Third Cinema revisited

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Along the Sugari River / Songhuajiang Shang, China 1947.

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2018

This was one of the titles screened in ‘The Rebirth of Chinese Cinema (1941 – 1951) programme at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The films were provided from the collection of the Centre de documentation et de recherche sur le cinéma chinois at he University of Paris. The collection partly comes from prints moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s and then collected and archived by staff at the University Chinese Department. To these were added a collection donated by the Chinese Embassy in Paris. With the exception of the well-known Spring in a Small Town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun, 1948) the films were a rare opportunity to see works from the 1940s. This was the decade that saw the end of the Japanese occupation and then the Civil war between the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang of China: the latter is frequently rendered as ‘Nationalist party’. However both the contending movements were nationalist, the civil war was to decide whether China took the Socialist Road or the Capitalist road. So these films carry the weight of the contending values of that decade but also of the contemporary decades as well.

The films were introduced by Tony Rayns, who has [at least in English ;language circles] an unrivalled knowledge of Chinese cinema. Generally he placed the films in the contemporary context and filled out portraits of the film-makers involved. He pointed out in many cases there was almost no easily available material in English on the titles. The screening was from a DCP transfer of reasonable quality. The original 35mm prints suffered from years of neglect but seem to have survived relatively well. We had a Chinese sound version with French sub-titles and an English translation projected digitally.

The title of the film is that of a popular song of resistance to the Japanese occupation which commenced in 1931. The lyrics would seem to have influenced the narrative offered by the film, so it is worth including them:

‘Along the Songhua River’

My home is on Songhua River in the Northeast.

There are forests, coal mines,

soybeans and sorghum all over the mountain.

My home is on Songhua River in the Northeast.

There are my fellow countrymen and my old parents.

September 18, September 18, since that miserable day,

September 18, September 18, since that miserable day,

I’ve left my homeland, discarded the endless treasure.

Roam, Roam, the whole day I roam inside the Great Wall.

When can I go back to my homeland?

When can I get back my endless treasure?

My mother, my father, when can we gather together? ‘

The film is set in Manchuria, a region in the North-East that is divided between China and Russia. In this period Japan was a rising imperial power, Russia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China was divided between an ineffectual government in Peking, a number of war-lords, one of whom controlled most of Manchuria, and a provisional Government of a Republic of China in Canton under the control of the Kuomintang. The young Chinese Communist Parry had supported the Kuomintang movement but after the massacres of Communists and leftists in Shanghai in 1927 by the Kuomintang the long conflict that resolved in 1949 had begun. And there were a number of so-called ‘Treaty areas and ports’ imposed on the Chinese Government by western colonial powers, of which Britain was the most rapacious. The film commences in 1931 when Japan began it occupation of Manchuria, setting up a puppet state.

Note, the characters are mainly presented as types, ‘the girl’, ‘the boy’, ‘the grandfather’ but in the original Chinese dialogue and the French sub-titles names occasionally appear, so that ‘the girl’ is called Niu and her cat, only seen early in the film, is called Minet. We first meet a family living on a farm who also act as a staging post for a regular convoy transporting goods to a urban centre. The arrival, feeding and stabling of the convoy is a major sequence. A member of the convoy is ‘the boy’ (Wang Reniu) who has bought a present from an earlier trip for ‘the girl’ (Zhang Ruifang). And the payment for the night’s lodging is given to the grandfather who places it in a purse hung round his neck.

The convoy moves on but some time later re-appear in a rush to warn that

“The Japanese are here.”

The Girl is in the nearby town with her father and The Grandfather. Japanese cavalry arrive followed by infantry. They dash into the street and the girl’s father is knocked down by their horses. The invaders show scant regard for the local people and immediately post notices warning the inhabitants to follow orders and treat the troops with respect.

“The great Japanese army is here.” villagers must “bow in the presence of the Japanese army.”

They pay no attention to The Girl cradling the body of her dead father. The Grandfather leads her away and home.

The film shows a series of instances that depict the harsh treatment of local people by the Japanese. The Girl has now lost her mother also, who succumbed on the news of he husband’s death. The Girl is washing clothes on the edge of the lake and fails to bow to a Japanese soldier. She is chased into the lake by the soldiers and falls into hysterics.

