AKA Way Down West
Starring Lin Chu-Chu, Ge Cijiang, Li Dandan, Li Huamin, He Minzhuang
Directed by Hou Yao
Expectations: None really, but I’m very interested.
Romance of the Western Chamber is by far the earliest Chinese film I’ve seen, and if it is any indication of the country’s early film output, I wish more films were available. It’s not so much that I loved Romance of the Western Chamber as it is that I was intrigued by it. The film is ostensibly a drama, but the introduction of the villain leads to a couple of martial arts battles, one of which is inside of a dream sequence full of fantasy. According to this write-up, Hou Yau was an acclaimed director in his day, as well as the first Chinese director to utilize special effects. If he only knew what his work would eventually lead to within Chinese cinema!
Chang Kung (Ge Cijiang), a young scholar, comes to stay at a temple on his way to taking the imperial exams. Also staying there is Cui Ying Ying (Lin Chu-Chu), the beautiful daughter of the late Prime Minister, and her mother. As soon as Chang Kung catches sight of Cui Ying Ying he’s hopelessly smitten. His studies suffer as all he can focus on is how to see her again, even resorting to eavesdropping on her conversations and climbing atop a roof to steal a glance.
The fights themselves are honestly a lot better than you’d expect from the early days of cinema. They are sped up, and the choreography is basic, but the sense of battle is similar to what it is in later martial arts films. There’s also a couple of recognizable traits of the martial arts genre in evidence here in protozoic form. Hong Kong action films have distinguished themselves by capturing the full bodies of their actors during fight sequences, and while Romance of the Western Chamber was made in mainland China before Hong Kong had much of a film industry, this defining factor shows up during a battle between two generals. The performers look legitimately skilled, too; these aren’t just actors becoming amazing fighters through editing. Although, speaking of editing, there is a wonderful use of intercutting close-up shots of swords and axes clashing to give the far-away, “extras flailing” battle shots a sense of intensity and urgency.
Unfortunately, like many silent films, only a portion of Romance of the Western Chamber still exists. We have five reels of the film’s ten, and judging from the way the film ends I’m guessing those five missing reels are the last five. There aren’t any specific story jumps throughout the film that would suggest missing footage, until the ending just kinda happens without resolution. The lack of a definite ending doesn’t really concern me — I’m sure everything worked out in the end — but I do wonder what sights we’re missing out on in those five missing, especially considering the strength of the dream sequence. I suppose we’ll just have to be happy any of it remains, and revel in the many films that followed in its wake.
If you’re interested in Chinese film and the silent era, Romance of the Western Chamber is a no-brainer.