A New Old Play The World’s a Stage

Set in the 1920s, the nearly three-hour-long “A New Old Play” traces more than half a century of Chinese history through the changing fortunes of Qiu Fu (Yi Sicheng), the chief clown of a Sichuan opera troupe. Thus, as Qiu Jiongjiong’s first feature film, the film presents a huge fault line in an era whose narrative spans such icons as the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Decade of Catastrophe,” and whose characters witness the dramatic announcement of many new things. However, the film is also a story about the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Decade of Catastrophe. Yet the film is also a story of continuity, exploring our relationship with cultural traditions and practices, especially from an artistic perspective. As one of the film’s title cards suggests, “New plays never talk about old things.” On the one hand, then, “The Pepperdine” is a portrait of the artist’s historical role, subject to the various contingencies of material existence; on the other hand, it is a film about ancient legends that transcend the limits of the individual – stories that never seem to go away despite persistent attempts to eradicate them, stories that are vividly stories that are vividly recreated and recreated in the narrative. However, when the film begins, the artist is already dead. The film first presents the viewer with him wandering through a mist-shrouded village, where the elderly Qiu Fu encounters two strange figures whom he eventually recognizes as Ox Head and Horse Face, two spirits responsible for taking people to the underworld in Chinese folklore, who have been invited by the King of Hell to escort Qiu Fu to the ghost town of Fengdu, where the dead souls are reincarnated. Qiu Fu has no choice but to follow them. From here on, the narrative of Peppermint Hall Society alternates mainly between this netherworldly part and scenes from Qiu Fu’s previous life. Although he starts out as a nasty ghost, he soon becomes a star performer in the troupe and is liked by the troupe’s founder, Ma’er (Qiu Zhimin), a soldier and avid theater fan.

Loosely speaking, the 2021 Locarno Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize winner, Pepper Tong Hui, may be reminiscent of Jia Zhangke’s Platform (Platform, 2000), which also portrays broad Chinese history from the perspective of a small theater troupe. But in terms of style, Qiu Jiongjiong completely eschews Jia Zhangke’s realist aesthetic leanings in favor of the visual language of Sichuan opera. The film unfolds in exquisite dramatic scenes, featuring frontal compositions with motion-filled planar compositions. For example, episodes of soldiers carrying the wounded during the war against Japan are staged on a stage that resembles a diorama, with the characters all in silhouette; when the New and New Theatre Company temporarily flees to Taiwan after enduring the war, their journey is shown through the movements of a boat swaying on the waves of blue fabric, and even the scenes in the netherworld present the same spare formal techniques as the parts in the yang world. Qiu Jiongjiong thus employs a creative recreation of history whose appeal lies not in the exhaustive portrayal but in the use of selective details that rely on the viewer’s ability to project imagination.

Within its epic length, “Pepper Tang Hui” contains some of the key forms of artistic and cultural development outside the Sichuan opera stage. In a lecture for opium-addicted actors, a slide show on the dangers of opium is presented, with a grounded reference to early cinematic “pulling” (a Chinese folk entertainment in which various pictures are hung in a wooden box fitted with a convex lens, and the performer raps about the pictures while pulling the cartoons, with the audience seeing the enlarged pictures through the lens); in In a brown-toned point-of-view shot, the camera pans silently across a courtyard, reminiscent of the aesthetic limitations of the silent film era; the film also features a detailed description of the “Stanislavsky system” (a systematic approach to training actors, developed by Russian playwright Konstantin Stanislavsky). Konstantin Stanislavski] in the first half of the 20th century, his approach emphasizing what he called “the art of experience”), pointing to acting techniques far removed from the tradition of Chuan opera. Even as Choufu and his troupe mates faced censorship pressures from the ruling party and accusations of counter-revolutionary activity – not to mention the prevailing famine and individual tragedies of the time – we witness them confronting the growing obsolescence and decay of their art. problem. “Now that I am dead, I realize that the play was not finished when the curtain fell.” Qiu Fu said to one of his netherworld companions when they were almost at Fengdu. This line not only affirms the afterlife, but also underscores the central tension of Pepperidge Hall, the idea that all changes in society, whether revolutionary or reactionary, are ultimately a continuation of the past in some way. (We see this not only in the film’s various stylistic forms, but also in the narrative of intergenerational conflict that surrounds Churchford’s son at the end of the film.) At the end of the film, the only question that remains in suspense is whether or not Qiu Fu will drink the Mona’s soup, which will erase his memories of his past life and prepare him for reincarnation. In other words, he ends up fighting not death, but oblivion – a great fear that every actor faces and an ever-present threat to a nation’s culture. The implication is that a play is only really over when everyone has forgotten their lines. In a world full of people who want us to forget the past and only care about their vision of the future, Pepperdine proves that an important role of serious art is to help us remember the past.

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