A Strange Initiator for Hong Kong Movies
In 1913, about the same time that the landmark motion picture “Nanfu Nanqi” (A Couple in Difficulty) was being filmed in Shanghai, a man from China’s Guangdong (Canton) province was in Hong Kong forming a company to be called the “Hua-Mei” (Sino-American) Film Company to work on an ad hoc basis with Benjamin Brodsky’s Asia Film Co. in filming another landmark film called “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife”. This latter motion picture was the first short film produced in Hong Kong.
In 100 years of Chinese motion pictures, whether alone or in cooperative ventures with mainland and Taiwan filmmakers, Hong Kong has been of strategic importance in Chinese language cinema. And from the simple beginning of “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” Hong Kong movies grew to overflowing, initiated by an unusual man – Li Minwei.
Movies Can Save the Nation, and “All Under Heaven Belongs to the People”
On Zhongshan (Bell) Mountain in the eastern suburbs of Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu province, is the mausolem of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic. Carved on the door are four large characters, “Tian Xia Wei Gong”, -- “All Under Heaven Belongs to the People”. But few know that these majestic characters, in Dr. Sun’s own handwriting, were originally written in praise of an individual. The person so honored was a photographer, who during the Xinhai Revolution risked his life to film the attack on the city of Huizhou, even arranging for an airplane to fly him over the scene of the battlefield to record it on film. As the documentary record of the “national revolutionary army’s land, sea and air war”, this film record became a powerful weapon in the central government’s efforts to unite the Chinese people behind the fledgling democratic government. That photographer was Hong Kong filmmaker Li Minwei.
For a very long time in classic film history, Li Minwei’s name was inseparably linked with “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife”; one was never mentioned without the other. This was so much the case that veteran Hong Kong filmmaker and critic Luo Ka wrote in 1995 that, “whether it be the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema or the 90th anniversary of Chinese movies, this contribution of Li Minwei and his brother must be placed on a plane with the Lumiere brothers of France, celebrated and consecrated in Chinese cinema’s hall of fame.”
“Zhuangzi Tests His Wife” holds two very important "firsts" in Chinese movie history: it was one of the first two Chinese films to be sent abroad for exhibition; and it marked the first onscreen appearance of a Chinese actress. In the eight years that followed the making of the first Chinese film in 1905 until “Zhuangzi” in 1913, all female roles were portrayed by men. This should come as no surprise to those who have seen Tsui Hark’s excellent 1986 comedy-adventure “Peking Opera Blues”, set around the same time as this film was actually made, and in which one of the three female co-leads is constantly frustrated at achieving her stage acting dream, in spite of being the troupe head’s daughter and having literally been raised backstage. The actress in “Zhuangzi” was Yan Shanshan, Li Minwei’s then-wife, playing the role of a maidservant. While Li Minwei’s movie career began in Hong Kong, his golden years were passed in 1920s and 30s Shanghai. In 1921, Li Minwei and his elder brothers Li Haishan and Li Beihai etablished Hong Kong’s first Chinese owned and operated film studio, the Minxin Film Company (aka the China Sun Motion Picture Company). (The Hong Kong government later renamed the street on which it was located “Screen Street”.) But the company failed financially, and disbanded.
Recognizing Shanghai’s burgeoning status as China’s film-making capital, Li Minwei moved there and in partnership with a man named Li Yingsheng (no relation), re-established his studio as the “Shanghai Minxin Company”. Their first effort, “Yujie Bingqing” [Why Not Her?], was an immediate hit. In the four year period from 1926 to 1929, the new company produced a total of 20 films, including some classics such as “Xixiang Ji” (Tale of the Western Chamber). During this time, Li Minwei hired and gave their starts to such writer-directors as Ouyang Yuqian, Bu Wancang, Hou Yao and Sun Yu. But just as the Shanghai Minxin studio was at the peak of its success, the 1927 film “Mulan Congjun” [Mulan Joins the Army] ruined the company and forced it inot bankruptcy. Ironically, “Mulan” was the movie Li Minwei had most wanted to make and on which he expended the greatest effort. This time, Luo Mingzuo, the head of another studio, Huabei Film Company, proposed a merger. Li Minwei agreed to what was really an annexation, although his status would be reduced in the new company from general manager to head of one of its studios. A major factor in his acceptance was the urging of his second wife, Lin Chuchu, a very popular actress at the time, and who would be a major star in the new company. The new venture was called Lianhua Film Company, with the additional English name United Photoplay Service, beginning operations in 1930. Lianhua took in two more studios later, making it, along with Mingxing and Tianyi, the third powerhouse among Shanghai film companies. Under the banner of “To Revive and Reform National Cinema,” during Chinese cinema’s first golden age, the 1930s, Lianhua turned out such classics as “Spring Dream in the Old Capital,” “Wild Flowers Among the Weeds,” and “Love and Duty.” The last film starred the legendary Ruan Lingyu, who had been lured over from Mingxing by Lianhua’s dedication to making progressive films and quickly became its brightest star. But Lianhua’s success came to a sudden end: Ruan’s suicide in 1935 greatly affected the studio’s public appeal, and the eruption of war with Japan in 1937 was the final blow, when the puppet regime forced the company to shut down. Li Minwei moved to Hong Kong to start a studio there for Mingxing, where he filled the dual roles of manager and film processor. But when Hong Kong fell in 1941, that studio was destroyed. Li Minwei sold off his own property, distributing the funds among his employees so they could return to their homes in China. Because of his refusal to cooperate with the Japanese, Li and his family were forced to flee to Guangxi province, where he supported them by working at a cultural center established by his former director Ouyang Yuqian.
