Thursday, July 16, 2009

Silent Film Linking, Part Two

My San Francisco Silent Film Festival weekend, Continued from Part One:

After missing most of the morning archival program (described here) and catching Bardelys the Magnificent with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (profiled in this podcast), it was time to settle in for perhaps the least-known feature in the program.

Wild Rose was directed by Sun Yu, perhaps the most highly-regarded of directors from Shanghai's silent film era, which extended well into the 1930s. Apparently the first Chinese director to have learned about filmmaking in the U.S., several of his films (not Wild Rose) have been released on DVD in the past few years. Still, his is still not exactly a household name, even among silent film buffs. Festival Writers Group members Victoria Jaschob and Aimee Pavy prepared a highly informative program essay and slideshow, respectively, which provided helpful context regarding the conditions in Shanghai under the Kuomintang in 1932, when Wild Rose was made. Most of us in the West have almost no knowledge of the filmmaking of this period, though the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is doing its part to try to rectify this, having now programmed three Chinese features in the past ten years and released the other two in DVD editions as well.

I hope Wild Rose follows the Peach Girl and the Goddess into home video availability. It's quite a lovely blend of 30's-style "realism", romanticism and patriotism, and features dreamy art deco sets and a pair of charismatic leads. The hero is Jin Yan, billed by the festival as a "Rudolf Valentino of China". Jin's widow Qin Yi was brought to the festival and interviewed on-stage by festival advisor Richard Meyer, who has just published a book on the star that includes a more in-depth interview. The female lead, Wang Renmei, is really the film's central character, however. In her excellent festival write-up, Donna Hill likens her to Mary Pickford, which seems pretty accurate. The plot has been summarized handily by Jason Wiener.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Wild Rose bears signs of director Sun's interest in Frank Borzage. Like his film Daybreak (a film I have not yet watched, but that Miriam Bratu Hansen analyzes in the Fall 2000 Film Quarterly), it contains an allusion to Seventh Heaven in the form of a cutaway staircase shot, but there's also something very Borzagean about the relationships between characters. I was reminded of films like No Greater Glory and Three Comrades, both of which were made by Borzage after Wild Rose was completed. The likelihood that the Utah-born auteur was influenced by a Chinese film seems non-existent, and I'd rahter explore the idea that Borzage and Sun were kindred spirits across cultures, than chalk the connections up to coincidence.

Thanks to a much needed early dinner break, I missed the introduction to the next film, Josef Von Sternberg's Underworld. It was given by the Film Noir Foundation's esteemed Eddie Muller, and thankfully it has been transcribed by Michael Guillén at the Evening Class. I also missed the short film shown beforehand, but found a balcony seat just in time for the opening credits of the feature. My second time viewing this gangster film template in 2009, following a Pacific Film Archive screening six months ago, it was reconfirmed as more than just genre archaeology but a stirring, pleasurable film in its own right. Stephen Horne's score was another triumph for the pianist. Horne made appropriate use of jazz-age stylings but perhaps the action scenes were the most memorably accompanied. Generous with tone clusters at the left end of the keyboard, his simulated gunshots resonated in the hall without overwhelming the on-screen excitement. I recall that PFA accompanist Judith Rosenberg also proved her affinity for Sternberg in her music for his silents earlier this year, and I would love to see the Silent Film Festival give her a chance to perform at a grand piano in the Castro one of these years. In the meantime, she'll be taking on Sternberg's debut film the Salvation Hunters again August 16 when it plays as part of the PFA's Treasures From the UCLA Festival of Preservation series.

Stay tuned for part three...

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