[left, poster for《A Night of Madness》(click on any image to view full size). Most of the cast is caricatured, with the largest images being that of Hu Ping and Xu Tao. However, the two are identified in this poster as her and Jin Shan, who had a relatively minor role in the film.]
As we have noted in previous posts, numerous movies throughout the years, Chinese and foreign, have been screen adaptations of actual historical events, instances of art imitating life. But a recent scandal in south China's Yunnan Province appears to have reversed the situation, with life imitating art. In this case, a man showed up in the provincial capital of Kunming claiming to be a high-ranking official from the capital, and played that role very well for years, boring the local officials with long, banal speeches, while accepting their frequent social invitations, meant to curry his favor. (Among other news sources, the Telegraph has a fuller discussion for those desiring more background on the incident.)
It all called to mind a Chinese film from the classic era,《A Night of Madness》(1936), an adaptation of Gogol's 19th century Russian satirical play, "The Inspector General" (aka "The Government Inspector"). Since the film is believed lost, it is unlikely the fraudster got the idea for his deception from viewing it, but he might have hit upon his scheme after viewing a Chinese translation or stage production of Gogol's classic. We don't know, but it is interesting to speculate.
The movie was very successful, both critically and at the box office. Writer-Director Shi Dongshan was at the peak of his talents, and the cast included many of China's more popular screen performers. Top billing as the county administrator was given to Gu Eryi, making his screen debut (he was 21 at the time this was made). The lead female role, that of his ambitious and scheming wife, was played by Hu Ping, known for her "bad woman" roles. In the supporting role of their naive and easily manipulated daughter was Zhou Xuan, already a famous vocalist, and on the verge of becoming a movie megastar. The supporting roles of various fawning local notables were played by some of Chinese cinema's most loved comic actors. For some reason unexplained by the surviving written sources, the film was set in 1927, nearly a decade earlier, although the plot summary would indicate it could have been set in any time period before or later. Although we have no evidence for it, this may have been for political reasons: there might have been something in the film's content the ruling Chinese regime at that time could possibly have found offensive.
Kuanghuan zhi Ye (1936) 狂欢之夜 (A Night of Madness)
Xinhua (New China). B&W. Mandarin. Premiered October 9, 1936 at the Lyric Theater in Shanghai. Direction and Screenplay: Shi Dongshan, adapted from “The Inspector General” by Nickolai Gogol (1809-1852). Producer: Zhang Shangkun. Cinematography: Yu Shengsan, Xie Boqing. Cast: Gu Eryi (An Tang, the county administrator), Hu Ping (An Tang's wife, Madame Nuo), Zhou Xuan (Manli, their daughter), Chen Yun (the administrator’s concubine), Wang Yingying (county administrator’s older wife), You Guanren (hospital chief), Jiang Xiu (presiding judge), Shi Zhao (schoolmaster), Gu Menghe (postmaster), Yin Xiucen (chamber of commerce head), Xu Tao (Du Boqing), Jin Shan (young ministerial envoy), Wang Weiyi (A Xi), Zhou Banwen (Deaf Wang), Lin Chengxian (first townspeople’s representative), Zhang Huilin (second townspeople’s representative), Zhao Mannuo (local craftsman’s wife).
[left, advertisement for《A Night of Madness》. In the left-hand frame, Administrator An convenes a meeting of the local movers and shakers to decide how to handle this crisis visit. At the right are caricatures of the four principals.]
In 1927, An Tang, chief administrator of a county in south China, receives a confidential message from a friend in the capital, alerting him that the Minister of the Interior has appointed his younger brother his special assistant, and assigned him to make an inspection tour of government operations in the southern provinces. This particular county’s governance is very corrupt, with the officials at the top being the worst, so Administrator An hastily calls a meeting of all officials in the county, to come up wiith a strategy for dealing with the situation. They decide to have the postmaster monitor the mails while the head of the chamber of commerce and the area’s most powerful businessman try to learn the inspecting official’s present whereabouts. In less than a day, the two report that the high-ranking official and his entourage had arrived in their county two weeks earlier, and have been staying at a local inn. Administrator An is delegated to call on the “official.”
[right, local officials pay the proper obeisance to their distinguished visitor. From left, Yin Xiucen, Gu Eryi and Xu Tao.]
The visitor is actually Du Boqing, a young playboy who had been traveling with a group of friends to his hometown, but now running up a bill at the local inn because he had gambled away all their travel expenses. He had just begun discussing his unpaid bill with the innkeeper when news arrived of Administrator An’s arrival at the inn asking for him. The young man is very worried until he sees the administrator’s deferential and respectful manner, leading him to think there might be a way out of this difficult situation. To the young man’s surprise, the county administrator tries in every way possible to please him, and on the spot presents him with 400 in gold, with an invitation to stay at the administrator’s mansion and use it as headquarters during his stay. Administrator An’s wife Madame Nuo and
daughter Manli greatly admire the young visitor, and shower him with attention. All the officeholders and gentry of the county flock to the mansion, and one after another offer him bribes. By nightfall, the young man thinks he may be living a dream. The next day, as word of his presence spreads throughout the county, ordinary people stream to the mansion to voice their grievances, which the “high official” receives with noncommittal smiles.
[left, the administrator's wife (Hu Ping) sees opportunity for herself, either in marrying off her "Thousand Pieces of Gold" (Zhou Xuan, left) to a young official obviously on the fast track to success -- or possibly landing him for herself.]
[right, he won't be hers, but being his mother-in-law might be a good consolation prize.]
The next day, as the young man and Manli are having a rendezvous, her mother sees them together. And when she later is teasing Manli about it, Administrator An overhears, and demands an explanation. The mother embellishes her story by falsely saying that the young official has proposed to Manli, and to enhance her own status, the mother claims she personally acted as their matchmaker. Her husband, delighted to hear this, sets the wedding date for one week later. When informed of these developments, the “high official” tells them he must return to the capital for a few days, but will definitely be back in time for the wedding. With this cover story, the young man and his friends leave. When the wedding day arrives, and all the county officials and gentry have gathered for the ceremony, the postmaster arrives, carrying a letter he intercepted, a letter from the young man to a friend back in the capital. He reads it aloud to all, and in the letter the bogus “high official” tells the whole story. People angrily begin blaming each other, when suddenly an army honor guard arrives. Their commander announces that a high official on an inspection tour has arrived in their county, and is headquartered at the local inn, where their presence is required. Everyone just stands dumbstruck at this news.
[lower right, Gu Eryi in character as Administrator An Tang.]