Times Staff Writer

Clearly, 1985 is the year of discovery for the Chinese cinema. There’s been a retrospective at UCLA of the films of Xie Jin, China’s leading director, and a series of recent Chinese films at the Grande 4-Plex about to wind up a six-month run.

Now, we’ll have the opportunity to see 13 movies made before 1949 when the Four Star Theater, 5112 Wilshire Blvd., presents “Electric Shadows: China Film Classics From Before the Revolution,” Friday through July 10. (“Electric Shadows” is the charmingly apt description the Chinese evolved for silents, first shown in Shanghai in 1896.)

We’re sure to be in for some revelations. Since many of the leading pre-revolutionary film makers were leftists, their sentiments will likely not be all that far from contemporary Chinese film makers. Yet there’s none of that ax-grinding, that sense of adhering to an official party line--at least in the first two films in “Electric Shadows"--that makes even the best of the current Chinese cinema seem so inescapably political.

“Horse Over the Cliff” (1948) and “The Goddess” (1934) are both highly charged, socially conscious melodramas, but they’re not advocating revolution or a specific form of government. The first is of interest mainly because it so strongly reflects the influence of Hollywood, whereas the second shows to full advantage the beauty and talent of the legendary Ruan Ling-Yu, whose dazzling screen presence elicits comparisons with Gish, Garbo and Brooks.


Although described as a film noir , “Horse Over the Cliff” is actually more reminiscent of Warner Bros. movies of the early ‘30s. Poverty becomes a cradle of crime for two youngsters, but as adults, the boy is redeemed by an unexpected act of kindness whereas the girl becomes a hardened, glamorous blackmailer (she is Bai Kuang, as exotic as Maria Montez but far more talented--and still working in Hong Kong and Taiwan). There are in fact some noir -ish images, but writer-director Yan Hsiao-Tsun has whipped up more tear-jerking plot contrivances than he can handle.

In contrast, Wu Yung-Jiang’s “The Goddess,” which is silent, has moments that border on the sublime. Ling-Yu, a mere slip of a girl with a riveting intensity, emerges as a kind of ultimate madonna-whore, a streetwalker who sells her body to ensure her small son’s education. The film is exquisitely subtle and richly visual; inevitably, actress and director remind us of Griffith and Gish in their spirituality, although Wu’s sensibility isn’t as Victorian as that of Griffith. “The Goddess” will be presented with organ accompaniment by Robert Israel; all of the films, none of which are subtitled in English, will be translated by actress-director-playwright Lang Yun. For full program information: (213) 747-4794 and, starting Friday, (213) 936-3533.

“Summer Music Film Fest at the Beach,” a three-week, 31-film series, gets under way Friday at the Fox International with a live performance by Talmadge Farlow and a documentary on the famed jazz guitarist by Lorenzo De Stefano. The festival will present such celebrated films as “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” “The Buddy Holly Story” and “Say Amen, Somebody,” along with four films in their local theatrical premieres.

Two of those new films are Cork Marcheschi and Robert Schwartz’s irresistible “Survivors: The Blues Today” (screening Saturday only) and David Vassar’s ambitious “Canyon Consort.” Filmed at Wilebski’s Blues Saloon (definitely the place to go in St. Paul, Minn.) during a three-day concert last year, “Survivors” is a rich portrait of performers on stage and off and a celebration of a form of music that transcends race and generation. The artists range from John Lee Hooker to Archie Shepp, Geoff Muldaur to Ben Sidran, and a good time is had by all.


Alongside the earthy “Survivors,” the gentle “Canyon Consort” seems a bit precious, but Vassar admirably tries to capture on film the act of creation as Paul Winter and his Consort explore Grand Canyon for inspiration for their highly improvisational music.