Back to the Cave of Desire: Canadian Premiere of A 1920s Chinese Silent Film
More than 90 years ago, The Cave of the Silken Web (dir. DAN Duyu, 1927) incited one of the earliest “blockbuster” fantasy-film sensations in Chinese cinema. Adapted from Chapter 72 of the 16th century classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Cave brilliantly weaves together a beautiful visual narrative of one of the most fascinating trials the Buddhist monk Xuanzang has to overcome along with his disciples in his pilgrimage to obtain Buddhist sacred texts.
And it’s nothing short of a miracle that it survives today: the film stock, long thought lost, was re-discovered in the Norwegian national film collection in 2011. Tina Anckarman, the film archivist at the National Library of Norway, while restoring this beautifully tinted nitrate stock with original Chinese and Norwegian intertitles, realized that the “Norwegian print of this enormously popular Shanghai-produced film is the only surviving copy from the late 1920s.”
Trained in both traditional Chinese and Western paintings and fascinated with works of art in the time of mechanical reproduction, Dan meticulously uses lighting, special effects, coloring and mise-en-scène to add glory to the canon of representations of this legendary myth. In this encounter between Xuanzang and the seven sisters of the spider demons we see unfolded in front of our eyes an ingenious artistic depiction of elements of violence, seduction, eroticism, beauty, fantastical transformations and striking comedy. Although religious faith triumphs in this visual allegory of a confrontation between sexual desire and celibate insistence, this does not diminish the potency of female beauty, bodily desires and demonic attractions. The film stars YIN Minzhu, a sensational actress from the elite society in Shanghai and Dan’s wife, as the eldest spider sister. Both with others and when alone, we see her exhibit a Gilda-like glamour and the innocent bliss of maidenhood. The spiritual insights as well as the humorous portrayal of the events all make this film not only a genuine pleasure to watch but also a rare sensational experience. The live original score by the veteran film music composer, William WU Wai-Lap, will render this screening a once-in-a-lifetime event that takes us back in time to witness an incredible commercial success that stirred the audience in Shanghai, China, on February 2nd, 1927.
Buried deep down in the comic adventure is a satirical examination of the social and historical bureaucracy and a remarkable reflection on the timeless struggles in human nature – 92 years later, we still marvel at the unwavering faith in Xuanzang’s sufferings and wonder at the wrestle between desire and restraint.
The Mulan International Film Festival will present The Cave of the Silken Web at 7:30 p.m., March 14, 2019 at Innis Town Hall, Toronto.