Saturday, 23 July 2016

Once more… Around China with a Movie Camera (2015) with Ruth Chan Ensemble live at the BFI

A quick return to China with an opportunity to hear Ruth Chan’s score live and to see how everything works: matching tones to instruments and players to parts.

No matter how big your home cinema, you can’t really beat seeing this film projected onto a cinema screen to better feel the press outside the Forbidden City, see the full sweep of the Great Wall or marvel at the ambition and grandeur of Shanghai’s Bund. You see a lot more of the Cormorant fishing too: pity the poor terrapin that gets plucked out first.

Presented in association with the Chinese Visual Festival and as part of the BFI’s ongoing sonic cinema strand, Around China was introduced by Edward Anderson who had co-edited the film with Douglas Weir. The project had enabled the BFI to digitise over 100 non-fiction films made in pre-communist China: 20 hours of film covering 50 years and thousands of miles.

 Hangzhou’s Gong Chen Bridge (1925)
The result is a compilation of mostly alien views from British, French and other colonial nationalities: not so much a historically-balanced view of the times but a Euro-centric take on China’s most note-worthy points. So it is that we get nothing on the Sino-Japanese War, the Long March or the Boxer Rebellion but plenty on day-to-day life, religious buildings and the comfortable reminders that “It looks just like home (because we made it so…)”. In spite of this Colonists’ Gaze, the film continually impresses that China cannot be framed by the generic formalities of economic and political empire: it is just too vibrant and simply too big.

Tonight it was also the music’s turn to assume greater prominence as the live performance moved it literally to the forefront … well, being precise, to the left and right in NFT 3’s constrained space. Seeing a score played is always fascinating as you not only understand more technically but also connect more with the players on an instinctive emotional level: they don’t just express through instruments.

Beijing (1910
Ruth Chan played keyboards including pre-recorded drum and bass along with found sounds and other electronica. Wang Xiao played the two-stringed erhu – a kind of violin which shares that instrument’s plaintive capabilities: wonderfully expressive. Then Dennis lee played xiao and dizi – vertical and horizontal Chinese flutes that added a traditional, everyday flavour and some lovely clear lines.

Mengmeng Wu played on guzheng, a type of zither that sent shivers down the spine and conveyed so much of the sound of place whilst Maurizio Pala’s accordion added some western flavours – a combination that reflected the cultural mix on screen. Ms Chan says in her notes to the DVD that she wanted her music to help make the images more relevant to modern audience and therefore opted for “a marriage of Chinese classical and Western contemporary music”.

A balanced view at Qianmen Gate, Beijing (1939
She likened the composition to having to prepare 30 songs so even though the end result is crammed into just over an hour we got our money’s worth of musical invention. But she also more than achieved one of her key aims of humanising this old film and helping us reconnect with, in many cases, a world we never knew existed… the past is a familiar place in any language.

The oldest film, known as Chinese Men from 1900 – or thereabouts – was found amongst the rediscovered Mitchell and Kenyon films in a Blackburn basement in 1995. It’s the only one off those films to have been shot on a Lumiere camera but not by M & K possibly the Conservative MP, Ernest FG Hatch. But, summing up all that had gone before, it’s truth is hidden in the watching: a shadowy world of the long disappeared.

Smokers in Yunnan province (1902)
The DVD is now available from the BFI Shop and is excellent value. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream with or without the chemical aid of the Miao opium smokers, and let Ruth Chan’s music immerse you in a very modern reconnection.

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