15 July 2016



Well, this is an extra-special treat for anyone who likes to watch rare footage of long-ago life in a country which I've always thought of as being mysterious, inaccessible somehow and even aloof and remote from the rest of the world, namely China.

Of course, that's only an impression, but I still always feel that China is a country about which I know relatively little but would love to know more. I feel drawn to it. I have similar feelings about their neighbour Japan, so I guess it's a desire to assimilate some of their attractive and even mystical cultures that's eating me, two rich vibrant cultures that date back literally thousands of years.

Well, if this DVD, which is being released on July 18th 2016 by the BFI, isn't an open invitation to take a peek into some of China's fascinating back-story, I honestly don't know what is.

When I read the title, AROUND CHINA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, I thought that some travel presenter would be wandering through different areas of China and giving his/her impressions to camera. It's actually not like that at all, though there's nothing wrong with that presenting style!

Rather, it's a collection of rare (and rarely-seen) short films, travelogues, newsreels and home movies made by various British and French film-makers in the first half of the twentieth century. Who were they, these long-dead recorders and chroniclers of fifty years of Chinese history?

Well, some were professional film-makers and some were tourists or visitors to the area, like the honeymooning couple, for example. Others were colonial-era expatriates and some were even Christian missionaries. Some of the film-makers are either unknown or little or nothing is known about them, which I find sad but at the same time utterly fascinating. I mean, how exotic is that?

The footage is so old, that's the most exciting thing about it. Some of the films are even sepia-toned! You really get the impression that you're getting a glimpse of a lost China, and indeed you are. The highly-industrialised economic superpower that is the China of today is a vastly different place from the one in this film.

We're privileged to be allowed a look at a lost China. The films are all from the collection preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can imagine that they'd need careful handling. I wouldn't go leaving 'em on the radiator or anything...!

The images are basically of Chinese men, women and children going about their daily business over a hundred years ago. This daily business consisted of farming, caring for their animals, shopping for food and household goods, navigating their boats through bustling, jam-packed harbours and just living their lives in different places between Beijing and Shanghai. The images are all breath-takingly gorgeous. And, again, so old! So very, very old.

Everyone in the films is dead now. Yes, I know that that's a morbid thought, but it always fills me with awe whenever I'm watching something this ancient to think that all the people in the footage have long since gone to their eternal rest. The animals, too.

Every adorable donkey carrying a heavy load, the giant cow who spent his days going round and round in circles turning a huge wheel (I'm not sure what for, it was for agricultural purposes, anyway!), they're all dead now. I wonder if that cow was happy with his lot? We'll never know.

There's some footage of a man doing some magnificent ivory carving on an elephant's tusk but, because an elephant died so that he could do that, I can't approve. Humph. There's some fabulous footage too of the Great Wall Of China, which is actually a series of walls and fortifications all joined together, as opposed to one continuous wall. I bet you didn't know that!

It was built to keep out China's enemies (According to hit animation show SOUTH PARK, it was actually built to keep out 'those damn Mongorians...!') and construction on the oldest part of it was begun as far back as the seventh century, if you can even imagine a time that was that long ago. When I was in school, the Wall was considered to be one of the seven great Wonders Of The World and it was said of it that you could see it from space. I wonder if that's still all true?

I prefer the rural scenes in the film to the urban ones because they're so peaceful and they show us a way of life that's now over, but the urban scenes bring us a fusion of architectural styles to delight any budding Frank Gehrys among the viewers.

Some of the more modern buildings even reminded me of some well-known Irish structures such as the Four Courts, our legal hub, and the Customs House down on the Quays which was involved in the 1916 Rising, the centenary of which we Paddies have been celebrating for months now...!

I loved the scenes in which a company of theatre folk performed an opera, all resplendent in their glorious costumes, and the ones in which some extraordinary acrobatic feats were carried out by small children. The films are silent but we know somehow that we're witnessing flawless performances nonetheless.

If the movie FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993) has taught us anything, however, it's that the children (and adults) would only have achieved such perfect performances after many severe whippings from their teachers. I know, I've seen it for myself in this excellent tale of forbidden love and political conflict revolving round the Opera.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that, in the scene with the boy contortionist in AROUND CHINA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, the elderly teacher with the long white beard and the long whippy stick is aiming it (the stick, not the beard!) at the child even as they're being filmed...!

Oh dear. The olden days have a lot to answer for. There are certainly some things about days of yore that we're not sorry to say goodbye to. Ooops, I ended on a preposition there but I'm not changing it. I'm feeling rebellious today.

I mustn't forget to mention the fantastic musical score, one of the best things about this rare and special documentary. A lady called Ruth Chan, a composer for film, television, multimedia and concert works, is responsible for the music. In her own words:

'I felt I needed to help make the images more relevant to the twenty-first century and a modern audience through the music. I therefore decided to go for a marriage of Chinese classical and Western contemporary music. I have applied Chinese styles, such as Beijing Opera (or at least, my own interpretation of Beijing Opera!), folk tunes from different provinces, references to traditional Chinese melodies; and combined it with more contemporary elements such as jazz, electronics and irregular beats.'

Yeah, what she said...!

The good news for anyone living in England is that there will be a screening of this marvellous film at the BFI Southbank on Thursday July 21st 2016 at 7pm. There will be a live score performed by Ruth Chan herself. I think she'd be positively magnificent performing live. Tickets are now on sale at www.bfi.org.uk/southbank and, if you ask me, it sounds like an opportunity not to be missed.

For those of us who don't live in England, hope is not lost. We can still buy the DVD from July 18th and avail ourselves of some delicious extra features and an illustrated booklet containing an essay by curator Edward Anderson and an another one about Ruth Chan and the wonderful music for the film.

I can assure you that the whole package is excellent value for money and, as it contains some of the earliest film footage shot of China ever, it could only add to your collection's prestige. It's certainly classy-ed up and posh-ed up my humble little collection no end anyway, haha. 

It looks real good between PAUL BLART MALL COP and BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE. Only kidding. Those last are in a separate section marked 'CLASSICS.' Still, can you, in all conscience, do less...?


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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