Lai Man-wai: father of Hong Kong cinema
Xianggang dianying zhi fu Li Minwei
Hong Kong, 2001
director: Choi Kai-kwong
writers: Choi Kai-kwong, Stephanie Ng
cinematography: Lai Shek
editor: Choi Kai-kwong, Roy Chow, Louis Lee
music: Law Wing-fei
producers: Choi Kai-kwong, Law Kar
Dragon Ray Motion Pictures
narrator: Choi Kai-kwong
140 minutes ; video
website: Lai Man-Wai
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer on DVD
This feature-length documentary on early Chinese film pioneer Lai Man-wai (Li Minhui) premiered at the 2001 Hong Kong International Film Festival, and has now been released on DVD. Directed by Choi Kai--kwong, it is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the origins of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema.
Lai Man-wai, born in Japan in 1893 and educated in Hong Kong, became arguably the central figure in the birth in Chinese cinema. The documentary's most valuable contribution to Chinese cinema history is to argue this thesis, patiently, carefully, with copious detail: using interviews with surviving collaborators and family members, contemporary photographs, newsreels, and especially extended excerpts from the films that Lai Man-wai directed, starred in (early in his career), or co-produced, through the Minxin and Lianhua Film Studios.
The film also argues that Lai's political convictions -- he joined Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary party in 1911 -- played a central role in his filmmaking. From crucial work in pioneering cinema in Hong Kong -- along with Joseph Brodsky, he shot Hong Kong's first short film in 1913, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife (Lai played the wife) -- through his trailblazing early documentary work shooting Sun Yat-sen's anti-warlord campaigns through southern China from 1921 to 1928, Lai arrived in Shanghai and helped to precipitate that city's "golden age" of cinema. After several spectacular (but money-losing) productions at Shanghai Minxin Studio, he established, with Lau Ming-yau (Luo Mingyou) Lianhua Film Company, the studio responsible for a series of masterpieces in the 1930s that remain among the finest works of Chinese cinema. Lianhua was the studio of the great actress Ruan Lingyu, as well as actors Jin Yan, Chen Yanyan, Li Lili, and Lai Man-wai's second wife Lin Chuchu.
The documentary offers generously long excerpts from Ruan Lingyu's Goddess, New Woman, and Love and Duty, among others, and takes a substantial excursion in order to recount her brief, illustrious career and tragic suicide. The film and stills of her funeral are perhaps the most moving sequences in the documentary.
Following Lianhua's financial decline from the mid-1930s, and the Japanese attacks on Shanghai (Lai felt compelled, characteristically, to record the attacks and destruction in an instant resistance documentary, along with cameraman Chu Shu-hung), Lai and his family left Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1938. The film's story ends with Lai and his family's flight as refugees through China (and their partially successful attempts to save parts of his film library), and his return to Hong Kong, where he died in 1953.
All of this is explained and illustrated in fascinating detail, largely through interviews with Lai's contemporaries. Although the film, at 140 minutes, seemed too long, in need of some judicious trimming when shown at the HKIFF, it fits naturally into a DVD format, whose sections can easily be consulted separately.
The DVD release is graced with superb features and packaging: the film is subtitled in both traditional and simplified Chinese, as well as English, French, German, and Japanese. And the accompanying booklet contains the complete screenplay, production notes, extra photographs, and a fascinating analytical essay in Chinese and English by Law Kar (Lai Man-wai: a legacy of enlightenment") that nicely complements, and in some cases provocatively supplements, the information provided in the film. This disk will become an essential resource for libraries, documentary broadcasters, scholars, and anyone who needs to discover the early history of Chinese cinema. Congratulations to all of the film's creators, including producer/writer Law Kar, writer Stephanie Ng, cameraman Lai Shek (one of Lai Man-wai's eleven children) and director/producer/editor Choi Kai-kwong, to whose two and a half year labour we are all indebted.
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Kowloon, Hong Kong
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