“China Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

26 Jul

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The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is currently showing an exhibit called “China Through the Looking Glass,” which runs until September 7, 2015. It takes up space on three floors (including the Anna Wintour Costume Center) and offers dozens of outfits and costumes by famous designers based on Chinese motifs and inspirations, along with other art objects (vases, sculptures, installations) and other commercial objects (e.g., perfumes).

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What grabbed my attention most were the various screens in the galleries on which were projected film clips from famous Chinese, Hong Kong and Hollywood films. I counted a total of 24 films represented, most of them well-known, with only one completely new to me. They were grouped by eight chosen themes. Six of the themes ran montages of three to five films each on continuous loops, while two themes stuck to one film each. The screens showing these film clips accompanied display cases featuring costumes or art objects related to the theme.

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Here are some quotes from the museum’s website description of the exhibit, with the second one addressing the exhibit’s use of “filmic representations”:

This exhibition explores the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries. In this collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art, high fashion is juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery….

Filmic representations of China are incorporated throughout to reveal how our visions of China are framed by narratives that draw upon popular culture, and also to recognize the importance of cinema as a medium through which to understand the richness of Chinese history.

And from the exhibit’s mission statement, also found on the museum’s website, I found these quotes instructive in addressing the curators’ use of film clips to illustrate the exhibit’s themes:

While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of “subordinated otherness” outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. Through careful juxtapositions of Western fashions and Chinese costumes and decorative arts, it presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East….

Cinema often serves as a conduit for this reciprocal exchange. Film is frequently the first lens through which Western designers encounter Chinese imagery, and this exhibition explores the impact of movies in shaping their fantasies. Through the work of Chinese directors—especially the Fifth Generation, including Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang—the show also addresses China’s role in shaping its own self-image. At times borrowing from Orientalist tropes, Chinese directors have perpetuated some of the misperceptions that had shaped Western fantasies of China. Aided by such cinematic representations, the comparisons and conversations in the exhibition reimagine the relationship between East and West not as one-sided mimicry but rather as a layered series of enfolded exchanges.

My interest here is not in analyzing the stated intentions of the curators nor in criticizing their choice of clips, although I would like to devote some space to additional films that I feel ought to have been included. Nor can I say that I always understood the connection between the clips and the fashions they accompanied. I’m more interested in simply calling more attention to the cinematic legacy of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and Hollywood’s attempts, for better or worse, to depict China with flourish and spectacle on the screen. I was impressed with the diversity and quality of the film clips on display and would hope that museum visitors seeing the clips from films as varied as SHANGHAI EXPRESS, THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, A TOUCH OF ZEN, HERO, TWO STAGE SISTERS, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, THE GRANDMASTER, and THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN would be intrigued enough to actually seek them out to view in their entirety. In fact, I wish the museum had staged a film series in its auditorium to accompany the exhibit. More on that below.

The first montage I saw when I entered the exhibit was from THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), which I wrote about here in my entry on Yoshiko Kawashima on June 23 of this year, and was the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1987, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and a co-production of China, Italy, England and France. It told the story of Puyi (1906-1967), the last emperor of China, and dramatized the saga of his years after being dethroned.

Clips from this film showed on four large screens on opposite sides of two walls in between display cases featuring various robes and ornamental garments from Imperial China worn by emperors over the centuries along with newer items inspired by the ancient garments.

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Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for the film was heard over the images. I have that soundtrack album.

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One whole section was devoted to Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress who was the first female Asian movie star in Hollywood. There are gowns and dresses inspired by or actual copies of her costumes in films, along with photos of her in her prime, including two early color photos. (The decision to put the photos in an awkward place at the top of the display cases is quite baffling to me.) Two screens showed a montage of clips from four of her Hollywood films and one of her English films.

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The films represented in her montage are:

SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932/U.S.) Directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, this is arguably Ms. Wong’s finest Hollywood film, made while she was under contract to Paramount Pictures. She plays Dietrich’s friend and traveling companion on the title train and gets mixed up in murder and intrigue.

LIMEHOUSE BLUES (1934/U.S.) Another film made at Paramount, this one stars gangster actor George Raft as a half-Chinese racketeer in London.

TOLL OF THE SEA (1922/U.S.) This was not only Wong’s first film, it was the first feature-length film made in the then-new 2-color Technicolor process. It has a tragic Madame Butterfly-type story. Wong was all of 17 when she made it.

PICCADILLY (1929/U.K.) Fed up with the parts she was getting in Hollywood in the 1920s, Wong traveled to Europe to entertain film offers in England and Germany. This was her first English film.

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931/U.S.) A “yellow peril” Hollywood film and the kind of part Wong preferred to avoid. She plays the sadistic daughter of Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (played by a future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland). But she did look great in it.

