Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fei Mu at FSLC: Song of China

Confucianism and Communism have an uneasy history. The current regime has tried to coop its ethical authority. However, during the oppressive Maoist era, Confucianism was consistently condemned, violently so during the Cultural Revolution. Considering one of Fei Mu’s few surviving pre-WWII films, Song of China (as it is known in the west) was explicitly inspired by Confucian ideals, it is hardly surprising his reputation languished for years. Recently though, Fei Mu has come to be recognized as arguably the greatest Chinese filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century, based on the strength of films like Song, which screens this Sunday as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s An Undiscovered Master: Fei Mu retrospective.

Song is all about filial piety. In fact, that is sort of-kind of what its untranslatable Confucian Chinese title means. A grown man rushes to his father’s deathbed. Though a bit of the prodigal, he has not been a bad son, arriving in time to experience closure with his father. As part of his loving farewell, the old man entreats his son to love the young and the old as he would his own family.

Flashing forward a generation, we see the old man’s grandson and his wife have become hedonistic wastrels, often leaving their son in the care of the original son and his wife. While they keep trying to nudge the couple towards a righteous life, the two will have none of it. The snotty wife even helps lead her sister-in-law astray, but at least young boy displays the virtues his parents lack.

Spanning decades and generations, Song is the sort of family saga that would probably run about two and a half hours if remade by Hollywood, yet Fei Mu wrapped it up in just over forty-five minutes. Call it narrative inflation. Though now it would be deemed a “short,” Song was considered the first Chinese art house feature to receive American distribution outside of “Chinatown” enclaves. Licensed by silent film star turned producer Douglas MacLean, it attracted respectable attention, but its foreign sales were not sufficient to save the factionally divided Lianhua Film Company.

Indeed, classifying Song is a bit of trick. Most would consider it a silent film, since it relies on inter-titles rather than dialogue. However, the original score was an integral part of the production, incorporating traditional instrumentation but diverse styles.

Compared to many silent films, Song’s restrained cast is never at risk of appearing corny by contemporary standards. In fact, Zheng Junli is quite compelling, aging gracefully but convincingly as the faithful son, father, and public benefactor. Unfortunately, despite trying to throw his lot in with the new regime, the leftist actor-director never successfully navigated the torturous politically straits, suffering greatly during the Cultural Revolution.

Although very much a film of moral instruction, Song is still quite engaging cinema. Yet, it is the director’s sad and beautiful Spring in a Small Town that truly approaches masterpiece status. A genuinely humanistic filmmaker nearly cast into oblivion by an inhumane ideology, Fei Mu is definitely a figure ripe for wider discovery amongst cineastes. The highly recommended Song screens again Sunday (9/18), while the even more highly recommended Spring screens today (9/17) and tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the FSLC’s Fei Mu retrospective.