RAS Film

Disney Research China

Family (Jia)

Speaker: Linda C. Johnson, , RAS Member and Chinese film specialist

Chinese with English subtitles, 112 minutes

Directed by Chen Xihe & Ye Ming

Produced by Shanghai Film Studio

Music played by Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Cast: Sun Daolin (Jue Xu, eldest grandson), Zhang Ruifang (Jue Xu’s wife)

Huang Zhongying (cousin Mei), Zhang Mei (Jue Hui, 3rd grandson)

Wang Danfeng (Ming Feng), Zhang Fei (Jue Min, 2nd grandson)

Wang Yi (cousin Jin), Wei Heling (old Mr Gao).

In collaboration with RAS Book Club, we will screen the 1956 adaptation of Ba Jin’s 1933 novel, Jia or Family. The film depicts the decline of a wealthy family during the early years of the 20th Century. The film focuses on the patriarch’s three grandsons and their experience of the tradition of arranged marriages. An indictment against feudal ideas, the film opens with a quote from Ba Jin, ‘I will shout my accusation against this dying system’ and goes on to explore changing ideas about individual action, rebellion, self-respect and humanity brought about by Modernism in China.

The film’s principal director Chen Xihe later became a film scholar at Shanghai University and has made the point that realism in film in China is conditioned by the ‘ideological and educational purposes’ that lie behind it. In the early 1950s with the nationalization of Chinese film, the state harnessed film’s potential as propaganda. However, the aesthetic and acting techniques of this film still bear traces of a less overtly socialist realist style than that which in the 1960’s became synonymous with Mao Period film. Melodramatic contrasts between good and bad, the work-peasant-soldier (nonggongbing) rebelling against landlords and evil capitalists are not evident here.

The film takes place primarily inside the Gao family estate, a traditional courtyard home, made real by detailed and elaborate decoration. The principle actors, Sun Daolin and Wang Ruifang, were both followers of the Stanislavski method of acting, a technique consciously adopted in China in the 1950s to transform the actor into the role he or she played.

In contrast during earlier Shanghai’s Golden Age of film, actors were seen as the characters they played, with their off-screen lives seen as mirroring their on-screen performances. When Ryan Lingyu or Wang Renmei appeared on the silent screen they were not only the character they played, but themselves bringing to the character their own values and personality as seen in the many screen magazines.

Stanislavski, on the other hand, proposed a system of physical and mental exercises that allowed the actor to become the character, become a new person with each role. This in many ways resonated with Mao’s idea to change people’s way of thinking and transform them into new Socialist people. This sort of transformation required absorption in work and in Mao Thought, to displace feudal ways of thinking. By the actor becoming a character, Stanislavski argued, the audience would feel their own relationship to what was displayed and said on screen, making the experience an opportunity for directors and their actors to relate to an audience through their psyche, an ideal vehicle for propaganda.

Many of the films of this period are transitional in terms of their acting styles, direction and narratives. They were no longer free from the national agenda but not totally restrained in style. Films of this period set China on its path away from Hollywood and marked a new relationship between film and audience.

Yet the stars of these films have attracted very little attention, despite their fame and popularity in the day. Under Mao they were no longer singled out but were simply known as ‘film workers’, congratulated as model workers but not idolized as stars. Sun Daolin (eldest grandson), Zhang Ruifang (his wife) and Wang Danfeng (the servant Ming Feng) were all in this category. Sun Daolin had worked in theatre and film in the 1940s and was well known for his performance as Hua Haozi in Crows and Sparrows (Wuya yu maque, 1949). He went on to make many films in the 1960s playing intellectuals, soldiers and historic figures as well as directing films after 1984.

Zhang Ruifang began her acting career in theatre and had her first starring role in Sun Yu’s Baptism by Fire (Huo de xili, 1941) and starred in a series of significant films including Nie Er (1959), Li Shuanshuang (1963) and The Great River Flows On (Dahe benliu, 1979). She was considered one of China’s four Great Actresses in the 1940s and won the Best Actress Award at the One Hundred Flowers Awards for her role as the peasant heroine of the title in Li Shuanshuang.

Wang Danfeng is also considered to be one of China’s most popular actresses of the 1940’s-1960s, and appeared in more than 20 films during the 40’s, her first major role being in Zhu Shilin’s New Song of the Fisherman (Xin yuguang qu, 1942).

The quality of the direction of the film further contributed to its sophisticated and lyrical style. Chen Xihe began directing at Wenhua Film Studio in the 1940s. This studio had in its stable such prominent directors as Fei Mu, Sang Hu and Shi Hui and was committed to making sophisticated dramas and comedies that had high aesthetic standards. Chen Xihe directed Sisters, Stand Up! (Jiejie meimei zhang qilai, 1951) for Wenhua and Ye Ming co-directed the anti-American film A Window on America (Meiguo zhi chuang, 1951) there in the same year.

Director Ye Ming was also a screenwriter and an actor, best known for his role in Night Inn (Yedian, 1947), also made at Wenhua. Wang Yi, who plays Cousin Chen in Family, also starred in Wenhua’s classic comedy Long Live the Missus! (Taitai Wansui, 1947) directed by Sang Hu. These connections with Wenhua are important to the feel of this film, as they bring a subtlety and sophistication to its delivery of a political message that positions it closer to its 1941 precursor than to the overtly propagandist films that China produced in the following decades.

Chinese films of this period are rarely shown and remain largely unappreciated. This version of Family is strangely absent from literature in English on Chinese film. Not only is it absent from writing dealing with the adaptation of literature to film, it is even absent from writing that specifically deals with the Seventeen Year Period (the name commonly given to the period from Liberation in 1949 to the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966). Nevertheless, it is a well-crafted and acted film, which brings Ba Jin’s novel to life and provides an insight into the state of Chinese film during this transitional period.


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