The China Film Museum also has a good collection and helpful staff in its bookstore. (Located near the airport in Beijing, the film museum currently has no entrance fee but states online that it requires a reservation in advance. When I visited, however, the museum had so few visitors that the reservation policy was ignored.) The price ranges from 10 to 30 RMB per DVD.

If you’re in mainland China for 3 days or longer, the best place to buy DVDs of old movies is not necessarily a bookstore. If you know exactly what you want, there are several ways to order old films online. Both amazon.cn and taobao.com have plenty of movies in stock and can get them to you very quickly. In fact, Amazon offers a cash-on-delivery method that does not require providing any bank or credit card information online. (You will need to provide a phone number and address, however, so that the deliveryman can find you!) Like the DVDs themselves, shipping and delivery fees remain quite low on the mainland, often just a few RMB for the total order. In just a few days, without ever venturing to the DVD shop, one could feasibly own a whole collection of 1960s movies for less than the cost of 2-3 DVDs in the U.S.

Finally, a very important resource for finding materials related to a film is the popular auction website kongfz.com. As recently reported here on China Beat, kongfz.com might be complicated to navigate for the novice (mostly in setting up payment methods!), but I have easily located copies of movie scripts, picture books, billboard posters, and other paraphernalia related to films available for low-cost purchase.

Amanda Shuman is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz currently living in Beijing. Her research includes sports and politics in China in the post-1949 period.

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