In later life, Li Minwei continued to be a strong advocate for improving film technology, in spite of failing health. The Beijing Film Processing Factory invited him to become its head, but the seriousness of his illness by that time prevented his accepting the offer.
Li Minwei died on October 26, 1953, age 60. Displayed at his memorial service was a large banner which read “Father of the National Cinema.”
“Zhuangzi Tests His Wife”
The film was adapted from one segment of a contemporary Cantonese opera, “Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream.” (Zhuang Zhou was a philosopher-eccentric in ancient China (c. 369 BC - c. 286 BC) who was also called Zhuangzi. In brief, the plot concerns Zhuangzi faking his own death and burial in order to test his wife’s faithfulness. Before the “body” could be cold in its grave, the wife takes a new lover, even going so far as to refrain from visiting and tending the grave, in order to ingratiate herself with the new love. But the newcomer turns out to be Zhuangzi in disguise, and when she learns this the wife commits suicide out of shame and humiliation. Li Minwei himself played Zhuangzi’s wife, elder brother Li Beihai played Zhuangzi, and as mentioned above, Li Minwei’s real-life wife Lin Chuchu was cast in the role of a maidservant. Filming was done outdoors, in natural light, and the three cast members wore dress appropriate for the time setting. The movie also marked the first use of special effects in a Chinese film, having Zhuangzi’s ghost appear suddenly, strengthening the dramatic effect.
[right, Li Minwei in costume as Zhuangzi's wife]
The Li Clan
In addition to Li Minwei himself, many of his family members had links to Hong Kong movies: his two elder brothers Li Haishan and Li Beihai were his collaborative partners; both of his wives were early film stars; niece Li Zhuozhuo (Li Haishan's daughter) became a major star in Shanghai and Hong Kong, with a film and later TV career that lasted into the 1980s; Li Minwei's son Li Keng debuted at age three and became a famous child star, while daughter Li Xuan was a stage actress and television personality and granddaughter Li Zi (aka Gigi Lai) starred in a popular and long-running Hong Kong TV series.
An Historical Uncertainty: Li Minwei or Li Beihai – who was really first?
Today, Li Minwei is almost unanimously recognized as most deserving of the title “Father of Hong Kong Movies.” But a look at the historical data suggests another movie pioneer is being overlooked. And that is Li Minwei’s elder brother Li Beihai. [below right]
As Hong Kong Film Archive film specialist Shi Qi puts it, “Li Beihai’s contributions to Hong Kong cinema were huge, and should not be forgotten. He was also the editor-in-chief of ‘Hong Kong Movies’ First Take’ (meaning ‘first person’).”
Li Beihai was born in 1889, and in 1909 appeared in “Stealing the Roast Duck,” the first short film made in Hong Kong by Benjamin Bradsky. He acted in “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” in the title role of Zhuangzi. In 1924 he wrote, directed and played a major supporting role in “Rouge,” Hong Kong’s first full-length narrative film.
[The Li brothers: Li Minwei left, Li Beihai, right]
But Li Beihai's greatest historical contribution was nothing less than the rejuvenation of a moribund industry. Although a British crown colony, Hong Kong’s economy was very sensitive to events on the Chinese mainland, particularly those in neighboring Guangdong province. In 1925, a seamen’s strike took place in Shanghai, and with the support of both Nationalists and Communists in a United Front, anti-foreign strikes and boycotts spread to other parts of China, and then to Hong Kong. The colony’s first and only general strike lasted until 1926, paralyzing the economy. During the strike period, a succession of Chinese filmmakers gave up on the nascent industry and left for the Chinese interior. Li Beihai was the first filmmaker to take a stand for rebuilding Hong Kong cinema. In 1928, Li Beihai founded the Hong Kong Film Co., and the March, 1931 release of its first production, “The Witty Sorcerer,” marked the rebirth of the Hong Kong movie industry. After this, in the midst of the industry’s most difficult financial times, Li Beihai started up three more film companies, producting a total of 13 films. Although he exhausted his own family resources in doing so, were it not for Li Beihai, Hong Kong’s glorious movie history would never have happened. Li Beihai was also the originator of film training in Hong Kong, starting four film schools which trained a large pool of outstanding talent as the industry grew. Perhaps he was overshadowed by his younger brother’s reputation, but for whatever reason, Li Beihai’s contributions have been overlooked. He died at his home in Guangzhou in 1955, after a brief illness.
