Cave of the Silken Web (盘丝洞) –Rediscovered Treasure of Chinese Cinema
Author:Chris Berry (裴开瑞) King's College London
As a scholar of Chinese cinema, I have heard for a long time about the fantastical and controversial “ghost-spirit” (神怪) film genre that was so popular in China in the 1920s. But I never expected to be able to see one, because few Chinese films from the 1920s survive. So, you can imagine my excitement when a print of Cave of the Silken Web (1927) turned up in the Norwegian National Library! That frisson could also be felt amongst the mostly Norwegian audience who turned out for the screening of the restored print in Oslo on 13 October. And they were not disappointed! Adapted from an episode of Journey to the West (西游记), in which the gullible Monk Xuanzang is persuaded to enter a cave inhabited by a group of beautiful maidens, who are in fact hungry spider-demons eager to eat a monk for dinner. After a fairly slow start, the film becomes surprisingly fast-paced and funny, and the Norwegian audience laughed happily at the antics of Monkey King and Pigsy, as well as now-outmoded special effects and papier-mâché spider monsters. There is no doubt that this is a rediscovered classic of Chinese cinema. The Norwegian National Library has already promised a copy of their restored print of the film to the Chinese Film Archive in Beijing.
So, how did Cave of the Silken Web end up in Norway? What do we know about its production history? And why is it so significant? Film Archivist at the Norwegian National Library Tina Anckarman told me that the cans of old film had probably been in the library's collection since the national archive was established in Oslo after World War Two. But, like many archives, they had far more material than they could catalogue properly, and they had only come across it recently during an audit of the collection of fragile nitrate prints from the 1920s and earlier. Even then, they did not realize there was anything special about it until they happened to mention it to a colleague from the Beijing Film Archive, who jumped up and down with excitement and then explained that maybe no more than a dozen Chinese films from before 1930 have survived and that Cave of the Silken Web had been thought to be a lost film. Only then did the Norwegians start to get really interested.
In fact, for a Chinese film to have found its way to a public release in Norway in the late 1920s was already a sign that Cave of the Silken Web must be a pretty special film. Oslo news reports from the time indicate that this was the first Chinese film to be shown in Norway, and perhaps in Europe. It played with an orchestra and was widely reviewed. It seems that the producers were hoping that they could break into the European market with this film, which also indicates that it was a high-budget prestige project by the standards of the time.
Indeed, Cave of the Silken Web was a blockbuster in Chinese terms in the world of the Shanghai film industry of the 1920s, inspiring a sequel and various remakes, including a 1967 version by Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. No doubt the famous source from Journey to the West helped to attract audiences. So did the people who made it. Director Dan Duyu (但杜宇) and his filmstar wife, Yin Mingzhu (殷明珠), were a celebrity couple in Shanghai. They married in 1926, a year before Cave of the Silken Web was made. Dan directed over thirty movies in his career, and about half of those starred Yin Mingzhu. Yin was the archetypal Shanghai Modern Girl, posing with bobbed hair in front of automobiles. Together, they were the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of their day, or perhaps a better analogy would be von Sternberg and Dietrich. But until now, we have never had a chance to see any of the films they made together. Imagine not being able to see any von Sternberg and Dietrich movies, and then suddenly finding one! That's how exciting it was to hear that Cave of the Silken Web had been found. Furthermore, Dan cast his wife as the no.1 spider-demon, which only made it more interesting.
No doubt Dan and Yin's celebrity along with the spider-demon role helped to pull the crowds in to see the film on its release in Shanghai in 1927. But the “ghost-spirit” genre was also popular. Although it is based on a famous and very respectable Ming dynasty novel, the episode selected for Cave of the Silken Web also fit the characteristics of the “ghost-spirit” genre. These “ghost-spirit” films featured all kinds of supernatural spaces and fantastic figures, like the cave in Cave of the Silken Web, and the spider-demons, as well as Monkey King, Pigsy, and Friar Sand. The magic tricks and mazing physical feats they performed required all kinds of special effects, and enabled cinema to show audiences what it was capable of.
In a book called China on Screen: Cinema and the National, which I co-authored with Mary Farquhar, and which was published in 2006, we argued that there are two major modes in Chinese cinema. One is the realist mode, the other is what we called the “operatic” mode. By “operatic” mode, we mean cinematic genres that are not only not realist, but also can trace their roots back to elements of the Chinese stage opera tradition. As everyone knows, traditional Chinese opera is completely not a realist genre, and all its elements are based on conventions, from the make-up to the stylized movements of the performers. As well as singing, the opera includes acrobatics, and it can be seen as the root of genres such as martial arts, and also the “ghost-spirit” films.
However, although the fantastic elements of these films helped to make them popular with Chinese audiences in the 1920s, they also ultimately led to their downfall. Just as the 1920s was an aging of daring new things in the rest of the world, so in China it was a boom era of economic growth and cultural experimentation. And just as the more daring elements in Hollywood films led to an outcry from the more conservative members of American society that forced Hollywood into self-censorship in the 1930s, so too the combination of the supernatural and the sexy in “ghost-spirit” films led to pressures in China that ended with such films being banned in the early 1930s. In China, the specific concern that intellectuals in the wake of the 1919 May Fourth Movement had about “ghost-spirit” films was that these films did not follow the new spirit of secularism and science, but instead promoted feudal concepts like ghosts. Such films were felt to be holding China back from modernization. The impact of the economic crisis after the Wall Street combined with the even more devastating effects of the Japanese invasion led to a more serious atmosphere in which the fun and frivolity of films like Cave of the Silken Web seemed inappropriate.
The much-lauded Left Wing Progressive films appeared soon after in the 1930s, and the “ghost-spirit” films were forgotten as so much “feudal trash.” Only the realist mode was government-approved as suitably modern. But today, opinions are changing. Professor Zhang Zhen (张真) of New York University has written in her book, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen, that the 1920s fascination with supernatural magic and special effects can be seen as a sort of “vernacular modernist” popular interest in science and effort to come to terms with the overwhelming shock of modernity.
At the time Zhang Zhen was writing, few if any films from the 1920s were available. Today, not only the “ghost-spirit” film Cave of the Silken Web, but also the 1926 realist melodrama Mother’s Happiness (儿孙福) is also available. So, now at last we can compare the two modes at work in the 1920s Chinese cinema. There is no question that Mother’s Happiness is a more serious film, teaching audiences important lessons about ethical behaviour among parents and children. But, if you will forgive me for being frank, although it is well-made and acted in the realist mode, it is not a lot of fun. Cave of the Silken Web might seem silly in some ways, but it engages an audience in a way that realist cinema finds difficult. We laugh, gasp in surprise, cry out in shock, and are thoroughly transported by this masterpiece of the silent cinema. Cave of the Silken Web is everything we could have hoped for from the missing Chinese films of the 1920s and it can only leave us desperately hoping that more lost treasures of the Chinese silent cinema turn up very soon in equally unexpected places all around the world.