Although regarded by modern Chinese film scholars as one of the great filmmakers of China's classical movie era, in his short life and career Fei Mu 费穆 (1906-1951) wrote and/or directed only 8 narrative films, of which only three still exist. But one of these three,《Spring in a Small Town》(1948), is the consensus choice of Chinese film scholars and critics as the greatest Chinese motion picture ever. It is fortunate we have this classic as proof of Fei Mu's talents, for the earliest example of his work that we have today is 《Song of China》,a pale and distorted reflection of the man's work, a victim of something that has plagued generations of Hollywood film artists: indiscriminate and excessive editing.
[left, Chinese dvd of 'Tianlun.' Click on any image to enlarge.]
《Song of China》was the first Chinese movie to have general release in the U.S., and not be limited to a handful of Chinatown theaters. Its Chinese title was "Tianlun" 天伦, and it was an "ethics film," an important genre of early Chinese cinema which reached its zenith in 1935 with this production from the Lianhua studio (aka United Photoplay Service). (The term "tianlun" means the natural bonds and ethical relationships among the members of a family and between generations.) Making "Tianlun" was almost an act of desperation on the studio's part. China was suffering a serious economic recession which mandated production and staffing cutbacks that spring, then in March Lianhua's top actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉 committed suicide, depriving the studio of one of its biggest box office attractions. These pressures exacerbated some existing conflicts within Lianhua's management. On one side was the "north" faction led by studio founder and general manager Luo Mingyou 罗明佑; on the other was the "south" faction led by the studio's business manager Wu Bangfan 吴邦藩. By midsummer these conflicts were intensifying daily. The Wu group was already making efforts to force out Luo, and the latter's being six months behind in paying his staff didn't gain him much support from that quarter. Hoping for a big score that would recoup his and the studio's financial recovery, the embattled general manager began production of "Tianlun," to feature some of the Lianhua's most reliable onscreen performers and directed by himself and one of the studio's most promising young talents, 29-year-old Fei Mu.