In 2003, the Beijing Evening News interviewed Zhang Yan, a teacher in the Department of Television Media at Beijing Normal University’s Institute of Arts and Media. Regarding the film achievements of Li Minwei and Li Beihai, he commented that from the historical record, Li Minwei’s “designation as the ‘father of Hong Kong cinema’ is almost universally recognized by the Hong Kong film community. To mark the 110thanniversary of his birth last November, Guangzhou held a photographic exhibition entitled ‘In the Footsteps of Li Minwei,’ which also exhibited a large quantity of historical materials. In addition, a 2001 documentary titled ‘The Father of Hong Kong Cinema: Li Minwei,’ interviewed many film personalities from the classic era, scholars and filmmakers, and also displayed a large quantity of valuable archival materials. All of this combined to make it pretty hard to argue against Li Minwei’s designation as the ‘Father of Hong Kong Cinema”. When the three Li brothers started the Minxin Film Company in 1923, they actually started the era of Hong Kong motion pictures. When they did this, the Li brothers made a massive contribution to the Hong Kong film industry. Motion pictures are an industry which depends upon collective efforts, but it was built by a great many outstanding individuals who made vital contributions without being motivated by desire for fame and wealth. One can say that were it not for the foundation laid down by the Li brothers, we would not have the Hong Kong cinema we have today.” Li Minwei and Lin Chuchu are Nos.1 and 2, respectively, on Hong Kong's Avenue of Stars, but Li Beihai has yet to be so honored.
An Unorthodox Marriage
Li Minwei’s first wife was Yan Shuji, an actress who used the stage name Yan Shanshan. [below] The couple was married on January 7, 1913, and later that same year she played the historically significant role of a maidservant in “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” becoming the first actress in a Chinese film. Yan Shanshan came from a prominent family, had received a good education, and was an independent thinker with a broad range of interests. She and Li Minwei seemed a perfect pairing, two young lovers with common goals. But as Yan became more involved with the various social reform movements that sprang up in China’s fledgling new republic, she began to question whether she was the best match for her husband, increasingly doubtful she could satisfy what he sought in family and romance. So she quietly began keeping an eye out for a woman of beauty, virtue and talent, someone she felt would be a better life partner for Li Minwei. In 1919, she met a young woman named Lin Meiyi (who would later take the name Lin Chuchu), and took the initiative of making a match between the two. Actually, there were few differences between the two women, both being attractive and talented. After Lin Chuchu sought and received her mother’s permission, she and Li Minwei were married, and in 1924 began work on their first film together. Titled “Rouge,” the script was adapted by brother Li Beihai from a story in “Liao Zhai Zhi Yi,” a classic short story collection. Li Beihai also directed, while Li Minwei and Lin Chuchu acted the co-leads. “Rouge” was the first full-length Hong Kong movie, and unfortunately the only one until Li Beihai resurrected the industry following the general strike. (Li Minwei moved his Minxin company to Shanghai during the strike.) “Rouge” premiered at the New World Theater in Hong Kong on February 20, 1925, and was a hit in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. Lin Chuchu became a star of China’s first generation of film actresses.
[UPDATE: a later and fuller article about Yan Shanshan is here]
[Lin Chuchu, below left]
Lin Chuchu had a successful career, both in movies and in her personal life as a wife and mother. She made 26 films in all, the last in 1953. Retiring that year after Li Minwei’s death, she herself passed away on February 18, 1979. Little is recorded of Yan Shanshan’s later life and career, except that she retired from movies in 1928 and died in 1952. The Chinese Cinema Encyclopedia credits her with making three films in the late 1920s, and it is interesting that one of these was directed by Li Minwei, and in another she appeared on screen with Lin Chuchu, in a triangular relationship that might have been crafted by Noel Coward.
[UPDATE: a later and fuller article about Lin Chuchu is here]
Contemporaneous Film-Related Events of 1913
April 9: The world’s first film library, 'The National Archive for Historical Films and Voices,' is founded at the Royal Library in Copenhagen,Denmark.
Also in April, Hollywood officially acquires legal place name status, accelerating the westward flow of motion picture companies fleeing Thomas Edison’s relentless pursuit of patent law suits.
August 6: “Manuel Garcia, or the King of the Cuban Countryside,” Cuba’s first feature film, is released in Havana.
August 24: “The Last Days of Pompei” premieres in Italy.
December 29: Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse L. Lasky release “The Squaw Man,” starring Dustin Farnum, their first production since their move to California.