#AsiaNow Speaks with Christopher Rea about Early Chinese Cinema

Logo of Chinese Film Classics website
Logo of Chinese Film Classics website

Since early 2020, Christopher Rea, a professor of Chinese at the University of British Columbia, has translated over twenty early Chinese films and made them available on the YouTube channel Modern Chinese Cultural Studies. He has also produced a semester-long online course on early Chinese cinema, available at chinesefilmclassics.org. In June 2021, Columbia University Press published Rea’s book, Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949.

#AsiaNow spoke with Chris about film research and pedagogy in the digital age.

#AsiaNow: What is the Chinese Film Classics project?

Christopher Rea (CR): Chinese Film Classics is an initiative aimed at making early Chinese cinema (pre-1949 for now) more accessible to the general public. Priority #1 is translation. Most films from China’s Republican era have not been translated, or not translated well. The project makes public-domain copies of films available for free online with high-quality English subtitles. For proprietary copies of early films, such as restored versions, I reach out to archives for permission. The National Library of Norway, for example, is allowing me to publish a digitized restored copy of the partially-extant silent film Cave of the Silken (Pan si dong, 1927). I’m creating a version that includes my translation of the Chinese intertitles, alongside the Library-commissioned English translation of the Norwegian intertitles. The result will be a unique copy.

The project also aims to enhance the accessibility through digital platforms, annotation, and metadata. To date, I’ve done this by posting films on YouTube and on a new WordPress site, adding descriptions, links, and tags. I’ve also created hundreds of clips from these films, and organized them into playlists for easy browsing. A 3-minute clip of a famous scene can serve as a trailer for the full film, and can also be useful for teaching purposes. Current playlists include songs, animations, special effects, superlative scenes, and motifs shared with foreign cinema. I also spent three years creating an online course with twenty-two video lectures on eleven films, from Laborer’s Love (1922) up to Crows and Sparrows (1949), which include a contextual and formal analysis of each film, drawing on some of my archival work.

#AsiaNow: What new research is represented in the project?

Cover of Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949, by Christopher Rea
Cover of Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949, by Christopher Rea

CR: There have been so many great histories of Chinese filmmakers, studios, actors, and thematic trends, like films about the status of women. I wanted to return to basics and write a book that examines each film first as a text, and then moves outward to talk about contexts such as language, culture, and social norms.

Another key contribution of my research is to show, at a textual level, where Chinese films are inspired by and dialogue with Hollywood and European films. Historians have long known that Republican Chinese cinema was highly internationalized, but I provide a large volume of new, specific examples, such as references to Greta Garbo in the set design of an early scene of Goddess (1934), and the debts of films like Sports Queen (1934) to Busby Berkeley musicals. Greater precision in comparison enables us to be more precise, too, in identifying differences. U.C. Berkeley’s East Asian Library also granted me permission to reprint some of my discoveries from the Paul Kendel Fonoroff Collection for Chinese Film Studies, which shed light on the content and context of these films. You could say that each chapter of the book is a history and appraisal of one film, with revelations about textual form, production, and reception; now I’m trying to illustrate as many of these findings as possible online.

#AsiaNow: How did you select films for translation?

CR: Availability, popularity, and personal interest. The film has to be available in acceptable-quality digital format, and the underlying copyright has to have expired. I’ve been putting films that educators often teach at the front of the translation queue. The other criteria are artistic and historical significance, which of course includes all the films I discuss in the book.

I had already translated a couple of my favorites, Long Live the Missus! (1947) and Crows and Sparrows (1949), when the pandemic hit North America in March 2020. I was scheduled to teach two film courses in May, and now both would have to be taught online. I knew that many colleagues would be in the same predicament—no more showing the DVD in the classroom. So I translated ten films in the next two months, and started spreading the word about the project.

#AsiaNow: What type of response have you seen so far?

CR: Tremendous. Some of the films have attracted tens of thousands of views. According to YouTube analytics, the most popular film on the channel so far has been Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (1949), the only film for which I put the settings as “made for children.” That film has had many viewers from the Philippines. Other popular films include Goddess (1934), New Women (1935), Laborer’s Love (1922), and Hua Mu Lan (1939), which got a boost thanks to Disney’s 2020 live-action Mulan.

The Asian Studies community has really turned out to support this project. Dozens of people—students, professors, librarians, independent scholars—have contributed translations, research, and advice. UBC PhD students Liu Yuqing and Yao Jiaqi created the subtitles for most of the films. Eileen Cheng-yin Chow shared her translation of New Women (1935), which was subtitled by Andrew Rodekohr. Translators from Boston to Sydney to London are working on upcoming films. The film published most recently, the partially-extant silent action film Woman Warrior White Rose (1929), was translated by a high school student, Frank S. Zhou.

Two of my hopes are that this project will encourage more collaborative digital humanities projects in Asian Studies, and that our community can persuade archives to restore more old films and to release digitized copies of them for research, teaching, and public enjoyment. Not everyone can make it to the archive, or to the film festival, so online distribution is a great way to democratize access to this part of world cultural heritage.