In Memorial of Wu Tianming: An Anecdote and Some Notes

By September (Quan) Liu

Below are an anecdote and some notes that I shared at the Wu Tianming workshop. An outstanding filmmaker, Wu Tianming (1939-2014) directed many widely acclaimed works, headed Xi’an Film Studio in the 1980s, and mentored many Fifth-Generation filmmakers. A 1988 award winner at Tokyo International Film Festival, Old Well (Figure 1), was shown at the workshop.

Here I transcribe my contribution that focuses on the starting point of Wu’s film career and compares his Old Well with two foreign films. Wu’s film career started from a performing apprenticeship at Xi’an Film Studio. To enrol for this programme, Wu summarised and commented on a film that he watched for multiple times on a cold winter day. In the morning, the young Wu did not go to school.

He went into Heping Cinema (Figure 2[1])and watched a film that left him an impression as such: “(At that time) I found this film so strange that I could hardly understand: it did not proceed in either a chronical or a causal order. Household stories were loosely related, and imaginative scenarios were interwoven. This was so strange for me: ‘What a film this is! No, I cannot understand this.’ But indeed, I found it quite interesting”[2].

Longing to see it again, Wu hid in the toilet and planned to sneak into the screening hall. The staff spotted him and threw him out. With no money left, Wu decided to sell his new cotton shoes. Unfortunately, no one was interested. Depressed as he was, Wu had no other option but to resort to a shoe-repairer, who, to his surprise, accepted his shoes. Wu then spent all the money he received on the tickets, watching the very film for two more times.

The film is identifiable. According to his memoir, the film is Hai zhi Ge, the Chinese version of Poema o more/ Poem of the Sea (1959) by Alexander Dovzhenko and his wife Yuliya Solntseva. This film accounts for a Soviet dam project that would bury many villages.Imaginative episodes frequently break the narrative, just like the disco scene (Figure 3) that flows alongside the plot in Wu’s Old Well.

The following two sets of screen shots (Figure 4) will display this narrative discontinuity. The left set (15:52-17:15)shows the character performing a radical surgery. An imaginary scene fades in and shows the character turning around in bandage and staring at the battlefield. Undeniably, the second scene can be the imagination of the character who feels sympathetic to injured soldiers and deplores the war.

Nevertheless, the second scene suspends the surgery and breaks the chronical order. The right set (1:40:00-1:40:30)shows a similar disavowal of the chronical order. Sleeping with his family, the character becomes caricatured amidst a group of soaring swans and a dreamy effect is achieved. Again like the disco scene, the imagination seems like an extra episode that severs the narrative and inserts a borrowed time-space.

Memory may not always serve us well. His alleged experience in 1958 notwithstanding, Dovzhenko’s film had not been released in China until 1959. Two reasons can explain: either Wu mistook the year or the film he watched was another one. Evidence shows that the former cause is more reasonable, whereas an unexpected discovery of another film with the same Chinese title makes this story more interesting. This film is Alberto Cavalcanti’s O Canto do Mar/Song of the Sea (1952), a water-searching story similar to Wu’s Old Well.

This film is set in Brazilian drought area where people migrate around to find a better place to live. A quick glance at its cinematography will allow us to notice the similarities between its middle shots of the dead woods (Figure 5) and Wu’s extremely long shot of the barren landscapes in north-western China (Figure 6).

I am not implying that Wu’s work is influenced by either Dovzhenko’s or Cavalcanti’s work. Showing the anecdote of Wu’s teenage experience and the two films about water, I would like to suggest that despite our different cultural backgrounds, we all have stories about water and share some film languages that travel beyond national borders. Wu Tianming thought much of film languages. His achievements are so unique that can hardly be overshadowed by anyone in Chinese film history. Let us say: Wu is dead, long live Wu. Farewell, great filmmaker.

[1]Photo credit to Zhang Chenglong.

[2]Cited from Sun Bo and Chen Mo, “The Interview with Wu Tianming”, Contemporary Cinema 4 (2014), 28-37: p. 33-34. My own translation.

Notes on Contributor

September Liu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film Studies, University of St. Andrews. His current research focuses on nostalgia and New Chinese Cinemas. He has received an MPhil in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Downing College, University of Cambridge, and two BAs in English and Chinese Literature at Peking University.