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Chinese Classics From Revolutionary Era

Times Staff Writer

Classic Chinese Cinema, six films in the revolutionary spirit, commences Saturday at UCLA’s Melnitz at 7:30 p.m. with Ying Yunwei’s “Fate of a Graduate” (1934) and Shi Hui’s “This Life of Mine” (1949-50). The series is a presentation of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Los Angeles branch of China Film Import and Export.

Only in recent years has the Chinese cinema regained the vigor and style it possessed in its pre- and early-revolutionary era, a time when film makers absorbed Western influences yet retained their native identity to create many striking and powerful films. Although “This Life of Mine” is unabashed propaganda for the Communist government coming into power, it is nevertheless a strong personal drama: the Cultural Revolution, during which the production of fictional films was suspended, was more than 15 years in the future.

All but “Fate of a Graduate” (1934), also known as “The Plunder of Peach and Plum,” was made in the tumultuous transitional period of 1949-50. No wonder it was included: a more scathing indictment of a corrupt, cruelly indifferent society could not be imagined. Yuen Muzhi (who also wrote the script) and Chen Bo’er play naive young marrieds, Tao Jinpiang and Li Lin, fresh out of college and starting their life together brimming with optimism. However, after Jinpiang twice resigns from jobs that rather seriously compromise his principles, the couple’s descent into dire poverty is swift. In the relentlessness of its social criticism “Fate of a Graduate” resembles quite strongly the bleaker Warner Bros. movies of the era. It starts off very stiffly, both in style and performance, but becomes surprisingly dynamic and fluid as it progresses.

“This Life of Mine,” based on a novel by Lao She, is an epic saga of China from just before the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911 to the eve of revolution in 1949. We experience 40 years of harsh, unstable rule in China through the life of a simple, good-natured, barely literate Beijing policeman. He endures the instability of the early years of the Republic, the Japanese invasion and other upheavals only to be reduced to begging in the final post-World War II years of Chiang Kai-shek’s long reign. Shi Hui, who plays the policeman as well as serving as the film’s director, has a warm, engaging personality, which helps sustain interest through many grueling sequences. It’s easy to label “This Life of Mine” as being as melodramatic as it is didactic, yet it would be hard to exaggerate the suffering of countless ordinary Chinese citizens in the four decades depicted in this film. (213) 206-FILM, 206-8013.

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Contemporary Documentary Series continues tonight at 8 in UCLA’s Melnitz Hall with Stuart Brown’s “The Hero’s Journey” (1987), a profile on mythologist Joseph Campbell, and Terry Sanders’ “Slow Fires: On the Preservation of the Human Record” (1987).

The first film tends to make diffuse the application of the theories of a clearly remarkable writer and philosopher, a scholar and athlete whose studies of the function of myth influenced George Lucas in the creation of the “Star Wars” saga. Consequently, the film is more valuable as a record of the personality of an engaging and brilliant man, now in his amazingly youthful-looking 80s, than as an introduction to his thinking. Brown might better have illustrated Campbell’s theories from time to time than simply to let him expound at considerable length on propositions more easily absorbed on the printed page.

You might well suspect that a documentary on book preservation might be as dry as the dust that so many volumes are turning into. But “Slow Fires,” which Sanders wrote with Ben Maddow, does an excellent job of making clear and urgent a crisis facing libraries around the world and what realistically can and cannot be done to preserve books, pamphlets and other matter printed on paper containing self-destructive quantities of acid, a characteristic of the cost-effective manufacturing of paper for the last 150 years. Along with bleak statistics on the current state of affairs, “Slow Fires” also outlines what the publishing industry must do if current and future printed materials are not also to disintegrate.


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