Fans of classic movies (like myself) are always hoping against hope that some lost film of the past will someday, somehow, magically turn up somewhere, maybe in an obscure attic or cellar, or perhaps mislabelled in a library or film archive, but existant -- a historical treasure that once found, can be lovingly restored, digitized and added to the massive treasury which constitutes the viewable history of motion pictures. For reasons unclear (because by all contemporary accounts it was not that good a picture), Lon Chaney's 1927 horror film《London After Midnight》seems be the holy grail for silent movie fans: rumors occasionally appear in online silent or classic movie forums that a copy has been found; while some of these reports are hope rumors, most originate with trolls. While the actual film itself is lost,《London After Midnight》was recreated in 2007 by cable channel Turner Classic Movies, using the original script and still photos. (This site attempts to do the same thing with some lost Chinese classics, but we're not as good at it, nor do we have TCM's resources.)
But once in a very great while a film assumed to be lost will actually turn up. In Chinese movie history, such discoveries have happened more that once, and one of the most momentous occurred several years ago -- in Uruguay, of all places. The discovery was made at the home of a former high-ranking officer in the Chinese Nationalist Army, for many years the Republic of China's consul in the South American republic, and apparently a movie fan. After the consul's death, in going through his personal effects, a number of motion pictures were found, and while most of these were nothing special, one was a major discovery: 《Love and Duty》(also called《Love and Obligation》) , a 1931 production co-starring Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan, and long relegated to the (regrettably) massive category of "lost silent films" (about 95% of Chinese silents are believed lost). The discovery was of major import for several reasons, not least because it was another example of Ruan's work, but because of its unique background and its influence on later Chinese filmmakers.
Every major filmmaking country has drawn upon literary works as source material for its motion pictures, taken from both its own literary tradition as well as foreign works. China is no exception, but in its long tradition of tapping foreign literature for movie treatment,《Love and Duty》is unique, in that while the source was a best-selling Chinese novel, it was written by a foreigner, a European expatriate in China.
[cover of the 1931 updated edition of the novel]
The author was a Polish woman, original name Stephanie Rosen. In the early years of the 20th century, she was admitted to the University of Paris, and while specializing in botany, she found herself increasingly drawn to literature, which engendered a desire to write. During her stay in France, Ms. Rosen became acquainted with a number of Chinese students at the university, and fell in love with one, a young man surnamed Hua 华. The two students married, and in 1911 she accompanied her husband to his homeland China. After arriving there, she officially changed her name to Hua Luochen 华罗琛, a thoroughly Chinese name without a trace of foreignness. Also, after establishing a home there, and giving birth to a son and a daughter, Stephanie/Luochen became involved in local affairs, a frequent participant in various charity events, which put her in contact with a broad spectrum of Chinese celebrities in the Beijing-Tianjin area, notables in politics, business, arts and education. The woman now known as Hua Luochen came to regard China as her second motherland, and felt a growing concern for her adopted country, its current situation and the lives of its ordinary people. She now returned to the writing impulses she had felt as a student, and soon began fulfilling her literary dreams. Starting in 1915 she published a succession of long and short stories and essays, the fiction reflecting her own experience as an educated woman, or on male-female interpersonal relationships, while her essays dealt with Chinese current events. But her publication which had the most impact was a novel titled Love and Duty, published in June, 1924 by the Commercial Press. The novel was very popular, and among its readers was Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培, a prominent educator and at the time president of Peking University. Cai was hospitalized recovering from an illness, and a family member included the hit novel with other reading material for Cai to pass the time. Cai Yuanpei was capivated by the book, which he said "lifted the spirits." With Cai promoting it, the novel's Chinese edition was translated and subsequently published in English and French editions, and all three language editions sold out and went into multiple reprints. In 1931, Hua Luochen revised the novel, added an updated introductory essay concerning the "national calamity" of Japanese aggression, and the reprint quickly sold out.
[China's favorite screen sweethearts: Jin Yan and Ruan Lingyu in a publicity still]
A best-selling novel is always a prime candidate for screen adaptation, so the Lianhua movie studio's bid for film rights was a natural. The film received critical raves and was a box office success. In addition, it had a major imact on Chinese filmmaking, as it was the first major production without the typical situation of good confronting evil that had been dominant in Chinese movies till then. Most earlier non-comedy Chinese movies had clear-cut heroes and villains, but《Love and Duty》stood out in that it was considerably more nuanced. All the principals were flawed: the heroine abandons her family to enter into an adulterous relationship; rather than a hero, her true love is a homewrecker, putting his own desires above doing the honorable thing; the couple's fathers, in thwarting their children's quest for love, are really products of their time, honest people brought up in the traditional Chinese ways of doing things; and finally, society at large condemns them to a life of poverty and premature deaths. Indeed, the only true "villain" here would be the system which molded everyone's fates. In particular the practice of parental arranged marriage, but in the broader view, the tradition that called for children having to conform with their parents' demands, even after those children had reached adulthood, even middle age. The practice had been criticized on screen as far back as《Victims of Opium》(1917). This remnant of feudal tradition had been assailed in numerous earlier films, several of which we have discussed in earlier posts. But this was the first to hold none of the individuals involved guilty: they were all products of their times, their fates controlled by those times.
[left, cover of the program for the 2010 Ruan retrospective in Beijing]
After its discovery in Uruguay, the film was sent to the Taipei Film Archive for restoration, after which it was exhibited in Taipei in June, 2010 as part of "Rediscovering the Legend: Ruan Lingyu and Her Shanghai," a retrospective commemorating the centennial of the actress's birth. It was then exhibited in December, 2010 at the Broadway Cinematheque in Beijing with English and Chinese intertitles. Other films shown as part of both retrospectives were《A Spray of Plum Blossoms》,《Return》(the directorial debut of screenwriter Zhu Shilin),《New Women》from Cai Chusheng, Ruan's two acknowledged masterpieces《Little Toys》and《Goddess》and her posthumously released《National Customs》. At both exhibitions, the special guest speaker was Stanley Kwan, director of《Ruan Lingyu》(aka《Center Stage》, the award-winning 1992 Hong Kong docudrama about Ruan's career and her last days.
《Love and Duty》was remade in a 1938 sound version, with Yuan Meiyun in the dual roles of tragic heroine Yang Naifan and her first daughter, and Jin Yan reprising his role as Li Zuyi. One of the minor supporting roles in the remake was played by future star Gu Yelu, making his screen debut. In his 1994 memoirs, Gu recalled that both versions were landmarks in his acting career: in 1931, he was a teenager, newly arrived in Shanghai to take up an apprenticeship, and "The first Chinese movie I saw was the 1931 silent《Love and Duty》and I came out of the theater with the names of Bu Wancang, Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan engraved on my mind. From then on, I had a keen interest in movies." Before long, Gu joined a drama club, then soon after that abandoned his original career plans to take up acting, and "as fate would have it, my first movie was the 1938 remake."
--Gu, Yelu, "My Five 'Firsts'". In: Friends, Sorrows and Joys on Stage and Screen. (Beijing: China Film Press, 1994).