The major revelation among many in the Four Star Theater's captivating series, "Electric Shadows: China Film Classics From Before the Revolution," is the exquisite, ill-fated actress Ruan Ling-Yu, who was seen last week in the Griffith-like silent "The Goddess."
"New Woman" (1935), screening Saturday and Sunday, confirms Ruan's status as the equal of Gish in the silent cinema. At heart a Victorian melodrama for all its bold feminist sentiments, sleek Art Deco settings and striking visuals, it casts Ruan, who has a screen presence as intense as that of Jeanne Eagels, as a struggling, independent-minded writer-schoolteacher destroyed in the press by her hypocritical principal when she resists his advances.
Written by Chou Ta-Ming and directed by Tsai Chu-Sheng, "New Woman"--a unique instance of art imitating life and life in turn imitating art--was inspired by the 1934 suicide of actress Ai Hsiao: The same kind of scandal sheets that drive Ruan's heroine to take her own life caused Ruan to do the same. In a life and death of distinct parallels with Marilyn Monroe's, Ruan Ling-Yu, who had made 29 films, killed herself at the age of 26.
The other key discovery is Ma Xuei Wei-Bung's bizarre, one-of-a kind "The Midnight Song" (1937), screening Tuesday and Wednesday. An extravagant, overwrought yet always fascinating feat of the imagination, it was an immense hit in its day, the sort of film that would now attract a cult following. Clearly inspired by "The Phantom of the Opera," it features a turn-of-the-century musical comedy star (Chin Shan), who is also a revolutionary, disfigured by a powerful landlord who is his rival for the love of an heiress (Hu Ping), who is driven mad by the news of Chin's death. Actually, Chin lives on, hiding in an old abandoned theater, comforting his Ophelia by his nightly songs. The film's complicated story is set in motion by the arrival of a traveling theatrical company which takes over the theater.
A sense of life's harshness, especially for women, permeates the Chinese cinema past and present. Japan's invasion and subsequent occupation of China, another popular theme, provides the background for two fine, epic-scale films directed by Chen Li-Ting, "Distant Love" (1947), screening today, and "Women Walk Together" (1949), Sunday and next Monday. Both deal with women transformed by their turbulent times. The first finds a pompous lecturer (Chao Tan) on the emancipated woman, who decides to play Pygmalion to his humbly born maidservant (Chin Yi) only to find himself left hopelessly behind as she joins the resistance movement upon Japan's invasion. The second tells of two very different women (Yun-Chu Sheung-Kwun, Sha Li) struggling to survive in occupied Shanghai.
Also set against the Japanese invasion is Sun Yu's robust, stylish "The Highway" (1934), a silent with musical interludes and sound effects. It's a hearty celebration of the camaraderie of the strong, likable young men who labor night and day building a highway vital to China's defense.
"Bright Day" (1948), screening Wednesday and Friday, and "Twin Sisters" (1934), Friday and Saturday, are two creaky, artificial star vehicles. In the first, Shih Hui is as grand as Paul Muni ever was as an impoverished lawyer who stands up to a gangster determined to take over an orphanage to use as a warehouse for his ill-gotten goods. In "Twin Sisters" a desperately poor woman ends up working as a maid for a coddled but miserable and cruel concubine, both roles played by the pretty and talented Butterfly Wu. The two women are actually sisters, separated at birth. Except for its finish, "Twin Sisters" is static and stagy, but it broke all records when it was released. For show times: (213) 936-3533.
Among the gems in the Fox International's "Summer Music Film Fest" are "Jazz Is My Native Language" (Tuesday), Renee Cho's vibrant, in-depth and fast-paced documentary on composer-pianist-bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi; the classic "Jazz on a Summer's Day" (Friday) and Gordon Park's rarely seen but highly praised "Leadbelly." For more information: (213) 396-4215.