Filmmakers throughout the world and in every era have drawn upon literary sources for their material, and Chinese filmmakers have been no exception. More often than not, these literary sources have been works from their own country and culture, but sometimes a movie will be adapted from a foreign literary source, usually (but not always) transplanted to one's native environment. We have already discussed a few of these transplants in "Railway Robbers" and "Women Skeletons," which were drawn from less well-known sources (I haven't been able to identify the exact sources). [We have compiled a much longer list, believed to be complete, but no guarantee.] But in 1926 the Great Wall studio released a movie adapted (and transplanted) from a classic work, one which has been filmed several times in as many countries.
Yichuan Zhenzhu (1926) 一串珍珠 (A String of Pearls)
Changcheng (Great Wall). B&W. Silent. 10 reels. Exists. Premiered January 21, 1926 at the Palace Theater, Shanghai. Direction: Li Zeyuan (credited as C. Y. Lee). Screenplay: Hou Yao, adapted from "La Parure" ["The Necklace"] by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). Cinematography: Cheng Peilin (credited as P. L. Chan). Editing: Li Wenguang (credited as T. K. Lee). Translation: Liu Luyin. Western language intertitles and calligraphy: Zhang Tiren (credited as T. J. Djan). Chinese intertitles: Li Rudi (credited as Y. T. Lee). Cast: Lei Xiadian, credited as Harding Loue (Wang Yusheng); Liu Hanjun, credited as H. June Liu (Wang Xiuzhen); Zhai Qiqi, credited as E. E. Dick (Fu Meixian); Yao Jueseng (Fu Fengsheng); Huang Zhihuai, credited as G. Y. Wong (Huang Guoguang); Zhu Fengmei, credited as Gee Fung-mei (Fu Meixian's mother); Liu Jichun, credited as C. C. Liu (Ma Rulong); Xing Shaomei (Zhou Quan); Cai Yufei, credited as Tsai Yoke-fei (Zhang Huairen).
The plot follows after the bump. Since this film exists and is available for viewing today, be warned that our plot synopsis contains spoilers, in fact tells the whole story.
[left, a young family's happy home life]
When his wife is invited to a party at the home of her old friend, socialite Miss Fu Meixian, she worries that the hostess's upscale friends will look down on her because she lacks fashionable dress and elegant accessories. Wanting his beloved wife to have an enjoyable evening, Yusheng borrows an expensive necklace from a jeweler friend. Xiuzhen has a wonderful time at the party, and everyone praises the necklace, including Miss Fu and her gentleman friend, businessman Ma Rulong.
That night, as the couple sleep, a burglar breaks in and steals the jewelry. The Wangs resolve to replace the necklace with borrowed money, but no one will loan it to them. In desperation, Yusheng steals the funds from his company, intending to repay before the loss is discovered. He buys a replacement necklace, but the theft is discovered and he is arrested and sent to prison. Deeply remorseful that her vanity has shattered their life, Xiuzhen moves to a shabby part of town and supports herself and the baby by working as a seamstress. When Yusheng is released, he rejoins his family.
[left, together again, but starting all over]
His relatives, who now shun him, refuse his pleas for assistance in finding work. At last, a neighbor helps him find work in a cotton mill, and the couple begin the long process of rebuilding their lives. The company's vice-president Ma Rulong, now married to Fu Meixian, has problems of his own: someone is blackmailing him, under threat of exposing a secret from the past. The blackmailer is the burglar who stole the jewelry that fateful night, and the secret is that Ma had arranged the theft in order to impress Miss Fu by giving her the necklace she so admired. Now the blackmailer is bleeding Ma Rulong regularly, and the businessman has had enough. When he meets Zhang and tells him this is the last payment, the thug attacks Ma with a knife, seriously wounding him. Fu Yusheng, who had found one of the blackmail notes dropped by Ma Rulong and followed him, intervenes and saves Ma's life. The police arrive and arrest the assailant, and Fu accompanies Ma to the hospital. When the two wives arrive at the hospital, Ma Rulong decides to come clean and confesses what he had done. His wife Meixian angrily storms out, but Xiuzhen runs after her friend and points out that just as in her own case, it was her own vanity that had created the problem, and that her husband had acted out of love for her. To atone for what happened, Rulong and Meixian buy back the other couple's house for them and arrange for Fusheng to become head of the cotton mill's accounting department.
The director made considerable, and very effective, use of panning and scanning throughout the film. For example, the opening shot of "Necklace" sets the scene in Shanghai without an opening label: a car is traveling a busy city road at night, and the camera pans up from the vehicle to the Customs House, with its clock tower which dominates the Shanghai Bund, a familiar landmark to Chinese or anyone with any familiarity with the city, as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben to viewers in the West.
The intertitles express a somewhat misogynistic view: one of them says, "when the wife is misled by vanity, the husband will serve as her beast of burden." In the film, female vanity twice results in disaster: in the original borrowing of the necklace which leads to a family's destruction, and then in the theft which results in blackmail that almost destroys another. Some special effects should be noted: when the young wife is reduced to sewing for a living, she ruefully recalls the past, and a shot portrays her mental images: a spool of thread on her work table suddenly begins to revolve, at last changing into the two Chinese characters meaning "disaster." Hou Yao's screenplay was an all-out attack on vanity, but he also advocated repentance as the route to upholding moral principles.