A double-bill cinema-going event of Chinese director Wancang Bu's two pre-liberation but newly-recovered historical films is a priceless treat for film addicts. Both shot in Black and White, THE SOUL OF CHINA tells an epic story of Tianxiang Wen (Qiong Liu), a loyal and devoted right- hand prime minster at the end of the Southern Song Dynasty, who endeavored all his strength to fight against Yuan Empire's invasion, but his country is incorrigibly rotten and corrupted, no one could go against the grain to single-handedly save the expiring nation, as a formidable rival, Wen also gained reverence from his enemies, after being captured alive, he recalcitrantly dismissed all the attempts of inducing him to capitulate, his only wish was to die with his own perished country, and left the world with his renowned poem "The Righteous Song".
SABLE CICADA, made almost a decade before THE SOUL OF CHINA, presents a popular episode from THE ROMANCE OF THREE KINGDOMS (one of the FOUR CLASSICS in Chinese fiction history), Diao Chan (Koo), whose name literally means sable and cicada, was one of the four most distinctively beautiful women in Chinese ancient history. She was a parents-bereaved girl raised by Yun Wong (Wei), the royal official of the Eastern Han Dynasty, who exploited her astounding beauty to scheme a honey-trap to sow discord between the mighty yet unruly viceroy Zhuo Dong (Gu), who actually was the puppeteer behind the young emperor at that time, and his valiant but simple-minded foster son Bu Lv (Jin), the plot drew its lessons from the worldly-famous THE ART OF WAR by SUN ZI, but the entire cause and effect hinges on Diao Chan's two-faced tactfulness, the major allure is to witness how a woman could slyly manipulate two men at the same time while protect herself from any consequences.
There are many inevitable glitches and blips of the celluloid during the projecting (most severe one was a 30-seconds gap near the finale of THE SOUL OF CHINA), but it is such a boon we are still able to watch these antiques on big screens. THE SOUL OF CHINA is a protracted chronicle of a paragon, whose doctrinal homily is somewhat tedious and feels like a fair and square propaganda, and its warfare scenes are below par in spite of its pseudo-grandstanding premise. Qiong Liu gives a solid performance whose genteel temperament could not be more fitting for the role, and in both films Eryi Gu is the bright spot, lecherous and avaricious, basically he plays the same villain twice and he is hilarious.
By comparison, SABLE CICADA is much more concise and completely confined to a meager scale, Bu wipes out all the external interference, dedicatedly zooms in on the gripping drama element about the triangle interrelationship, maybe by the current aesthetic standard, we may not buy that Koo's charm could cause the downfall of a country, but she is definitely enjoyable to watch, her Chinese opera-inspired dancing and singing number and her overtly affected acting knack are products of the times, not to mention near the ending, her adept transformation from assassinating to feigning suicide prompts an utterly farcical moment which I doubt is the creator's original intention, it might receive a dissimilar feedback for foreigners with different backgrounds. Shan Jin on the other hand, offers a more naturalistic interpretation out of foolhardiness and seduction-driven push-over.
In any case, it is refreshing and heart-lifting to see many age-old films can own a niche place with their primitive formats, especially in China, the art film market is so scanty even for its own nation's sake, the technical revolution is a foregone conclusion, but a healthy and harmonious co-existence should not be a film lover's reverie only.
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