Mise-en-scene and the Subjunctive body of Opera Film

Weihong Bao

This paper examines critical interactions between the aesthetic debates and film practices on Chinese opera films in the 1950s and 1960s to visit the renewed relationship between theater and cinema in the production of a unique film genre.

The multiple labels rendered for opera films-“opera art documentary”, “opera art film,” and “indigenous musical”-not so much highlight the instability of opera film as an emerging genre but the perpetual conflict that renewed the tension and affinity between cinema and theater: between realistic settings and symbolic performance, between sound and image, between cinematic and theatrical organization of space and time, and between the centrality of the actor’s body and that of the filmmaker and film editor.

From a historical long shot, I will illustrate how these debates dramatized similar concerns rehearsed in the earlier decades in modern China, particularly in the 1920s regarding the transition from theatre to film, both in modern dramatists’ marginalization of popular realism (Wenmingxi) and in filmmaker’s self-differentiating emphasis on cinema as a distinct artistic medium (Ouyang Yuqian). These earlier debates, I argue, contributed to the essentialization of traditional Chinese opera which still haunted the 1950s discussions. In practice, however, the rich diversity of the 1950s and 60s’ opera films demonstrate refreshing ways for us to rethink the triangulation of realist theater, cinema, and traditional (symbolic) Chinese opera.

My paper will examine three strands of opera film in practice: the cinematic recreation of magic, the invention of an action genre that centralizes performance and operatic rhythm, and the experiment on “indigenous musical” as seen in backstage opera films. These three strands revisited and provided unique answers to the question of the mise-en-scene, a cinematic notion with deep theatrical roots that resurfaced in the 1950s’ international film theory and film criticism.


Woman and the Vernacular in Huangmei Opera Film

Xiangyang Chen

Forty six years ago, a Huangmei opera film made in Hong Kong, The Love Eterne (Li Hanxiang, 1963), took Taiwan by storm, smashing local box office records and generating a frenzied consumption of the genre for more than a decade to come. A filmic translation of the Huangmei opera, a regional opera from China’s Anhui province after the manner it was put on screen in mainland China, most notably The Fairy Couple (Shi Hui, 1955), the genre has triggered studies along the line of the Andersonian cultural nationalism among Chinese communities divided by geo-political borders and the Cold War. This essay, however, studies the genre from a gendered perspective. In particular I am interested in the following questions:  in the genre’s translation between, for instance, theatre and film, and nationalist mainland China and diasporic Chinese filmmakers based in Hong Kong aiming for overseas market, why is gender impacted? Is gender aesthetically significant, in the opera and in film? The films to be studied include The Fairy Couple, Diau Charn (Li Hanxiang 1958) and The Love Eterne, the latter two made in Hong Kong by Shaw Brothers.


Three Traitors’ Tales in Opera Films: Re-reading the “Red Classics” in Daughter of the Party, Hong Xia and Jiang Jie

Xiaomei Chen

This paper addresses the conference’s theme of politics in/of opera film as the creators of the political culture of the PRC.  It starts with a 2006 operatic drama Qu Qiubai, the second leader of the Chinese Communist party, and centers on the emotional power of his “Superfluous Words,” written as his confession before his death at the KMT execution ground in 1935, which probes into his “traitorous” thoughts.  In the last few days before his death, the character Qiubai puts down his mask as a CCP leader and talks his mother, his two wives, and his potential lover, Ding Ling.  Qiubai regrets having led an “actor’s” career in the political theater of modern China, where he was entrusted to preside over the CCP’s politburo at a time of crisis.  Tracing the fall and rise of Qiubai-first as a traitor in the 1960s and then as a honest leader in the 1990s, this paper explored two geju opera films, Sister Jiang (Jiangjie), who denunciated traitors and sacrificed her life for the revolution, and Red Corral (Hong Shanhong) which expressed the heroines’ desire to live and hesitation to sacrifice her love for the revolution. In examining the conflicts between traitors and heroes, I want to explore the complexities and paradoxes of emotional performance in revolutionary drama, which has reversed historical narrative by delineating the subversive affect in theatrical spectacle in opera films.


