More than 650 films were reportedly made in China between 1921 and 1931, yet no more than twenty have survived the wars that followed. The serendipitous rediscovery of Zhu Shouju’s 1925 film The Stormy Night gives us a rare opportunity to learn about this significant yet forgotten era of Chinese silent cinema. Before the rise of 1930s “leftist” cinema, many popular Chinese films in the 1910s and 1920s were adapted from “Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly” literary bestsellers. With sentimental and melodramatic narratives, Butterfly fiction included traditional-style romances as well as martial arts, detective and exposé genres. With professional networks in journalism and translation, Butterfly authors also crossed over to the emergent motion picture industry as producers, scriptwriters, directors, actors, publicists, critics or translators.
Zhu Shouju (1892-1966) was a renowned Butterfly author-filmmaker whose career illustrates the interconnectedness between the literary and cinematic fields. Under the pen name “Shanghai Dream Narrator,” Zhu published a sensational novel, Tides of the Huangpu River, in serialized form between 1916 to 1921. With influences from tabloid journalism, the novel gives an unflattering depiction of what film scholar Emilie Yeh describes as “the private lives of Shanghai celebrities (corrupt officials, reckless concubines, hapless opera performers, fickle revolutionaries and dishonest dramatists) and their sexual indulgences.” In 1920, Zhu co-founded the Shanghai Film Company (Shanghai yingxi gongsi) with his cinematographer friend Dan Duyu and wrote several screenplays before making his debut as a director with The Stormy Night (Fengyu zhiye, a.k.a. “On a Stormy Night” or “Night of Wind and Rain”)for Lilium Pictures (Baihe yingpian gongsi) in 1925. That same year, Zhu founded a film magazine and went on to claim directing and screenwriting credits for twenty more titles through the 1930s.
Like Zhu Shouju himself, the protagonist of The Stormy Night is a Shanghai writer who heads to the countryside with his wife and daughter in search of convalescence and inspiration. They are hosted by a professional Daoist and rent-collector with two daughters; the older sister is jealous of the younger one for attracting the courtship of a wealthy young villager. Meanwhile, the Shanghai writer’s wife soon tires of the rural scenery and is lured back to the modern city’s automobiles and dance halls. The film features a rich array of idiosyncratic characters in both urban and rural settings, and the drama of their romantic longings and transgressions unfolds with a mixture of comedy and pathos.
The only extant print of The Stormy Night was rediscovered in the personal collection of the late Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), which was donated by his son to Tokyo’s National Film Center in 2006. Identified in 2011, the print comprises eight reels and is missing the first reel, roughly ten minutes including opening credits. The National Film Center and the Shanghai Theatre Academy collaborated on the film’s digital restoration in 2017. Since the digital version of The Stormy Night was screened in China, scholars and critics have hailed the film’s sophisticated point-of-view shots, lyrical camera movements, meticulous framing devices, and intricate mise-en-scène that subtly express the characters’ interiority and moral dilemmas. In spring 2019, the film is touring outside of Asia for the first time, with screenings at the University of Chicago and the University of Washington, Seattle, before coming to the Harvard Film Archive. – Jie Li
Shi Chuan is a professor at The Shanghai Theater Academy, Vice President of the Shanghai Film Association, and Chief Curator of the Shanghai Film Museum. His articles have appeared in a wide range of Chinese journals, including Film Art, Contemporary Film, and Culture and Art Studies. He has been deeply involved in the rediscovery, identification, restoration, and promotion of The Stormy Night.