As we discussed in an earlier article, the first genre to dominate Chinese domestic filmmaking was the comedy short, which began declining in popularity by the mid-1920s with the emergence of feature-length films, and replaced in popularity by the "Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies" romance genre. There were a few feature-length comedies, however, as with this 1926 silent release, a sex farce adapted from a Kunqu opera. Although Da Zhonghua Baihe was one of the leading film studios at the time, I have (so far) found no other film credits for the two leads, indicating they were probably opera performers hired to reinact their stage roles on screen.
A note about Kunqu opera: Kunqu, with its roots in the beautiful Chinese city of Suzhou (the "Venice of the East"), is a cousin to the traditional Peking opera more familiar to those in the West. In this writer's opinion, Kunqu is more entertaining, and easier for the foreigner (at least this one) to understand. Wikipedia has a brief, though superficial, overview of Kunqu opera. However, for an in-depth examination of the subject which examines the Kunqu school in the context of traditional Chinese culture, the best online source is a 10-part series from CCTV-9, the English language channel of China's national television network. It's excellent, and a must-see if you are really into traditional Chinese culture.
Dai Zhong Fu (1926) 呆中福 (The Lucky Dolt)
Da Zhonghua Baihe. B&W. Silent. 9 reels. Direction: Zhu Shouju. Screenplay: Wang Beier, adapted from a Kunqu opera of the same title. Cinematography: Yu Shengsan. Program notes: Xu Weiming. Titles: Jiang Qifeng. Cast: Xing Haha (Chen Zhi), Wang Beier (Diao Xiao), Wang Caiyun (Little Sister Qiao), Lin Wusi (Mr. Zhang), Xie Yunqing (doctor), Wang Motuo (boatman), Yang Baocheng (Song Youcai), Wang Yuzhen (Song's wife), Zhang Xueming (Diao's wife), Gong Yidan (Father Qiao).
His parents think that Chen Zhi is the brightest young man in their village, but others take his naiveté and trusting nature to be a sign of stupidity, although they don't say so in public. Other young men in the village tease amd bully Chen Zhi, so to get their son away from these bullies, his parents send him to Shanghai to visit his aunt and uncle. Never having been away from his parents or his native village, the unsophisticated young man makes several ridiculous mistakes while traveling alone. When he at last arrives at his destination he continues his bumbling, even accidentally injuring his uncle and bringing great consternation to his relatives. Uncle Song has two close friends: Diao Xiao and Mr. Zhang. Diao Xiao has a desire for a girl called Little Sister Qiao, the daughter of a local bean curd shop owner, a bright girl whose father wants to secure her future by finding her a husband. But Diao Xiao has a suspicious and controlling wife who forbids him from taking a concubine. So he asks Mr. Zhang to help, and Zhang makes a matchmaking visit to Little Sister's father, who readily consents to his daughter becoming Diao's second wife, but only if the first wife agrees to it. Since this is unlikely, Zhang and Diao hatch a deception: Zhang persuades the innocent Chen Zhi to dress up in wedding clothes, then go to the marriage hall with Little Sister. But instead of marrying, the two would slip out and go directly to the bridal chamber, where the "groom" and Diao would change places and clothing. Then, after Diao had spent the night with the girl, her father would have the legal right to force Diao to marry her, in spite of his first wife's objections.
But unexpectedly, Diao's wife is suspicious and forbids him from going out that night, and he is too henpecked to go against her wishes. Meanwhile, as Chen and Little Sister sit waiting for Diao to arrive, the would-be adulterer decides to pretend retiring for the night, then slip out after his wife is asleep. He writes a note to tell the couple in the bridal chamber to be patient, that he will be there soon. He pays a servant of his next-door neighbor, a doctor, to deliver the message. But as the servant is leaving, his master asks where he is going. When he reads the note, the doctor, who disapproves of his neighbor's lechery, alters the message to indicate that Diao will be very late, and might not arrive until morning, if at all. As the night wears on, and Chen Zhi and Little Sister sit and talk, she finds the young man's sweet nature and openness appealing. Deciding that being an innocent and trustworthy young man's wife would be preferable to being an older man's concubine, with a lesser status in their household, she repeatedly encourages Chen to take off his wedding clothes and come to bed. He keeps declining, believing his commitment to Diao takes precedence over what he finds is a growing attraction to the pretty and clever girl.
[Trying to lure her "groom" to the bridal bed. Wang Caiyun, left, and Xing Haha as the bogus marital couple. Click on image to enlarge.]
When morning comes, Zhang the matchmaker rushes Mr. Qiao to the wedding chamber, telling him his daughter has been compromised and her honor must be preserved. But instead of discovering Diao in bed with Little Sister, they find the girl with Chen, the bogus bridegroom. Exercising his parental rights, Qiao demands the couple return to the wedding hall and make it legal, something they are only too happy to do, since they have fallen in love overnight. When at last Diao is able to get away from his wife, he hurries to the scene, arriving just as the young couple emerge from the wedding hall as husband and wife. Everyone agrees that while Chen Zhi may be a dolt, he definitely is a lucky one.