In the cinema tradition of every country, mention of certain names almost invariably brings to mind specific images, equating that name with a particular film or film genre, even if the performer worked in other genres. For example, while John Wayne made movies that were not Westerns, mention of his name will likely call to mind "oaters" for most movie fans. For fans of classic Hollywood films, the name Lon Chaney suggests but one genre: horror. The master of the horror film actually worked in other genres, in fact one of his finest acting performances was in a non-horror film,《Tell It to the Marines》(1926), so no wonder it was the actor's own personal favorite of all his productions.
Another actor who was typed that way was Ma-Xu Weibang, a man known as the "Asian Lon Chaney," a multitalented performer known throughout Asia for his horror films, productions which he usually wrote, directed and starred in. During his long career in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Ma-Xu made films in other genres, particularly mysteries of the non-horror variety, but his name became synonymous with horror.
[Ma-Xu Weibang when he was just starting his movie career, about 1925]
Ma-Xu Weibang 马徐维邦 was born in 1900 in Hangxian, Zhejiang province. He acquired his unusual surname when he married. His original family name was Xu, but when he later married a woman named Ma 马, he added that to his original surname, and used the new surname professionally. Hyphenated surnames are fairly common in the West, but rare in China, especially at that time. He showed artistic talent at an early age and planned a career in art and design. By the age of 18, he had lost both his parents, but still managed to go to the Shanghai Institute of Fine Arts, staying on as a teaching assistant at the school after graduation. Besides art, he began acquiring an interest in movies, at a time when fims from the West were very popular and China's own industry was in its germination stage. So in 1924, the young artist now known as Ma-Xu Weibang volunteered his services to the Mingxing studio and was accepted to do art and set design for such early Mingxing films as《The Last Conscience》,《Young Master Feng》and《Suspicious Couple》. In addition, he had significant supporting roles in《Lured into Marriage》and《A Shanghai Woman》, where he showed acting talent as well. In 1926, Ma-Xu moved to the smaller Langhua studio, where he made his writing and directing debut,《Monster in Love》(aka《A Strange Manservant》). In this maiden effort, Ma-Xu was already showing the interest in the macabre that became a hallmark of his directing style. In 1929, he joined the Tianyi studio, writing and directing《The Devil Incarnate》, as well as playing the title role himself. During his time as an art director, he also studied the application of his skills to makeup, and used this to make his character look as terrifying as possible. Its first run at the Palace Theater created a sensation, was hailed as China's first horror film, and Ma-Xu was dubbed the "Asian Lon Chaney." In order to have total control of his productions, in 1930 Ma-Xu established his own movie studio, Tianma 天马 (Pegasus), but financial difficulties forced it out of business after Ma-Xu had written and directed just one film for it,《Wailing in an Empty Valley》.
[right, Ma-Xu at the peak of his directing career, in the mid-to-late 1930s]
In 1934, Ma-Xu joined the Lianhua studio, making《Pear Blossom in the Storm》and the following year,《Settle Down by the Han River》. These two films embodied his artistic pursuits. The former, through the differing characters and clashes between two sisters, contrasted the bitter existence of the poor with the dissipated lives of the wealthy; the latter film assailed the ugly and evil phenomenon of feudal society turning the marriage of two young people into a commercial enterprise. Through plot twists and a dark, foreboding atmosphere, these two movies showed how the directing style of Ma-Xu Weibang differed from that of his contemporaries. Because of their trademark somberness, critics labeled the films of Ma-Xu (and those of another director, Shen Xiling), the "cinema of the strange." All of Ma-Xu's films were distinctly somber and gloomy, with mysterious characters and of course, horror. He especially liked to use light and tone to create a particular atmosphere, and reveled in utilizing what he called "mid-tone" and "low tone." "Mid-tone" gave audiences a hazy, gloomy feeling, while "low tone" presented an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding.
[left, New China Pictorial, a leading Chinese periodical (general interest, not a specifically movie magazine) featured a still from《Song at Midnight》on its cover]
《Song at Midnight》was the most successful of Ma-Xu Weibang's representative works. This film still exists, and will be discussed in a future post. (For those who might enjoy a foreign film that lacks Western language intertitles, this one can be viewed online here.) Although it was an anti-feudal love story, in that disaster-ridden era it was also seen as arguing, through song, for resistance against the Japanese. When it was first exhibited, it shook the movie community, and at the same time touched off a mania in film circles for making horror movies, a genre that was prevalent for a time. Ma-Xu himself continued making a series of horror films over the next few years, following his big hit with《Mummy in the Old House》,《Poet's Soul in Cold Moonlight》,《The Leper Girl》,《Song at Midnight, pt.II》,《Rainy Night on Cold Mountain》and《Qiu Haitang》. The main characters in these films all had an abnormal image: if not monsters, most of them were disfigured or deformed, and all suffered strange fates, miserable lives. Some examples: the main character throws himself into a lake in《Song at Midnight》, the title character in《The Leper Girl》 drinks a mysterious potion the Chinese call "viper's liquor", the main character in《Qiu Haitang》suffers hideous scarring ...
During the war, Ma-Xu was among the filmmakers who remained in Shanghai, continuing to make movies, and one of these created enough trouble for him that it led to his eventually leaving. In 1943, the Japanese authorities funded a co-production set in the Opium War, a film intended to foster anti-British feelings among the Chinese people and make them more acceptable of the Japanese occupation. Ma-Xu was one of four co-directors working on the film, and all were severely criticized after the war for making a "collaborationist" production. The criticism and consequent public rejection of his films led Ma-Xu to relocate to Hong Kong within a few years, where he had some success for most of the 1950s. But toward the end of the decade, as the popularity of Hong Kong movies began to spread throughout Asia and even into the West, Ma-Xu's slow, deliberate style of filmmaking began to conflict with the increasingly fast-paced style of Hong Kong studios. The director's style was characterized by careful and deliberate planning of each scene, with considerable time devoted to makeup and costuming, and as many retakes as needed, all in the effort to get as near to perfection as possible. This clashed with the growing demand of studios that as many films as possible be turned out rapidly and cheaply, sacrificing artistic values for profit. As a result, his work opportunities began to dry up. He returned to Shanghai for a brief period, but found no work there, so he returned to Hong Kong, where he lived in virtual poverty, and became increasingly reclusive.
On February 13, 1961, Ma-Xu Weibang ventured out to collect his welfare payment. What is certain is that he walked into heavy traffic and was fatally struck by a trolley. But sources differ as to what caused the fatal accident that day. The British authorities had recently revised the traffic laws in Hong Kong, and the reclusive Ma-Xu may have been confused by the new and to him unfamiliar procedures. A policeman had whistled him to stop and not enter the heavy traffic pattern, but family members noted that he had been suffering some hearing loss, and may not have heard the warning. And finally, he was known to have been depressed over his inability to find work at a time when he believed his creative powers were still considerable, so this may have been a suicide. Or it may have just been a tragic accident. Whatever the cause, this creative genius who built his life on mystery and suspense left it in the same way.
[Ma-Xu Weibang's filmography continues after the bump]