Why The Peony Pavilion?: Mei Lanfang’s Last Opera Film

Xinyu Dong

From Chunxiang’s Mischief at School (Chuanxiang naoxue) in 1920 to Dream in the Garden (Youyuan jingmeng) in 1959, “opera highlights” (zhezi xi) of the kunqu classic The Peony Pavilion marked the respective beginning and end of Mei Lanfang’s film career. While fortuity and the canonical status of the play might be enough to explain this coincidence, Mei’s interests in both the “obsolete” kunqu and the “new” medium of cinema suggest a productive line of inquiry into their expressive potentiality. Taking Dream in the Garden as an example, this paper examines the cinematic treatments of Mei’s performance as well as the affinity between the two media in terms of verisimilitude and stylization.

Specifically, I look at the ways in which the precisely choreographed “meeting of the eyes” (dui yanguang) during the dream scene is translated into refreshingly rare exchanges of cinematic point-of-view. The original play’s motif of transcendence as represented by the romantic dream encounter at once opens up a self-referential space for Mei’s performance and frees the film medium here from the sole function of photographical preservation. In this sense, Mei’s own interpretation of the transformative “fairy” quality (xian qi) of the play and the film medium could be seen as a footnote to his own art of impersonation. The film thus also complemented his stage performance in the masculine and patriotic General Mu Guiying (Mu Guiying guashuai) of the same year, which added a paradoxical last touch to his career as a female impersonator.


Re-makes/Re-models: The Red Detachment of Women between Stage and Screen

Kristin Harris

The Red Detachment of Women, for an entire generation the key “model work” of the Cultural Revolution, evolved through multiple iterations and transformations over half a century — oral histories, reportage, local opera, feature films, comic books, the famous model opera and ballet, photographed and filmed versions of stage productions, international reinterpretations, serials for television, etc.  This paper probes these works in historical context, particularly the variations across (and arising out of) each specific new medium. Special attention will be devoted to the successive stage and screen productions of the Red Detachment of Women amid shifting cinematic practices and theatrical conventions.


Azalea Mountain and the Soundscape of Late Mao Culture

Nicole Huang

The paper addresses the interface between the visual and the auditory in cinematic culture of late Mao China. Throughout the 1970s, the cinematic soundtracks of a handful of films, including model opera films and feature films, were edited specifically for the purpose of radio broadcasting. Coined as “edited film recording” 电影录音剪辑, this made-for-radio sonic compilation would retain much of the music and dialogues straight from the original track, complemented by a voice-over narrator that explains backgrounds, settings, and connections among different scenes and figures.

Film literacy thus could be achieved without an actual access to the film products themselves. The hybridity of the genre created an illusion of more and equal access to the symbolic order of a socialist visual culture.  Together with serialized radio novels and radio plays, these edited film recordings were among the most popular forms of mass entertainment throughout the 1970s. Using Azalea Mountain 杜鹃山 as an example, the paper highlights the sounds behind the images and calls into question the sensory predominance of the visual over the aural in our current scholarly paradigms.


Traditional Culture, Romantic Love and Revolution:

A Study of the Yueju Film Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai

HUI Kwok Wai

Since the Yueju 越劇 (Yue Opera) Liang Shanbao yu Zhu Yingtai梁山伯與祝英台 (Liangzhu, commonly called Butterfly Lovers in English) was revised again and again from 1949 to 1953 before it was finally adapted into a movie, in this paper I would like to explore the details of the revision and adaptation process to answer the following set of questions. What do the whole process and the film itself tell us about the CCP’s perception of xiqu and xiqu film? And how the artists from both xiqu and movie circle worked together to echo the call of the Party on the one hand and pursue a new esthetic and entertainment form on the other?


