Lights, camera, action! Projecting film history
Shanghai, once known as the “cradle of the Chinese film industry,” delivered many “firsts” in China — the first public film projection, the first professional cinema and the first movie production company.
The Shanghai Film Museum, located at the former film studio in the busy Xujiahui area, captures it all. As the repository of China’s century-old filmmaking history, it displays some 3,000 historic items and offers more than 70 interactive installations guaranteed to revive a golden past for modern audiences.
A laid-out tour route through the museum starts on the fourth floor and works its way down. The moment the elevator door opens on the top level, a visitor steps into the Avenue of the Stars. The walls there display neatly aligned photos of the stars and directors who created the era of the silver screen in China.
Film paraphernalia on display includes the watch used in “My Memories of Old Beijing” (1982), directed by Wu Yigong; a fan letter to Shi Shujun, who directed “Death of a College Girl;” and the manuscript for “The Story of Ah Q,” directed by Cen Fan (1926-2008).
All the items — many yellowing, dog-eared or partly broken — take visitors back to the old days when production techniques were rudimentary but Chinese filmmakers were trying their best to build an industry.
In one turn from the star avenue is a miniature scene from the classic film “Street Angel.” All figures are made of bronze, and the setting replicates the opening scene of the film.
Cafe Federal inside the Uptown Theater on Nanjing Road W. in old Shanghai during the 1930s has also been recreated. It’s the site where writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) once worked on a movie script.
Many older Shanghai residents who visit the museum and see photos and replicas of old cinemas they once patronized find the experience a happy trip down memory lane.
Some of the old film houses are gone now, but a few still exist. The survivors include the Grand Theater on Nanjing Road W., build in 1928 with two stories and 1,400 seats; the Odeon Theater on Sichuan Road N., which opened to the public in 1925; the Embassy Theater, built in 1914 to screen foreign films; and China's first commercial film theater, the Hongkew Cinema.
Colorful movie posters and magazines are also displayed in the museum. It surprises many people to see cover girls in bikinis from decades ago.
The third floor of the museum focuses more on the techniques of filmmaking. A wide range of cameras are exhibited, ranging from one made in 1946 to film “Nie Er the Musician” to a 1976 camera that was used to shoot the award-winning “Red Sorghum.”
Lighting equipment, such as old carbon lamps from the 1940s and the tungsten lamps widely used in the 1990s, is also exhibited. One highlight is a lamp made in 1971, which was used to shoot a news documentary of former US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
From sound and editing machines to developing equipment and projectors, visitors can get a quick glimpse of how Chinese filmmaking evolved over 100 years.
Children might find their niche on the third floor. A long corridor displays some of China’s most famous animated films, such as “Uproar in Heaven,” a master hand-drawn animation film made in 1964, and “Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King” (1979).
Children are invited to play interactive games, taking on their favorite roles.
For the more elderly, long-lost memories of the days of film dubbing days are revived. The charming voiceovers from the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio, spanning six decades, include classic foreign-language films.
The museum displays old-fashioned recording microphones used in dubbing as well as old photos of the artists behind the voices. Visitors can select a film and try their hand at dubbing in a small booth.
The second floor, mainly involved with post-production aspects of the film industry, is filled with interactive sites. In a sound effects room, visitors can create the sound of thunder by striking a rough iron sheet, or the sound of heavy rain by rocking a metal barrel loaded with sand. The sound of horses’ hooves is produced by beating two wooden sticks wrapped in sponge.
The techniques of different makeup styles attract many young women who visit the museum. It’s not only how faces were made beautiful, or menacing or comical, but also how hands were altered to look slashed and faces changed to show bruises.
A few steps away from the makeup zone is the film costume exhibition window. Old costumes worn in film are preserved there, including the red shirt that heroine Zhang Yu wore portraying Zhou Yun in “Lushan Mountain” (1980), the qipao actress Gong Li wore in “Shanghai Triad” (1995) and the brown jacket actor Zhao Dan wore in “Nie Er the Musician” (1959).
If you visit on an opportune day, you can watch contemporary stars shooting TV programs in the all-glass No. 1 Studio. It’s an HD multimedia broadcasting studio for the Shanghai Movie Channel.
And finally, the first floor, where trophies won by Shanghai filmmakers and stars over the years are displayed.
What makes this floor remarkable is a group of lights from the 1940s. They include glare lights, fluorescent lights and twin-head arc lights — all used in classic Shanghai films such as “Crows and Sparrows” and “Spring River Flows East.” There is also an old film camera made in 1930s by the UK’s Newall Engineering Co.
Shanghai Film Museum
Address: 595 Caoxi Rd N.
Admission: 60 yuan
Opening hours: 9am-5pm (closed on Mondays)
How to get there: Shanghai Stadium Station of Metro Lines 1 and 4
Iconic director who blazed a trail in celluloid
Among the film legends honored in the Shanghai Film Museum is director Xie Jin (1923-2008), who shot to fame in 1957 with “Woman Basketball Player No. 5,” the first Chinese film set in the world of sports.
The film tells the story of two long-separated lovers who are reunited by their passion for basketball.
Xie is perhaps best known by the public for his 1997 epic film “Opium War” and for the widely popular “Hibiscus Town,” which centers on ordinary people struggling to survive during political upheaval. Leading actor Jiang Wen, who was nobodies at the time, rose to stardom after the film was released in 1986.
Xie is considered part of the third generation of movie directors in China. The Zhejiang Province native dedicated his whole life to filmmaking, notching up 20 films in his five-decade career.
His movies were generally characterized by a deep social conscience and a sense of historical context. His 1989 film “The Last Aristocrats” follows the lives of four Chinese girls, daughters of Shanghai’s elite, who went to the US to study in 1948 and faced difficulties trying to return home a year later
Six of his films won Best Picture in the Hundred Flowers Awards, China’s version of Oscars, and he was the only mainland director to be a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America.
The Shanghai Film Museum has devoted a special exhibition hall to commemorate Xie. It displays dozens of personal items, trophies, medals, letters and diaries. The portrait they paint is one of a distinguished director, a loving husband and father and a man of integrity.
The exhibits include a bottle of Hennessy cognac given to Xie by the president of the French distiller in 1993 and an old-fashioned clock awarded to him after he won the May 1 Labor Medal of Shanghai in 1981. Other items include eyeglasses, seals, clothing and the old handwritten marriage certificate of Xie and his wife Xu Dawen.