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Romance of a Fruit Peddler and A String of Pearls



Romance of a Fruit Peddler and A String of Pearls


Film introduction presented by Zhang Jianyong (China Film Archive) at the Australian Cinémathèque, Friday 2 March 2007, as part of the Hong Kong, Shanghai: Cinema Cities program.

My colleagues Mr Chen Biqiang, Ms Tan Yanrong and I are delighted to have been invited to the beautiful Australian coastal city of Brisbane to attend the launch of the ’Hong Kong, Shanghai: Cinema Cities’ program. Please allow me to offer my congratulations on behalf of the China Film Archive. I would also like to express my respect and gratitude to our host, the Australian Cinémathèque, and to all our friends who are fond of Chinese films.

The two movies we will see tonight – Romance of a Fruit Peddler (also known as Labour’s Love), and A String of Pearls are amongst the earliest still-existing Chinese films produced during the 1920s. I would now like to introduce the backgrounds of the two movies respectively.

Romance of a Fruit Peddler (Laogong Zhi Aiqing) 1922

Romance of a Fruit Peddler is the oldest Chinese film preserved.

The Mingxing Film Company was founded in 1922 in Shanghai. It announced its closure in August 1937 when Japanese troops invaded Shanghai and burned its headquarters. It was the earliest and longest lasting film company in old China, producing more films than other companies, with over 200 movies in 15 years. Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu were the founders of the Mingxing Company. They were also the ground breakers and initiators of early Chinese films.

Zheng Zhengqiu (1888–1935) was the most influential screenwriter and director of early Chinese films being involved in business and politics from a young age. Later on he became a drama critic, publishing ‘Lili Suo Drama Critic’ in newspapers. He was a strong believer in social improvement and democracy. He scripted and directed 51 films, which stressed social education in a realist mode.

Zhang Shichuan is the most well-known film entrepreneur and director of early Chinese movies. He used to work for foreign companies and the stock market. He was business-minded and effective in management, which made him the key operator of the Mingxing Film Company. During his life, he directed approximately 150 films, and was the most prolific director working in the Mandarin language. In 1913 Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan collaborated and made China’s first short drama Die for Marriage (nicknamed the Wedding Night). It recorded the complicated and tedious process of a traditional wedding. Romance of a Fruit Peddler was the fourth film which they made together.

Labour’s Love is also called A Tie Knotted by Fruit-Tossing, as it literally means a marriage led to by tossing fruits. This is also a short drama in three parts. There are only six scenes, that centre around a fruit stall. On one side of the fruit stall are stairs leading up to a twenty-four hour nightclub and on the other side is a stall with a small tiger-shaped kitchen range that serves tea. Downstairs is a carpenter’s room and the fruit stall. Opposite the stall is a Chinese doctor’s clinic operated by Dr. Zhu. The three main characters in the film are Carpenter Zheng, Dr. Zhu (acted by co-director Zheng Zhengqiu) and his daughter Ms Zhu. The film depicts a traditional love story in a comic manner, in which Carpenter Zheng wins over a snobbish Dr. Zhu, and eventually marries the girl he loves.

The film also conveys a lot of social information about the modern metropolis. The terms ‘labour’ and ‘love’ were both modern words at that time, reflecting new concepts of class and the pursuit of personal freedom. The twenty-four hour nightclub in the film portrays a typical entertainment venue for rich people in the metropolis. The upper-class men appearing there were all smartly dressed and accompanied by fashionable females. This provided a sharp contrast with the life of the grassroots population downstairs. The final victory of the Carpenter (who punishes the rich who parties the whole night and wins his love) aimed to inspire working class people and reflected Zheng Zhengqiu’s democratic thoughts of social equality.

A String of Pearls (Yichuan Zhenzhu) 1926

A String of Pearls is a longer feature-length drama, produced by Great Wall Pictures in 1926, scripted by Hou Yao and directed by Li Zeyuan.

Great Wall Pictures began as The Great Wall Production Pictures, founded in New York in 1922 by a group of young Chinese people, who were angered by the derogatory portrayal of Chinese people in American films and the contempt showed by American authorities towards Chinese films. They quit their study and jobs and started to learn filmmaking. They established a film production company and called it ‘Great Wall’, embodying their love for their country. In 1924, the company moved to Shanghai and was renamed as ‘Great Wall Pictures’. It closed in 1930.

It is worth mentioning that this film stands out among early Chinese movies for its camera handling techniques. In this film, moving focusing occurred many times to show the characters’ consecutive movements and a panorama of the background. It demonstrated the excellence of the directors and cameramen and their pursuit of excellence in their art.

Great Wall Pictures had the most advanced film equipment and the most filmmaking professionals in Shanghai at that time. As the company made films out of a sense of patriotism, it advocated that dramas should reflect social problems, explore the meaning of life and criticize social injustice and inequity. It opposed making movies that promote lust and violence for personal glory at the expense of social welfare and national honour. The company also developed their own school, which was known as ‘the School of the Great Wall’. However, their ideas and practice were too idealized and divorced from China’s social reality for their audience’ taste. Their films were rarely well received by their audience. Consequently, they performed poorly at the box office, leading to economic difficulty and their eventual bankruptcy and closure.

Hou Yao, the screenwriter of A String of Pearls, was the director of screenwriting and the film director for Great Wall Pictures. He was a member of the Literature Studies Association with famous writers Maodun, Bingxin and LaoShe, and insisted that art serve life. Most of the early productions of Great Wall were scripted and directed by him. In 1926, he transferred to the Mingxing Company as a screenwriter. After the anti-Japanese War broke out, he joined the Nan Yang Company in Hong Kong, and was killed in 1942 by Japanese troops in Singapore.

The first part of the story in A String of Pearls was adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s novella The Diamond Necklace. It depicts a woman who asks her husband to borrow a pearl necklace so that she can attend a dinner party splendidly attired. But the necklace is lost, leading to the destruction of a happy family. It criticizes people who are motivated by vanity. The latter part of the story talks about repentance and forgiveness. The wife apologizes to her husband and the thief repents and apologizes to the persons who have suffered the loss. The victims forgive the penitents, demonstrating generosity and tolerance. Thus, this film upholds the idea of perfecting oneself through repentance. The themes in this film – criticizing vanity and praising repentance–demonstrate the basic attitude of Hou Yao and other film-makers in Great Wall Pictures had towards society and life.

Through these two films, we can catch a glimpse of the shape of early Chinese movies. They also represent the landscape and social reality of Shanghai in the early 1920s. They are extraordinary both from an artistic and cultural point of view.

Zhang Jianyong is the Vice-Director of the China Film Archive. He is Editor-in-Chief of the publication Contemporary Cinema and has contributed numerous essays and lecturers worldwide on the history of Chinese Cinema.

© Zhang Jianyong and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.