China / Taiwan
Director: Liu Na’ou 劉吶鷗
Language: Mandarin 普通話, Japanese 日文
Genre: Silent / Travel
Running Time: 30 minutes
Although the most famous works of early Chinese cinema come from the so-called leftist films of the 1930s, a number of which have been covered on this blog e.g. Street Angel 馬路天使, it’s important when looking at the historiography of Chinese cinema to remember that it was mostly formalised during the initial years of Communist rule post-1949. One of these notable works is The History of the Development of Chinese Cinema 中國電影發展史 by Cheng Jihua 程季華.
Cheng’s analysis of the pre-war Shanghai cinema puts great emphasis on the differences between leftist “hard” films, and reactionary pro-KMT/colonialist “soft” films. The hard/soft nomenclature had in fact been used previously, but Cheng’s work was the first time that these terms came to mean that “hard” films were serious political works whilst “soft” films were inherently tainted by impure ideologies and thus, less worthy pieces of art.
This led to the large scale abandonment of these films for serious viewing until into the 1990s, when those works that survived began to be reexamined by both domestic and international scholars. In the late 1990s, The Man Who Has A Camera was discovered in an attic by relatives of Liu Na’ou — famous not just for his own directorial work in Shanghai, but his critical essays and literature as a member of the cosmopolitan class.
Liu is truly a product of this particular moment in history. Born into a southern Taiwanese family during its time as a Japanese colony, Liu would go on to spend several years studying in Japan itself, before relocating to Shanghai in 1926. Thus, Liu was exposed to a great number of cultural influences that would influence his own world view and aesthetic.
The Man Who Has A Camera is clearly not a film that was intended for public audiences, being partially a study of Liu’s family and friends, mixed in with various scenes from travels around China, Taiwan and Japan. But its 30 minutes are today a glimpse into the much-criticised world of elite cosmopolitan Shanghai.
Despite not featuring on film at all, the influence of the Shanghai lifestyle can be seen throughout. Comprising sections filmed in Tainan, Taiwan; Tokyo, Japan; Guangdong, China; and Mukden in then-Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (modern day Shenyang in Liaoning Province), Liu’s camera frequently focuses on his glamorous companions, or on a bustling mechanised cityscape. He travels by road, by boat and by air, interacting with people across cultural boundaries (notably finding a gurning foreigner in Guangdong). This is interspersed with more traditional street scenes, including an extended parade replete with lion dancers in Tainan, or a tranquil walk through the Japanese countryside. The calm, stillness and simplicity of the scenes with his family in Tainan — an elderly woman, young children with their parents puzzled at this new kind of photography — is starkly contrasted with a military parade by Nationalist forces in Guangdong.
To watch The Man Who Has A Camera is to be taken to a world where the concept of national identities has been blurred into a cosmopolitan whole. This is a private film, and as such had been made in order to convey emotions and memories of a time that we cannot truly understand, but it still tells us much about Liu as a man and his style. It bears many of the hallmarks of his preferred style of filmmaking, with a wonderful kineticism on display in its numerous travel and street scenes.
Liu’s life was cut short in 1940 following his assassination in Shanghai, a fate he shared with friend and fellow author and filmmaker Mu Shiying 穆時英, apparently for collaboration with the Japanese. The life and times he portrayed in his work were but a brief snapshot in history, but they remain somewhat of an enigma, buried as they are under the politically unappealing headings of “collaborationist” and “reactionary”.
There is no doubt, however, that The Man Who Has A Camera stands as an important record of that time, and the unique identity of those such as Liu who straddled cultures in 1930s Shanghai.