ABOUT THE FILM
Approximately 52 minutes survive from this metacinematic, two-part silent film. Through the story of a former movie actress returning to her old studio, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen 影幕艷史 (1931) narrates a tale of love, filmmaking, and love of filmmaking. Set partly in the studio of Shanghai’s Star Motion Picture Company, the film represents real-life filmmakers at their craft, including director Zhang Shichuan 張石川 and cinematographer Dong Keyi 董克毅. The film also mentions several actual Star Co. productions, including Shadow of Red Tears 紅淚影 (1931) and the multi-part films Fire Burns Red Lotus Temple 火燒紅蓮寺 (part 1, 1928) and Fate in Tears and Laughter 啼笑因緣 (part 1, 1932). While giving us a tour of one major studio of the Republican Shanghai film industry, the film has fun with aspects of cinematic mass production, showing synchronized makeup application, unconventional audition procedures, the taming of unruly extras, and multiple special effects. Its prolific director, Cheng Bugao 程步高, went on to make Spring Silkworms 春蠶 (1933).
Director: Cheng Bugao 程步高
Cinematography: Charles Tom (Dong Keyi 董克毅)
The Star (Mingxing) Motion Picture Company, Shanghai
Part 1 release date: March 1, 1931
Part 2 release date: March 7, 1931
Full film first screening: August 13, 1931
Running time (surviving fragment): 52 minutes
Cast: Sie King-ling (Xuan Jinglin 宣景琳), Shao Bea-tsen (Xia Peizhen 夏佩珍), Wang Tsen-sing (Wang Zhengxin 王徵信), Shao Ying (Xiao Ying 蕭英), Wang Chih-ding (Wang Jiting 王吉亭), Xie Yunting 謝雲卿, Tan Zhiyuan 譚志遠, J. Tom (Tang Jie 湯傑), S.C. Chang (Zhang Shichuan 張石川), Charles Tom (Dong Keyi 董克毅)
Silent film, with Chinese-English title cards
Subtitles translated by Christopher Rea
Subtitles created by Liu Yuqing
Title cards have been translated where the meaning of the Chinese differs from the original English.
SYNOPSIS (surviving portion of film)
Wang Fengzhen (aka Wang Vong Tsen) is a former film star who gave up her career at Shanghai’s Star Motion Picture Company at the request of her fiancée, Fang Shaomei (aka Fong Shao Mei). Fengzhen is now bored at home and distraught at having been betrayed by Fang, who has taken up with a dance hall girl, Lily Ding (aka Lilan). Fengzhen has a dream in which she catches the two together in a hotel, but, in the dream, is talked out confronting the lovers by a film director, who encourages her to return to her former studio instead. Fengzhen later really does find Shaomei and his paramour in a hotel. He is unrepentant. Fengzhen, who has given up everything, decides to ask for her old acting job back, despite guilty feelings about her own past behavior. Assistant Director Wang gives Fengzhen a tour of the studio, where she glimpses filming in progress on several sound stages. She expresses awe at the scale and speed of all of the studio’s modern improvements. During the tour, she also witnesses how the studio deals with troublemakers among the extras. Fengzhen is re-hired and begins shooting new films. Shaomei’s attitude toward her changes entirely: he dumps Lily and becomes attentive to Fengzhen again, driving her to and from work. Spurned, Lily decides to become an actress herself, and auditions at Star with a panel of directors, who bewilder her with starkly different receptions. Assistant Director Wang relieves her puzzlement by explaining that this had been a test to see her spontaneous reactions in a variety of emotional registers. But will she get the job?
Watch the double-exposure cinematography special effect in the “hand that controls gold” scene:
Watch real-life director Zhang Shichuan’s cameo appearance in a scene dramatizing the shooting of a special effects-intensive supernatural film:
Learn how to apply makeup efficiently:
Read scholar Zhang Zhen’s groundbreaking history of early Chinese cinema, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937 (Chicago, 2005).
Special effects were common in early Chinese cinema, especially in comedies and martial arts (wuxia) films of the 1920s
Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1929 (2021), by Christopher Rea
An essential guide to the first golden age of Chinese cinema, offering detailed introductions to fourteen films.
An Amorous History of the Silver Screen (2005), by Zhang Zhen
The first sustained historical study of the emergence of cinema in China, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen is a fascinating narrative that illustrates the immense cultural significance of film and its power as a vehicle for social change.
Hua Mu Lan 木蘭從軍 (1939)
A young woman takes her father's place in the army and protects the Tang empire from invaders in this wartime adaptation of the Mulan legend.
Spring Silkworms 春蠶 (1933)
Silkworm farmers in southern China find themselves in desperate economic straits, despite a bumper harvest.