[National Customs]
Directed by Lo Ming Yau/Luo Mingyou, Chu Shek-lin/Zhu Shilin
Music by Gabriel Thibaudeau

Guofeng (National Customs), produced by the United Photoplay Service (UPS, also known as the Lianhua Film Company), marks the last performance of the legendary Lily Yuen (Ruan Lingyu, 1910–35) before she committed suicide in early March 1935, approximately two months before the film’s release in Shanghai.
From 1926 to 1928, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) launched the Northern Expedition in an attempt to eliminate the ruling warlords and unify China’s eastern seaboard. Under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), the party cadres instigated the New Life Movement. The movement promoted four national values that were appropriated from Confucianism and evangelical Protestantism: (1)
li, treat one another according to courteous social rites; (2) yi, observe one’s sociopolitical responsibilities and one’s place in the social hierarchy; (3) lian, practice frugality; and (4) chi, know one’s sense of shame. In 1930, under the direct guidance of L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa (LUCE) from Italy, the KMT financed the merger of four Shanghai film companies into UPS in order to instrumentalize the cinema as an educational machine.
National Customs is about two sisters from the countryside, Zhang Lan (Yuen) and Zhang Tao (Li), who follow different paths after they graduate from high school. Lan sacrifices her romance and receives a scholarship to attend college in Shanghai, where she practices the four principles of the New Life Movement. She eventually becomes a model nationalist activist. Meanwhile, Tao marries the man who would have been Lan’s fiancé and attends college with his hard-earned teaching salary. Tao becomes a socialite and eventually divorces her husband in pursuit of material pleasure.
The ideological context of this film can be confusing unless we understand China’s historical conditions in the 1930s. The Japanese invasions of Manchuria and Shanghai, on 18 September 1931 and 28 January 1932, encouraged filmmakers to turn either to socialism (under the Chinese Communist Party or CCP) or nationalism (under the KMT). In spite of their polarized positions, both parties advocated (1) anti-imperialism; (2) anti-capitalism (as capitalism arrived hand-in-hand with colonialism in urban China); and (3) anti-feudalism (as Euro-American enterprises required a large amount of natural resources and labourers from the rural areas, they facilitated the rise of a near-feudalistic economic structure in the countryside and a bankruptcy of China’s rural economy). Hence, in popular imagination and among filmmakers, socialist and nationalist values were often conflated under the banner of “national defense art, literature, and cinema.”
Japanese socialist filmmaker Akira Iwasaki (1903–81), who visited Shanghai in 1935, observed that there was a sharp increase of pro-KMT films being made in 1934–35, partly because of the party’s tightening censorship system. He argued that
National Customs exemplifies the type of New Life Movement film that demonstrates a hardline anti-modernity stance. Scholar Xiao Zhiwei has also pointed out that the film unapologetically condemns urban female beauty as a sign of colonial-capitalist corruption and sexual objectification, which can only be redeemed by these women’s return to the countryside and assuming their agency in the reconstruction of the rural economy.
Nonetheless, as scholar Evans Chan suggests,
National Customs cannot be reduced to a textbook of KMT propaganda. Director Chu Shek-lin (Zhu Shilin, 1899–1967) belonged to a generation of artists who were fascinated with the elegance and aesthetic sensibility of the “old” intellectuals. In National Customs, such fascination is illustrated not only by the film’s exquisite set design, costumes, and staging, but also by its camerawork. In the film, the mobile camera alternates between stasis and movement, thus spatializing the film image as a journey or process of becoming. In the 1980s, Hong Kong film scholar Lam Nin-tung pointed out that Chu’s framing is comparable to a scroll painting from the Six Dynasties era (220/222–589 A.D.). The assemblage of human figures and objects within the frame are strategically arranged so that they help spectators engage in an affective relationship with them. Chu also likes to use plants, delicately designed windows, or furniture to partially obstruct or direct the gaze, and draw spectators’ attention to a frame’s middle ground. Such framing entices spectators to open their minds to the relationship between the characters and the larger world (family, society, or even nation) offscreen.
Chan also points out that Chu believes in the Nietzschean notion of “transvaluation” – a thorough revaluation of all existential and moral values. For him, benevolent, compassionate, empathetic, and equanimous relationships can only be achieved when all characters are gradually brought to an equalizing plane of existence. For Chan, the film’s hardline anti-modernity messages – negotiated especially through the female body and the way it is sexualized – must be understood as an attempt to strip all characters of their gendered differences, prescribed social roles, and institutional obligations (such as heterosexual marriage) in order to
begin establishing some form of mutual understanding.
Such a notion of transvaluation was attractive to Lily Yuen, who was the most sought-after Chinese actress of the time. In 1933, Yuen split with her longtime lover Chang Ta-min (Zhang Damin), who filed a lawsuit and demanded monetary reparation from her. At that time, her affair with tea merchant Tang Chi-shan (Tang Jishan, 1896–1967) was being featured in tabloid newspapers. Chu, like many other directors who worked with Yuen, made an apt commentary in this film on the pressure she faced during this period. Eventually, Yuen committed suicide at 2 a.m. on 8 March 1935, by an overdose of barbiturates. Her last words were “
ren yan ke wei” (human speeches [or gossips] are [indeed] fearful).

Victor Fan

[Costumi nazionali / National Customs] 
regia/dir, scen: Lo Ming Yau/Luo Mingyou, Chu Shek-lin/Zhu Shilin.
photog: Hong Weilie.
exec prod: Lay Min Wei/Li Minwei (M. W. Ray).
scg/des: Zhang Hanchen.
prod mgr: Xing Shaomei.
cast: Lily Yuen/Ruan Lingyu (Zhang Lan), Li Lili (Zhang Tao), Lin Chuchu/Cho-cho Lam (Zhang Jie), Djen Jon Lee/Zheng Junli (Chen Zuo).

prod: United Photoplay Service (Lianhua Film Company), Shanghai.
première: 05.1935 (Shanghai).
copia/copy: streaming digital file, 104′; did./titles: CHI.
fonte/source: China Film Archive, Beijing.

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