Also showing: Fei Mu

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 2009, 12:00am

It wouldn't be too far off the mark to describe Fei Mu as one of China's most star-crossed movie directors: his 20-year filmmaking career was mostly spent working amid war and mayhem. When he left his his desk job at Tianjin's L'Epargne Franco-Chinoise to write subtitles and synopses for the North China Film Company in 1930, large swathes of China were still under the sway of regional warlords, and the Japanese annexation of Manchuria - the prelude to what would become the Sino-Japanese war - was just a year away. When he died in Hong Kong in January 1951 - just after he finished his last screenplay, The Show Must Go On - the Chinese civil war was barely over, with the newly established People's Republic already engaged in another war in Korea.

Having lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in Chinese history, Fei channelled all of his anguish into his work: his 15 feature films and two shorts touched on a wide range of issues troubling the country as China readied itself for sweeping social and cultural changes.

Nights of the City (1933) and Song of China (1935), for instance, explored how the draw of the cosmopolitan lifestyle undermines filial piety and long-held traditions, as their young characters flock to the city only to discover crushed hopes and broken dreams. Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain (1936), made a year before Japan invaded China, is a thinly veiled metaphor for the political reality of the time, with a story about a village at the mercy of circling wolves. It was one of the most important works in a line of films that the Chinese government dubbed 'national defence films'.

As the Japanese army occupied most of Shanghai in 1938, Fei left for Hong Kong, only returning the following year to live and work in the city's remaining foreign-controlled concession areas. Shortly afterwards, he made the now legendary Confucius, a slow-moving film that depicts the philosopher not as a saint but a broken man, confused and apprehensive about the moral confusion around him as the country descended into deep chaos and what would eventually be known as the Warring States period. The story of an intellectual lamenting his inability to bring about changes in society (he 'rushed around in a state of anxiety, humiliated oneself to preserve the Way [and] demean oneself to save the world', Fei wrote in the special brochure published to mark the film's premiere in 1940) mirrored the filmmaker's own distress at seeing China under the jackboot of invaders and the helplessness of the local population.

It's not as if Fei's film advocates an unthinking return to the old ways: while Song of China was incorporated as one of the cultural totems of Chiang Kai-shek's New Life Movement - which heralded a worrying puritanism that called for obedience and the rejection of the individual - Confucius demanded, as Fei wrote then, 'a new understanding of the philosopher's teachings'.

'Without the inspiration of a Western academic consciousness, how long would [China] be still clinging on to the old ways?' he wrote.

Such confusion is brought to the fore in Fei's best-known and most critically acclaimed film, Spring in a Small Town (1948). On the surface, the film is about an extramarital affair a young woman conducts with an old flame. But Spring can be seen as the director's reflections on how China should move forward as it emerged from years of internal feuding and external aggression: when Zhou Yuwen struggles to choose between remaining loyal to her feeble, backward-looking husband and pursuing a brighter future with an aspirational Shanghainese doctor (while her teenage sister grows up vivacious and free of the shackles of the past), she's also playing out the conflicted emotions Chinese intellectuals felt back then.

What makes Fei's films so powerfully engaging is how they are at once lyrical masterpieces and also cerebral reflections of the historical circumstances in which they were made. In a footnote in Confucius' 1940 brochure, Fei humbly wrote that the film is neither history nor legend, but 'just a film drama'. It's a line that highlights the artistic innovation and fiery social spirit of his films.

Confucius is screened on Sat, 2.30pm, at the Hong Kong Film Archive, with further screenings on Sep 19 and Oct 17. Spring in a Small Town is screened on Aug 29, 2.30pm, as part of a double bill featuring Tian Zhuangzhuang's 2002 remake