May 31, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Chinese Silent All-Stars in The Big Road (1935)

Yan Jin the "Rudolph Valentino of Chinese Cinema"

As I walked up to the queue for The Big Road (1935), I heard a man ask, "Is this the line for Donald?" That's Donald Sosin, silent film accompanist and composer, and frequent guest of Seattle International Film Festival. It seems this talented musician has a bit of a following, and it is well deserved. For the first time, I wondered if I might get shut out of an archival screening as the line was held back for a quickly filling house.

This evening Sosin accompanied the screening of a Chinese classic that was most likely shown due to Richie Meyer, SIFF Board Member, Seattle University film professor and expert on Chinese cinema. Meyer introduced the film with a mini lecture about the political climate in which the film was made and the charismatic group of actors who starred. I think this was helpful to the audience. I didn't get the impression there were a lot of Chinese film experts there.

According to Meyer, The Big Road was shot in 1934-35 by a group of left wing progressives and Communists who wanted to protest the Japanese invasion of northeast China. As the airing of such opinions was dangerous, the filmmakers never directly name the enemy, instead making veiled, if obvious references.

Meyer then turned the spotlight on Sosin, challenging him to play snippets of music to go with whatever theme he named. This is a familiar shtick for anyone who has seen these two at a screening, and it's a great way to admire Sosin's skill at the keyboard before the movie begins and he essentially blends into the background. Meyer also introduced Dr. Malin Meyer, who would be translating the subtitles.

Li Lili reminded me a bit of Clara Bow
The story centers on six men and two women from a local eating house who befriend them. While the men struggle to build a road to transport troops, the women try to make their lives a bit happier and more comfortable. They have a hard, but relatively cheerful life until the Japanese capture the men, forcing the women to use their ingenuity to save them.

While the film was made silent, musical sequences were later added. These were charming interludes where the female and male stars take turns singing, and the audience was treated to the film's soundtrack for the songs while Sosin paused. They would have been a bit more charming without Malin translating over the songs, but it was interesting to know what they were saying, and I couldn't think of a better way to meld the two together.

It's easy to see why this group of actors was beloved in China. While a lot can be lost in translation, there's no denying the charisma of these dynamic people. Yan Jin (apparently known as the "Chinese Rudolph Valentino") and Li Lili (the "Chinese Mae West," though she reminded me more of Clara Bow) are particular standouts, both of them funny, gorgeous and a little off-kilter the way a truly relatable star must be. 

There's a nude swimming scene with the six men, where you only get glimpses of the really naughty bits, but I couldn't help but think it was put in there to show all those attractive stars to full advantage. Quite a shocker for 1935!

I also recognized Langen Han as the hapless brother from The Song of the Fisherman, which Meyer and Sosin presented at SIFF 2014. Meant to be comic relief, he was one of the few members of the cast who weren't ridiculously beautiful, and he got teased so much that I began to feel bad for him!

The Big Road makes a lot of sweeping emotional shifts, something I've come to recognize in Chinese cinema. One minute everyone is happy and laughing, the next there's a war plane mowing down innocent workers. It's jarring fatalism with a darkness that is in direct contrast to the Hollywood happy ending. Sometimes it feels like it is an honest reflection of reality, but I sometimes wonder if Chinese filmmakers and audiences almost found joy in everyone being destroyed so they could have big dramatic moments.

Sosin managed all those tonal shifts with ease. He is the most relaxed silent film accompanist I've seen perform, always alert and on point, but also seemingly completely confident and at ease. This is the fourth time I have seen him perform. I sat a couple of rows behind him, mostly because there simply weren't any other seats left, but it ended up being really interesting to see him at work, melding a truly creative performance (at one point he even yelled to punctuate a dramatic moment) with great precision work.

This was such a beautifully-executed presentation: a great film, strong narration, wonderful music and a little film history lesson to tie it all together. I hope to enjoy more Chinese films at SIFF in the future.

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