Sunday, April 12, 2009

Three really old films viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

The daughters of Confucius' producer and director
speak before the first screening in decades
of the 1940 film about the Chinese philosopher

Today's Easter Sunday -- a public holiday in Hong Kong elsewhere a lot of other places around the world. It's also officially the second last day of the 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival (which turns out to have a few programmes -- including Evan Yang, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni retrospectives -- going on through to May!). And high time to continue my reviews of movies I've seen over the past couple of weeks or so... before I go and catch two more films later today! ;)

Confucius (China, 1940)
- A special Restored Classic film
- Fei Mu, director
- Starring Tang Huaqiu and Chang Yi

Of all the films being shown as part of this year's HKIFF, that proclaimed as a "gift from heaven" may well be the one that the organisers were making the most of. And before the first of five scheduled screenings of that made during World War II and thought to have been lost for several decades, there were special appearances and speeches by Barbara Fei (daughter of director-scriptwriter Fei Mu) and Professional Serena Jin (daughter of producer Jin Xinmin) -- and HKIFF artistic director Li Cheuk-to -- to emphasise how privileged the cinematic offering's 2009 audience are to be treated to a screening of the restored work.

To be sure, I really do appreciate the efforts that went into the making of a film -- and especially at such a historically difficult time in China's and world history -- and those that went into restoring the work. To this end, I dearly wish I could report that Confucius is a wonderful work that effectively shows why that ancient philosopher has been revered over centuries.

In all honesty though, the aesthetically austere film not only bored me but also didn't help me to understand much why Confucius -- the man -- is considered so great. Instead, the portrait that was painted was of a preachy prig who -- unlike Jesus -- wasn't even able to perform miracles and actual deeds that did real good. Also, while the film did make no attempt to hide that he was not appreciated by many when he was alive, neither did it seem to make that strong an attempt to explain why he became to be revered as a saint by a whole lot of others through the ages.

To be fair, things weren't exactly helped by the historically significant work not being able to be entirely restored -- so that several minutes of it had to be viewed in silent and after the end of the film, snippets were shown that the restorers hadn't been able to fit into the work they had more or less cobbled together and were presenting as the restored classic. Still, call me a Philistine but there is no way that I can truthfully state that that I'd consider what I saw to be a five star work like at least one local film writer has done!

My rating for the film: 5.5

Wings (U.S.A., 1927)
- From the Archival Treasures programme
- William A. Wellman, director
- Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow

In light of my Confucius experience, I went into the screening of another old -- actually, even older -- film with no small amount of trepidation. This especially since the first ever winner of the Best Picture Oscar is a silent movie and has a lengthy running time of 141 minutes.

All my fears proved unfounded, however, as the cinematic paean to World War I flyboys -- that was shown here at the HKIFF with live accompaniment courtesy of German pianist Eunice Martins -- proved to be an amazing visual treat as well as over filmophile delight. For sure, some dramatic sections can seem somewhat hokey when considered in the cold light of day but, in view of its age, I'm apt to think of them as being charmingly so. Also, decades on, the aerial battle scenes -- which undoubtedly benefited from the director having actual "dog fight" experiences of his own -- still come across as a triumph of cinematography and continue to be genuinely impressive and riveting.

Although Clara Bow actually gets top-billing (and the movie's also notable for a brief appearance by Gary Cooper), I found the movie's two male leads -- Charles "Buddy" Rogers, playing the plane enthusiast turned fighter ace, and Richard Arlen as a young man who turns out to be as good as his family is wealthy -- to be very endearing. And while it's the aerial footage that really is the best and most memorable part of the film, they ensured that the other parts of the lengthy and admittedly morally simplistic work never ever dragged either.

My rating for the film: 7.5

Pharoah's Wife (Germany, 1922)
- Also from the Archival Treasures programme
- Ernst Lubitsch, director
- Starring Emil Jannings, Dagny Servaes and Harry Liedtke

This 1922 silent movie gave me my first taste of the work of a film-making legend whose name I knew about long before I had seen anything by him. But while this movie is interesting even for the very idea of Germans deciding to make a film about ancient Egyptians (and Ethiopians), my sense is that it ultimately has greater curiosity along with historic than actual entertainment value.

Like with Confucius, I feel obliged to point out that the archival work hasn't been completely restored. Thus, not only is the whole movie silent but whole minutes of other scenes are completely missing (and, in the version I saw, had to be substituted by still photos) as well as others appearing in various tinted colours. And to make things worse, at the viewing I attended, the person operating the electronic subtitles had problems with timing more than once.

Those factors probably played a part in ensuring that not only did I fall asleep for about twenty minutes of the film but also it being so that after I awoke, I noticed quite a few other members of the audience had falling asleep and also at least one person giving up and walking out mid-way through the work. On the other hand, it's definitely the filmmakers who are responsible for some of the worst hairstyles -- notably those of the Germans portraying Ethiopians but, also, the film's young Egyptian hero -- in cinematic history appearing in this work!

In its favor though, the undoubtedly ambitious work also boasts some spectacular scenes, quite of which linvolved a cast of literally thousands, and amazing sets. And one plot-line -- involving an old architect who has been ordered by the pharoah to be blinded -- had genuinely affecting pathos. Consequently, I have to say that even if it wasn't the absolute triumph of cinema that I hoped, I do appreciate getting the opportunity to view this early Lubistch work -- and on a big screen with live musical accompaniment in the bargain.

My rating for the film: 6.0


Brian said...

Yikes. You must have at least viewed The Shop Around the Corner or Ninotchka? Such great films. Reading my Lubitsch book I am curious whether the version was the US one or the German one - in the German one the lovers die in the end while in the US they survive. Or did you sleep thru this part! Don't let this put you off Lubitsch - he was still learning his craft and had yet to really develop his deft hand at sophisticated comedies.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Alas, "Pharoah's Wife" really was the first Lubitsch movie I saw. And no worries re it putting me off Lubitsch -- since from seeing his filmography, get the sense that his better known (and just plain better?) works only were made after he moved to the USA.

And *spoiler* I saw the German version of the film. It even had German intertitles (hence the need for the electronic English subtitles at the screening I attended)!

Willow said...

There is that Confucius film CYF has signed on for. Perhaps that'll shed some light on why the philosopher was so revered.

YTSL said...

Hi Willow --

Sorry but I'm not holding my breath. For the most part, have not been encouraged by Chow Yun-fat's choice of films to appear in for some time now. :S