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I previously wrote about Anna May Wong here in a post dated Aug. 21, 2013, and devoted to her portrayal of “China Mary” in a 1960 episode of the Wyatt Earp TV show.

One section, called Wuxia, was devoted to an installation of glass bamboo stalks:

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The screen above it showed clips from:

A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971/Taiwan), King Hu’s classic wuxia epic of flying swordsmen and women in ancient China. Hsu Feng stars and is featured in the clips:

HERO (2002/China-Hong Kong), Zhang Yimou’s highly stylized fantasy of politics and war in ancient China starring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004/China-Hong), another fantasy swordplay epic, this time with Zhang Ziyi as a blind swordswoman.

Tan Dun’s score for HERO plays over the montage. I have that soundtrack album.

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Another section, devoted to more modern women and fashions, showed clips from:

THE GODDESS (1934/China), a silent film about a single mother forced to work as a prostitute in Shanghai, starring the tragic actress Lingyu Ruan.

LUST, CAUTION (2007/U.S.-China-Taiwan), Ang Lee’s controversial wartime drama, set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and starring Tang Wei and Tony Leung.

THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960/U.S.) is a Hollywood film, shot in Hong Kong, which marked the film debut of Nancy Kwan as the title character, a Hong Kong prostitute who gets involved with a struggling American artist played by William Holden. I wrote about this film in An Evening with Nancy Kwan, on October 19, 2014.

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EROS: “The Hand” (2004) This segment of a multi-part, international anthology was directed by Wong Kar Wai and stars Gong Li. The film was a U.S.-Italy-Hong Kong-France-Luxembourg-UK production.

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000/Hong Kong-China), Wong Kar Wai’s stylish drama of thwarted love in a crowded early 1960s Hong Kong, starring Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and a breathtaking wardrobe of stunning cheongsam dresses worn by Maggie in the film.

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Another section is devoted to Mainland China and the Cultural Revolution, with its military-style uniforms. Here we see clips from the propaganda ballet film, THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1971/China), followed by documentary clips that went unidentified.

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Another montage of film clips had an opium theme:

BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919/U.S.), directed by D. W. Griffith, is a silent melodrama about the tragic love of a Chinese man for a white girl.

FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (1998/Japan-Taiwan), directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, is set in Shanghai in the 1880s and stars Tony Leung, who’s well represented in the films on display.

THE GRANDMASTER (2013/Hong Kong-China), Wong Kar Wai’s martial arts drama about Ip Man, a famous kung fu teacher in Shanghai and Hong Kong, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984/Italy-U.S.), Sergio Leone’s epic gangster drama set in New York in the 1920s, is included here for its final scene set in a Chinatown opium den. In fact, the montage ends with the film’s final shot of Robert De Niro in an opium daze.

Ennio Morricone’s score from ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA plays over the montage. I have that soundtrack album.

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Another section was devoted to the art of performance in Chinese culture, with an emphasis on Chinese opera.

STAGE ART OF MEI LANFANG (1955/China), a Mainland Chinese film, showcases Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), the most famous Chinese opera performer of the 20th century, a specialist in female roles, and the first of his profession to bring the art form to international audiences. This was the one film in the entire exhibit that I’d never heard of before.

FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993/China-Hong Kong), Chen Kaige’s epic drama, based on the life of Mei Lanfang and starring Leslie Cheung and Gong Li.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991/China), Zhang Yimou’s drama about the life of a young woman (Gong Li) forced to become the fourth wife (or third concubine) of a wealthy middle-aged man in 1920s China.

TWO STAGE SISTERS (1965/China), a Mainland Chinese film, directed by Xie Jin, about two Chinese opera performers whose friendship weathers the political changes in China from the war years to the post-revolutionary period.

Finally, there’s a clip of Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, doing a dance number in Chinese drag called “Limehouse Blues,” which was actually a famous song that predated the Anna May Wong film. The scene is taken from the MGM musical revue, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945/U.S.).

I can’t address how closely the film montages matched the themes and aesthetics of the various garments exhibited in adjacent cases, if at all. The exhibits were generally quite dark and I couldn’t always adjust my eyes to see them adequately or to read the little descriptions on the sides of the cases. So I concentrated on the films.

I was pleased with the various film montages and hoped that museum-goers would be curious enough to seek out some of the films represented. Still, I wondered why there were no Hong Kong films from the industry’s glory days in the 1980s and 1990s. Nothing by Tsui Hark. No Brigitte Lin from PEKING OPERA BLUES (1986) or SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED (1993).

No Michelle Yeoh? No Anita Mui, not even in ROUGE. Maggie Cheung was represented in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000), but no other actress from HK’s heyday in the 1990s. And why no clips of Maggie Cheung’s portrayal of Ruan Lingyu in the biopic, CENTRE STAGE (1991)?

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And speaking of Ms. Cheung, why not GREEN SNAKE (1993), starring her and Joey Wang as the legendary Snake Sisters, Green and White Snake, which I wrote about here on Feb. 11, 2013.

