Thirty-year gap between screenings shows value of film preservation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 3:15pm

Beyond the Grave

An illustration of the dire state of local movie preservation prior to the establishment of the Hong Kong Film Archive can be found in two retrospective screenings of Beyond the Grave 25 years apart. In the 1980s, the eerie Ming dynasty tale was shown in a pristine 35mm print with its sync-sound Mandarin dialogue track intact. Then the picture vanished and was presumed lost but the 1954-released classic miraculously resurfaced in the chance 1990s discovery of a Cantonese-dubbed copy made decades earlier for the North American Chinatown market.

The loss of the original soundtrack is compensated, in a way, by forcing a viewer to concentrate on the production's striking visuals. The expressionistic Ming dynasty milieu was achieved through the efforts of art director Lu Shihou, cameraman Charles Tung Shao-yung, and set designer Chan Ki-yui, whose oeuvre along with that of his son, Chan King-sam, is the subject of the Film Archive's current retrospective.

It is not hyperbolic to state that the elder Chan helped define the look of post-second world war Hong Kong cinema. His professionalism in Beyond the Grave attains a level beyond merely that of "just another assignment" thanks to Doe Ching's intelligent direction and the screen chemistry exuded by teenaged Lucilla You Min.

In Doe's hands Beyond the Grave's other-worldly yarn of "love between man and ghost" was provided with a measure of delicacy and empathy that balanced the narrative's inherent luridness.

The movie is a rare example of Doe's creativity while under contract to Shaw & Sons, a pre-Shaw Brothers studio that did so little to preserve its celluloid that its legacy is less accessible to 21st-century buffs than the 17th-century literary opus that inspired Beyond the Grave.

Paul Fonoroff

Beyond the Grave, Fri, 7.30pm, Nov 17, 4.15pm, the Hong Kong Film Archive