Reading off the Screen: Turn to the Virtual Page of Chinese Opera Film

Ling Hon Lam

Amidst the over-rehearsed discussion since the 1950s about the delicate balance between realism and symbolism in Chinese opera film, there are conflicting opinions over whether and how to represent a piece of writing or an open book on screen. The operatic gesture of writing in Song Shijie is meant to draw attention to the expressive bodily motion itself, so a close-up of what was actually written on paper cuts one critic’s eyes as awkward intrusion. Yet in the case of Shiwu guan, another critic argues, just moving a brush in the air is no longer adequate, because cinemagoers would find a blank sheet of confession absurd. Underlying both of these opposite positions – and beyond the realism-symbolism split – is the allurement of reading (and by extension, viewing calligraphy or illustrations) incited by the cinematic apparatus. Spectators are summoned to identify with the characters not by listening to or singing with them but reading over their shoulders or through their eyes. The advent of opera film therefore signifies not simply the insertion of visuality into what was predominantly aural, but also the re-articulation between book and theatrical culture by way of cinema. The film screen does not so much depict a character writing or reading as itself functions like a virtual page framing that structures the spectator’s way of seeing. It becomes most intriguing in the 1962 and 1977 opera film versions of Honglou meng, where contesting page formats (woodblock drama illustration vs. handscroll panorama) mediate diverse social/cinematic space and reading/viewing experience.


Cultural Revolution Model Opera Films and the Realist Tradition in Chinese Cinema

Jason McGrath

As the final culmination of the forty-year tradition of revolutionary cinema in China, Cultural Revolution model opera films present a paradox. How could a tradition long founded on various forms of realism-whether critical realism, proletarian realism, or “revolutionary realism plus revolutionary romanticism”-reach its ideological extreme as well as its historical climax in a new genre that arguably ranks as one of the most formalist modes of fiction cinema in the history of the art? The aesthetic resources of Chinese opera offered revolutionary filmmaking a stylized mode of expression that departed not just from the ostensible realism of previous revolutionary art but equally from the norms of Hollywood. For example, the “verisimilar” acting that had dominated fiction film since early Griffith was replaced with a new histrionic style based on the Chinese opera tradition. This allowed revolutionary narrative conventions such as the “socialist realist gaze,” with which revolutionary heroes were imbued, to eschew all claim to mere representational realism and instead assert an ideological sublime Truth. In this way, the model opera films constituted the final stage of a “formal drift” in revolutionary cinema that helped to detach ideological rhetoric from historical reality and make it instead a performative operation that appealed to an appetite for spectacle, melodrama, and romance.


Between Censorship and Propaganda: The Cultural Experience of Cultural Revolution China

Barbara Mittler

The traumatic experience of having one’s home broken in, of having precious objects destroyed and robbed, of being deprived of books and records, paintings and musical instruments, porcelain, clothes and much more, has been described in many a memoir or fictional account of and from the Cultural Revolution. These narratives often leave out the flipside to these experiences, however: what happens to the objects of so-called feudal and bourgeois heritage after they have been taken away by Red Guards? What happens with the books and the music, the records and scores locked away from the public as potentially poisonous?

The numbing experience of having to listen to the same tunes over and over again, and to see the same heroes  everywhere, too, has been mentioned in many a memoir or fictional account of and from the Cultural Revolution. These narratives often leave out the flipside to these experiences, however: what if the school arranges for a performance of The White-Haired Girl and you get to play a role in it? What if you are offered to be taught how to play an instrument in one of the song and dance troopes performing the model works and thus be relieved of heavy work on the fields and in the factories?

The kinds of contradictions hinted at here are typical for the Cultural Revolution experience in art and culture. The paper will give a general introduction to some of the artistic, and here most specifically, the operatic activities during the Cultural Revolution and argue that our understanding of the destructive and the numbing forces during the Cultural Revolution may have blurred our ability to see another history which is shaping the musical and artistic activities in China to the present day. The paper will discuss the effects of assiduous reading, listening, and thus profiting and learning not only from those censored cultural objects officially taken away, but also from those propagated cultural objects that were officially prescribed and over(re)presented day in and day out.


Virtuosity Or Virtue? The ‘New’ Style of Performance in the Opera Film Third Sister Yóu

Xu Peng

Peking opera movie, Third Sister Yóu (You Sanjie) – directed by Wu Yonggang (1907-1982), shot in 1963 and shown no later than 1970s during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – points to an important moment in the history of modernization of Peking opera, one in which, for the first time, the old master’s artistic principles and aesthetic cultivation faced subtly managed violations by an ideologically-driven and cinematically-oriented renovated style of performance.  It is true that the marriage between Peking opera and cinema can be traced back to the first years of the twentieth century.  However, not until about half a century later, when the first generation of the old masters’ followers began their serious pursuit of achievements in representing politically “clean” and “healthy” characters did the fundamental elements that mattered most to the core of the old master’s art shatter and gradually vanish.  It is at this moment that what I call “the ‘new’ style of music and performance” captured and reproduced in cinematic space truly came into being.  To be more specific, in the discourse of musical and performance innovation, the old master’s emphasis on virtuosity was sacrificed for the purpose of creating protagonists with “proper” characteristics, which was to develop in the Cultural Revolution into a summit form – the eight “model works” – whose ultimate artistic goal was set to highlighting its proletarian heroes/heroines.  The radical shift of aesthetic focus from demonstrating the actor’s virtuosity to highlighting the character’s image (or more often than not, one aspect of it,) however, began to be discernable early on in 1960s Peking opera movies, one of them being Third Sister Yóu.


