China dusts off 1930s film classics in culture war

Classics from 1930s golden era, now restored, added to soft power push

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 5:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 6:41am


China is turning to a 1930s prostitute with a heart of gold - played by a doomed actress - to arouse a cinematic renaissance and fend off a cultural onslaught from Hollywood.

A new digital restoration of The Goddess, a 1934 silent movie from a golden period of the city's film industry, was recently shown at the Shanghai Film Festival.

In the film, a woman is driven into prostitution to pay for the education of her young son after her husband's suicide. Gossipy neighbours reveal her profession to the boy's school, forcing him to leave. She eventually murders a gambler for stealing her money, ending up in jail. It is one of several remasterings that come as Beijing tries to extend its soft power by exporting Chinese culture around the world, and build a stronger movie industry able to compete internationally.

" The Goddess deserves being seen as the pinnacle of the Chinese silent film era," said Sun Xianghui, the director of the state-backed China Film Archive, set up in 1958 and which has recently opened its vaults.

Overseas audiences saw the new print, many for the first time, a few weeks ago in Paris. Linda Wong Davies, founder of the KT Wong Foundation which commissioned a new musical score for The Goddess, described the project as "China restoring its own past, its own great history".

A Chinese academic, who declined to be named, said: " The Goddess is representative of a leftist critique of society, so the Communist Party has all along held the movie in high esteem."

The Goddess is virtually unknown to Western audiences, but critics say it compares favourably to foreign silent films of the same era, in large part due to lead actress Ruan Lingyu, who plays the prostitute. Ruan acted in 29 films, only nine of which survive, before killing herself over two unfaithful lovers at the age of 24 in 1935. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Shanghai for her funeral procession.

But restored films have found only a niche audience in China compared with Hollywood blockbusters. Shanghai held just two screenings of The Goddess, though viewers paid more than 185 yuan (HK$233) for tickets. "Restoring this kind of film is not very profitable from a commercial angle," film critic Raymond Zhou said.

The government said in June it would invest 100 million yuan annually to fund five to 10 "influential" films, and offer the domestic industry some tax breaks.

"It must be recognised we are in a full state of competition with American films," state media quoted Zhang Hongsen , the head of the film bureau under the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, as saying. "This is about defending and fighting for cultural territory."