Film researcher to the rescue

Film buffs in Shanghai were recently treated to eight rare Chinese movies filmed more than half a century ago. For that, they can thank Marie-Claire Kuo Quiquemelle.
Dedicated French Sinologist has leading role in saving rare Chinese movies from oblivion.


Quiquemelle, 78, is a French expert in China studies. She has collected more than 100 old movies, many of them not aired on the mainland for decades due to scarcity of copies. Among them was "The Barber Takes a Wife," the first Chinese film dubbed in English and screened in Europe and the US after World War II.
She and her husband, Kuo Kwan Leung, have been hailed as guardians of vintage Chinese film culture for their efforts in tracking down and preserving old movies.
Quiquemelle never actually worked in the film industry. She was studying history at university in 1964, when France became the first Western country to establish formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.
After that thaw in relations, French travel organizations began to organize tour groups to visit China, and Quiquemelle joined one of them. She spent about three weeks in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. The trip stirred her interest in Chinese history and culture.
She studied at the School of Oriental Studies in Paris and began immersing herself in all things Chinese, adopting the name Ji Kemei, based on pronunciation of her surname. The "cultural revolution" (1966-76) froze relations between China and France. Cultural exchanges ceased. Quiquemelle's university also lost contact with Chinese schools. Availability of books and research documents from the mainland dried up.
Nevertheless, she finished her studies and continued her research. In 1970, she began work in the Chinese Cultural Study Institute at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
"In the early 1970s, young students were very interested in China, and many went to French universities to learn Chinese," Quiquemelle told Shanghai Daily. "But because of the cultural revolution, there were no more books or documents available."
Quiquemelle and several colleagues turned to film as a way of giving students a taste of Chinese culture. A search was initiated in Hong Kong and Taiwan for Chinese-language films since so few were available from the mainland.
"I remember there were only five propaganda films about Chairman Mao and his revolution, also known as yang ban xi in Chinese," she said. "They included ‘The Story of the Red Lantern' and the ‘Red Detachment of Women.' The films depicted part of Chinese history, but we couldn't let students watch them over and over, waiting for other Chinese movies to be available in France."
A scene from "The Barber Takes a Wife," the first Chinese film dubbed in English and screened in Europe and the US after World War II.


It was during this period that she met Kuo Kwan Leung, who had just returned to Hong Kong after finishing his studies in France. They were later married.
The couple worked with the New Asia College, which is part of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where they met people associated with the local film industry.
"Many entrepreneurs, scholars and cinema people went to Hong Kong from Shanghai," she said. "Before 1949, Shanghai was a filmmaking center in China. At that time, there were personalities such as film producer Wu Xingzai and stars such as Tong Yuejuan and Li Lihua."
She added, "They not only set up new film studios or companies in Hong Kong, but they also brought along some films produced before 1949 in Shanghai."
Quiquemelle and her team also found that Hong Kong film companies were doing a poor job of preserving old films since budgets were tight and audiences in Hong Kong and some Southeast Asian countries were small.
"We found many copies of old movies piled up in shabby warehouses, exposed to the hot, humid weather of Hong Kong," she said.
"Some of the films had deteriorated beyond repair. It seemed the local government didn't see the necessity of protecting Chinese cultural heritage. A film archive wasn't established in Hong Kong until 1993. Compare that with France, where an archive was set up in 1936 by Henri Langlois, a world pioneer in film preservation."
So Quiquemelle and her team began collecting old Chinese films. Film mogul Wu, who had run several film companies in Shanghai and Hong Kong, became an active supporter and donated the first batch of movies.
The first film copy they collected was "Zhan Jing Tang," or "Murder in the Oratory." The movie tells the tale of a military general who killed his wife. She was the daughter of Wang Mang, an Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-200) politician who had usurped the throne and helped Liu Xiu to establish the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24).
The film was produced in 1937 by Wu's Lianhua Film Co.
A scene from "Flower Street."


Four of the eight films screened at the recent Shanghai Film Museum and Shanghai Film Archive also came from Wu's collection, including "The Barber Takes a Wife."
Actress Tong also donated all the films she had managed to preserve, including three recently shown in Shanghai. In 1933, she and her husband founded the Shanghai Xinhua Film Co, and together they produced many film classics.
Quiquemelle and her team later found a businessman surnamed Miao, who was promoting Chinese films to southeastern TV stations from a collection of copies of old films he had.
"We knew we had found a treasure when we saw the list he gave us," Quiquemelle said. "It's really a huge collection."
Quiquemelle and Kuo spent long days in Miao's studio going through his collection. They had to buy the films with their own money because support for their research center had stopped.
It was fortunate that Kuo was employed by United Nations as a translator, which gave the couple a good income.
Transporting all the film they collected to Paris presented another formidable cost. They were lucky to find some sympathetic people in the Air France office in Hong Kong who agreed to transport most of the films for free.
In Paris in 1979, Quiquemelle and Kuo established the Centre de Documentation et de Recherche sur le Cinema Chinois and used it as a base for the search for more vintage films.
The center also received some movies donated by the famous Chinese actress Li Lihua in 1980s, including several film in which she played leading roles.
"Our center has the largest collection of Li's films, including some of the only existing copies, such as ‘The Barber Takes a Wife,'" she said.
In ensuing years, Quiquemelle and her group aired films for audiences at the Paris Diderot University. Some of the movies were also screened at international film festivals.
"I think the French enjoy Chinese movies more than the Chinese love French movies," Quiquemelle said.
Most of the classic film collection amassed by Quiquemelle and her team are now carefully preserved in the French Film Archive. Some of the movies donated by Tong were given to the Taiwan film archive in 1989 when it was established at Tong's behest.
"We do not allow people to watch the original copies of these films anymore because they are so fragile," Quiquemelle said.
No matter how well stored such old films are, they are still susceptible to what is called "vinegar syndrome." That occurs when chemicals on film strips release acetic acid and cause the films to degrade.
"The archive has had to move the affected films out," she said. "Some were destroyed before we noticed the degradation. We have transferred only about half of the collection into digital format, which will preserve the films longer. It would require a huge sum of money for us to digitalize all of them, and right now we are in our 70s and don't have the energy for the fundraising required."
Why do some movies retain their timeless allure?
"Although they were produced in an era lacking in advanced technologies, classic films still tell good stories in a very engaging way," she said. "There is a lot we can still learn from them today."

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