The Theatrical Supernatural and the Cinematic Fantastic in 1950’s PRC Opera Film:

A Case Study of A Test of Love (Qingtan)

Judith Zeitlin

Over half of the twenty-six titles banned in the early 1950 by the Ministry of Culture as part of its drama reform and anti-superstition campaign were traditional ghost operas. The ban was lifted in 1957 during the Hundred Flowers Movement, but in 1961 an infamous attack on a new Peking opera production of a seventeenth-century play (Li Huiniang) for daring to assert that “there’s no harm in speaking of ghosts” effectively banished ghosts from the Chinese stage until the early 1980s. On screen, the only traditional ghost opera to be made into a film prior to then was In Pursuit of Love (Qingtan) (1958). This brilliant film of the all-female yueju regional opera version will be the focus of my paper. In particular, I will examine the ways in which the theatrical conventions for portraying ghosts were re-imagined cinematically with reference to several of the many opera films of popular legends from this period such as Married to a Celestial Immortal (1955) and Chasing the Fish Spirit (Zhuiyu, 1959). In so doing, I hope not only to situate these films within the pre-revolutionary history of “magic spirit” films and trick photography but to reconsider the fundamental relationship between theatrical and cinematic fantasies of other worlds.


Spatial Depth and Pictorial Flatness in Two Filmic Versions of Kun Opera Peony Pavilion

Ling Zhang

As a classical play, Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu(湯顯祖,1550-1616)’s Peony Pavilion(Mudanting, 牡丹亭)has gone through numerous performances and adaptations in different historical periods. It also has been made to two film versions: 1960’s Startled Dream (遊園驚夢, a highlighted excerpt from Peony Pavilion, directed by Xu Ke/ 許珂 and starring Mei Lanfang/ 梅蘭芳, Yu Zhenfei/ 俞振飛 and Yan Huizhu/ 言慧珠, produced by Beijing Film Studio) and 1986’s Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭, directed by Fang Ying/ 方熒 and starring Zhang Jiqing/ 張繼青, produced by Nanjing film studio). In this essay, I will observe the disparate cinematic representations of Peony Pavilion in the two films in terms of spatial construction, mise en scène, setting, art direction and camera work, in an attempt to explore the transformation from a relatively abstract and figurative stage performance and space into a flat screen in which some settings are concretized (and accordingly, some ways of performance altered) and off-screen space is suggested (through off-screen sound and evocative performance).

In the effort to resolve the tensions and conflicts between stage and screen practices and develop an artistic synthesis of the merits of both the stage and the cinema, the two films construct different aesthetic and stylistic renditions which invite our investigation. The 1960 filmic version employs systematic cinematic language (deploying some techniques such as 180 degree rule, tracking shots, foreground and background, as well as special effects and superimposition) to suggest logical and explicit spatial relations between different locations and between the characters with the camera, attempting to achieve spatial depth on the two-dimensional screen and create spatial continuity which preserves the consistency and fluidity of Kun Opera performance. However, the 1986 version does not intentionally avoid the ostensible flatness of screen and spatial confusion, as well as the fragmentary nature of cinema in comparison with that on stage. Instead, it strongly conveys a feeling of Chinese landscape painting through extremely elaborate settings, costumes and the harmony of colors, as well as their interaction with the exquisite use of montage and laterally moving shots, therefore achieve a sense of pictorial flatness with episodic images.

Nevertheless, the paper’s main aim is not only to address how different the cinematic languages utilized in the two films are, but also to probe into and invite insight in some questions of filmic adaptation of traditional Chinese operas in general through discussing the case of Peony Pavilion.