Shot between 1900 – 1948 and spanning over 100 films, Around China with a Movie Camera takes the viewer on a cinematic journey of the country in question. The film explores the sights that China has to offer, but it is not done in the traditional documentary fashion with modern day presenters such as Michael Palin. It is also a journey back in time, at a place that seemed inaccessible to be captured on film. But thanks to the help of many British and French filmmakers that operated in that time period, as well as the BFI for the preservation of these films, we have now been given a glimpse at a time where China was coming towards the end of the Qing dynasty, developing into the modern day China we know today.
Around China with a Movie Camera navigates through smalls snippets from reels of footage held in a diverse archive. At just over an hour long, it covers China on ground, rail, river and sea, from the country’s capital Beijing, all the way to Shanghai. But the film takes its stops at the landmarks and other major sights. To name a few, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Hunan province and the Yangtze River all make their timeless appearances within the film. This is just one of a couple of milestones Around China contains. The other is that nearly all of these short non-fiction films, whether they would be travelogues, home videos or news reels are at least 100 years old. It is incredible that all of this footage has managed to survive the test of time, considering how silent films came with a general lack of care or were misplaced entirely. Some of these films barely even got made, adding more risks in their creation.
The films from Beijing and Shanghai capture city life at its busiest. People overflow the streets in carts and carriages. Street barbers are at work in creating the Qing hairstyle, which was traditional for men, open air kitchens are dotted all over the cities etc. These depictions of life show large amounts of the tradition and the patience these people have. One such example is a funeral march that lasts entirely on horseback and is over several miles long. The men look tired and worn out as the horses continue to take them forwards. Another example is at a market in Beijing, it is overflowing with crowds as they bustle for food, animals and other products. A small child is then seen balancing on wooden boards with his hands, with many bowls on his head. It shows the amount of discipline these people had, from the very young, all the way to the elderly.
Around China with a Movie Camera ends on a mysterious note. Beforehand, the structure of the film is very straight forward, it has the year the film was made and a short description on who made it and what is seen on screen. The final snippet of film bears the caption, “Somewhere in China”. This last 5 second clip of Chinese men standing outside, no-one knows where it was shot or how it came to existence. The only possibility is that judging from the flickering, unstable images, is that this was shot round about 1900, making it possibly the oldest film to be shot in China. The mysterious and somewhat eerie clip is the perfect note to end the film on, because we are taken on a journey that paints this clear picture, and ends on a note of uncertainty and ambiguity.
With it only being an hour long, Around China with a Movie Camera would make a good double bill with Dziga Vertov’s subliminal documentary, Man with a Movie Camera. Around China is a lot more disciplined in structure, showing the films one at a time. Whilst Vertov’s piece is free-form and interweaves itself constantly. Both of these are about the same runtime as well, so they could be digested in the same afternoon as they are direct opposites of each other. Whatever the case, Around China with a Movie Camera maybe a slight effort, but it certainly packs a lot more history, culture and geography into one easy going experience. This is certainly a must for the film historians.
- Modern China (1920, 8 mins): extraordinary views of life and landscape in Beijing filmed during the last years of China’s Qing dynasty
- Homework and Street Scenes in China (1907, 7 mins): intimate vignettes of artisans, vagrants and labourers on the streets of the late Qing dynasty of China
- Illustrated booklet with a new essay Edward Anderson