Why were there no Shaw Bros. films represented? A montage of films from Shaw Bros. set in various eras would have been tremendous.

Linda Lin Dai in period roles in the 1950s, e.g DIAU CHARN and THE KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY:

Li Li-Hua in EMPRESS WU and THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE:

Or any historical production with Ivy Ling Po, e.g. THE LADY GENERAL HUA MULAN (1964).

Or how about this contemporary Hong Kong musical from 1967, HONG KONG NOCTURNE, starring, L-R: Lily Ho, Cheng Pei Pei and Chin Ping:

I’m also disappointed that there was no film program to accompany the exhibit. Imagine how great a film series of the represented films—with 35mm prints—would have been. I’d love to see THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and TWO STAGE SISTERS, to name two, on the big screen. And I’d love to see HERO and A TOUCH OF ZEN on the big screen again. The one film that was new to me, STAGE ART OF MEI LANFANG, is not even listed on IMDB. But I was able to identify other films that dealt with Mei Lanfang. These include:

FOREVER ENTHRALLED/ MEI LANFANG (2008) Dir.: Chen Kaige. With Leon Lai as Mei Lanfang.

THE WORLDS OF MEI LANFANG (2000) U.S.-China-Taiwan documentary coproduction. Includes archival footage of Sergei Eisenstein and Douglas Fairbanks.

A GREAT MASTER RECAPTURED (2006) Chinese documentary

BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL (2011) Chinese-made historical drama with an all-star cast (including Hong Kong stars) about the founding of the Communist party. Mei Lanfang is a character in it, played by Shaoqun Yu, way down in the cast list (next-to-list) and listed as “uncredited.”

There are clips of Mei Lanfang on YouTube.

If I had to pick a film series for an exhibit like this, I’d emphasize these, of the ones already represented:

TOLL OF THE SEA (1922)

THE GODDESS (1934)

THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960)

TWO STAGE SISTERS (1965)

A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)

THE LAST EMPEROR (1987)

FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993)

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)

HERO (2002)

THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

And especially the ones I haven’t seen:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931)

LIMEHOUSE BLUES (1934)

THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1971)

FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (1998)

LUST, CAUTION (2007)

And, most importantly, the one I’d never even heard of before:

STAGE ART OF MEI LANFANG (1955)

But I would like to suggest some additional films, which went unrepresented in the exhibit:

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) – a B-movie starring Anna May Wong as a proactive heroine out to bring to justice a gang of human traffickers (whose members include Anthony Quinn and Buster Crabbe!).

FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) – more Nancy Kwan greatness, covered here last October in An Evening with Nancy Kwan.

PEKING OPERA BLUES (1986) Tsui Hark’s masterpiece of cross-dressing swashbuckling in 1911 China, as Brigitte Lin plays a western-educated daughter of a corrupt general who has decided to throw her lot in with the revolutionaries.

CENTRE STAGE (1991) Biopic about Lingyu Ruan, the star of the aforementioned THE GODDESS, with Maggie Cheung in the role.

SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED (1993) Tsui Hark-produced fantasy epic starring Brigitte Lin as the mythical Asia the Invincible, a super-powerful warrior brought back from the dead and intent on getting revenge on everyone who took her name, including one of her former lovers.

GREEN SNAKE (1993) Tsui Hark’s delirious fantasy based on the famous folk tale, “Legend of the White Snake.”

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) Ang Lee’s costume epic that kicked off the wu xia revival in the 21st century and introduced Zhang Ziyi to international audiences. Also starring Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, and the HK star who pioneered female swordfighters in the Shaw Bros. era, Cheng Pei Pei.

And, out of the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, I’d pick the one that made the most out of the differences between western and Chinese fashions, an aspect I can’t recall without seeing all three of the first set of OUATIC films again.

And any Shaw Bros. films with period spectacle that exist in showable prints, choosing from among these:

DIAU CHARN (1958)

THE KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY (1959)

EMPRESS WU (1960)

THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE (1960)

THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG (1964) with Linda Lin Dai

LOVE ETERNE (1963) with Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po

DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER, either the 1962 version with Betty Loh Ti or the 1977 version with Brigitte Lin and Sylvia Chang.

In addition, I would add KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990), aka THE LAST PRINCESS OF MANCHURIA, which made quite a number of fashion statements, as outlined here in my entry of June 23.

This is a longer version of a piece I did for my J-pop blog right after seeing the exhibit.

On its monthly program, “Asian American Life,” CUNY TV, the TV station of The City University of New York, did a segment on this exhibit:

Most of the pictures used here that show the actual exhibit come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, although I added a few that I took at the exhibit. For more info on the exhibit and additional pictures, as well as the full texts excerpted above, please go to this link: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/china-through-the-looking-glass

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