But resistance has started and one night a group of Partisans attack a Japanese convoy, killing soldiers and stealing weapons. At the farm there are signs of its run-down, lack of repairs and the absence of animals. The Boy, a cousin, arrives at the farm as does a passing Traveller (Zhou Diao). The Traveller tells a story of a Japanese atrocity in which he lost both his wife and his child. Later the family realise that the traveller is a member of the Partisans carrying grenades for us an attacks. The oppression by the Japanese military continues. When an officer starts eyeing up The Girl The Grandfather claims [falsely] that she and The Boy are married. The officer then forces the couple to make a public embrace and kiss to ‘prove’ the relationship. Then the cousin and grandfather are among local men forced to work on the construction of a watch tower. Alone at home The Girl is assaulted by a Japanese soldier and The Boy saves her by accidentally shooting the soldier.

The trio flee but The Grandfather is wounded in the chase and dies. He passes onto the couple the purse with their funds and tells them that

“Niu listen to him … she is your wife now.”

The surviving couple flee the area and the Boy finds work in a Japanese run mine. He and The Girl live as husband and wife and she has a baby. However a flood in the mine leads to the death of many miners. The Boy survives. He is part of a demonstration when the Japanese managers announce pitiful compensation for the families of the dead. The crowd storm the mine officers, in the melee The Boy first shelters The Girl but then she has to save him from a Japanese soldier. The protesters are mowed down by the Japanese soldiers and the couple flee. Pursued they finally find safety in the surrounding hills with a band of Partisans. They have now followed the advice given earlier by The ‘Traveller’,

“We have to resist.”

The film runs for just on two hours. For a first-time director it offers an impressive feat. The narrative is well set out and the story proceeds with an increasing rhythm. The cinematography of Yang Jiming is excellent and offers a range of moving camera. There are frequent pans, both in the opening sequence at the farm and later, as when Niu is chased into the lake. And there are numerous travelling shots, especially in the action sequences, as when the Japanese first arrive riding alongside the lake and then into the town. And again there is a dynamic range in the sequence in which the partisans attack the Japanese convoy. Most impressive is the demonstration that arises after the disaster in the mine. There are range of cameras shots including both high and low angles. And the camera pans across the battle and uses powerful close ups in the fighting to dramatic effect.

The editing by Shen Jualun and Guan Zhibin is also finely achieved. The narrative achieves a genuine momentum at times and the cutting in action sequences is as dramatic as the camerawork. The use of ellipsis works well and enables the passing of considerable points of time. Li Weicai’s music is ever-present and raises the tempo at moment so drama. The performances by the cast are convincing and Zhang Ruifang is outstanding at Niu. She went on to become a major actor and star in the cinema after liberation.

The film is clearly a melodrama of protest, ending as is common not in victory as such but in the continuation of the struggle. The Boy and The Girl have now joined the resistance to the Japanese occupation. Thus the narrative provides an odyssey for the characters from normal life, through oppression to resistance. The opening segment sets up a fine picture of rural life and introduces the key characters in the story. The advent of the Japanese army brings in a series of oppressions inflected on the indigenous people. But increasingly signs of resistance become apparent. And by the end of the film the key characters have been bought together with partisans.

The film was made in Manchuria Changchun Film Productions.

“After the Soviet Army liberated Changchun, the well-equipped Manying Film Studios were handed over to the Chinese Communist from Yenan, who renamed them The North-East Film Studio. In summer 1946, the Nationalists [Kuomintang] launched a big offensive in the region and took control of the city. They soon established Changchun Film productions and entrusted the direction of the first film, Songhuajiang Shang, to Jin Shan (1911 – 1982), a famous actor. As he was well-known for his anti-Japanese activities, few people were willing to mention that he had been a clandestine member of the Communist Party since the 1930s.” (Marie Claire Kuo and Kuo Kwan Leung in the Catalogue).

This background to the film demonstrates the complexity of the situation in China in 1947. Since the massacre in 1927 a civil war had been waged between the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang. The ‘Long March’, led by Mao Zedong, which ended in Yenan is the most famous event in this war. However, both parties were also involved in a war of resistance against the Japanese occupation. At various points during this war the two parties co-operated, but this was always temporary.

Given the control of the studio by the Kuomintang it is interesting that the partisans are not identified politically. However, partisans were mote likely to be communists as the Kuomintang relied on more conventional military forces. It was in Manchuria that the Communist Party launched its final war against the Kuomintang, leading in 1949 to the liberation of establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: