The first Chinese film was made in 1905. In celebration of the centenary of a great film tradition, this exhibition presents a number of silent and early sound classics from China’s first golden era, many of them for the first time in the United States. Shanghai in the early decades of the 20th century was a metropolis alive with art and culture—the Hollywood of the East, no less. Beyond showcasing the urban landscape that supplied the cinema with its backdrop as well as its energy, this exhibition’s special focus is on the constellation of movie stars that commanded the screens, featuring, for instance, Ruan Lingyu, the most luminous and tragic silent star of the golden era, and Li Lili, a popular athletic beauty with a winsome sexuality. Both were often paired with Jin Yan and Gao Zhanfei, the two Chinese “Valentinos.” These and other stars lit up the screen with their charismatic allure and memorable performances, in films directed with inventive originality by directors like Cai Chusheng, Shi Dongshan, and Sun Yu, providing early Chinese cinema tremendous popularity at home. The exhibition also presents several important early sound experiments, culminating in Street Angel, a classic film renowned for Zhou Xuan’s songs and for its stylistic tribute to the “shadowplay” aesthetic of the earliest Chinese cinema. All films except Street Angel are silent, with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
Organized by Jytte Jensen, Curator, Department of Film and Media; Zhang Zhen, Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies, New York University; and William Phuan, Program Associate, Asian CineVision, with the gracious collaboration of the China Film Archive, Beijing. We are indebted to the Pordenone Catalogues 1995/1997 for valuable information.