sat 15/06/2024

DVD: Around China With a Movie Camera | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Around China With a Movie Camera

DVD: Around China With a Movie Camera

A long-lost world comes stunningly alive again

Land of dreams: a smoker (probably of opium) in 1910 Beijing.BFI

It’s comforting to reflect that some of the anonymous children seen in Around China With a Movie Camera – a DVD culled from films spanning 1900-48 held in the BFI National Archive – must live on today. If only the means existed to identify those former kids so they could see those moments from their pasts when they were photographed with their parents and companions.

The world of their infancy has largely vanished. This haunting assemblage of surviving fragments of commercial travelogues, missionary films, and home movies (one made by British honeymooners in 1928 Beijing) captures the everyday lives of different classes of Chinese at a time when the European imperial presence was still strong. A revealing shot from 1900 shows, amid criss-crossing rickshaws and hurtling sedan chairs, a phalanx of Sikh policemen sharing Shanghai’s Nankin (Nanjing) Road with European women cyclists and two German soldiers wearing spiked helmets. (The cameraman was former Boer War correspondent Joe Rosenthal, an East Londoner.)

Around China, pleasingly achronological, was edited as an imaginary travelogue. The viewer is transported north from Beijing to the Great Wall, south to Suzhou and Hangzhou via the Grand Canal, southwest to Hunan Province, and west along the Yangtze to Chongqing – blink and you’ll miss two British sailors in the crowd in front of a towering wood tenement in the ancient city in 1928. The “road” heads further southwest to Yunnan Province, then swings east to Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong, and finally northeast to Shanghai. The “Paris of the Orient” wasn’t the only 1930s hotspot judging by a shot of an ultra-chic young couple in 1936 Guangzhou.

An age away from that handsome pair (seemingly filmed after a night out) are pack-train drivers guiding their camels and donkeys through a gap in the Great Wall in 1910, a crew of oarsmen on the Yangtze in 1930, and the fisherman who smiles at the camera as he draws in the pole bearing one of the cormorants that fish for him in Suzhou c.1920. 

Many Chinese smiled at the European cinematographers; others regarded them warily. One bunch of shoeshine boys scatter when they see they are being filmed. Few women are visible in Beijing; more show up in the countryside and Shanghai.

The DVD may be too apolitical for some, too tame for others. Only one upheaval is registered: clips show British soldiers marching into Shanghai and citizens seeking protection shortly before the April 1927 massacre of Communists.

The timeless rhythms of work and play are echoed in Ruth Chan’s ethnically influenced score. A mixtape I made of songs by the eighties band Japan that honour timeless aspects of Chinese life (pre-1949) worked as a delicate alternative soundtrack for the silent footage. 

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