‘A New Old Play’: 20th-century China depicted through film and theater

Society & Culture

"A New Old Play" is acclaimed Chinese director Qiu Jiongjiong's first fiction film. In it, he shines as a theater and film director in equal measures, balancing the honesty of the stage with an ambitious technical refinement that has made the film a festival favorite over the last year.

There is an anecdote I remember fondly from my first years as a drama student. My acting teacher said that to be on stage is to have nowhere to hide. Even if you are just standing in the background of a scene, you are integral to the set. You are a part of the narrative’s most basic foundation, its structural integrity. And that awareness is something you cannot forget, even if you are silent, even if you are standing in one place. He then said, if you drop a prop, pick it up. Immediately. If you leave it dropped, the narrative attention becomes focused on the dropped prop. Suddenly, every audience member is thinking, “When will it be picked up?” There is a diligence necessary to theater productions. This is not generally a worry in film, thanks to editing, multiple takes and camera coverages, and of course, through all of that, the director’s ability to, well, direct the audience’s focus to where they want it to go.

A New Old Play (椒麻堂会 jiāo má táng huì) is acclaimed Chinese director Qiū Jiǒngjiǒng’s 邱炯炯 latest film (and his first fiction endeavor). In it, he shines as a theater and film director in equal measures, balancing the honesty of the stage with an ambitious technical refinement that has made the film a festival favorite over the last year.

The film follows a Sichuan opera troupe through more than 50 years in 20th-century China, through many of the cultural milestones that makes China what it is today. We are introduced to our protagonist Qiu, once head clown of his theater troupe, after his death. He travels through the murky lands of purgatory, encountering wayward souls of his past in one final rehashing of life. Afterwards, he’ll drink a memory-losing soup and reach the depths of a banal and beautiful hell.

Qiu was once an abandoned orphan taken in by a renowned theater troupe, where he learned how to sing and swagger with the best of the performers (the Chinese opera bits at the beginning are particularly entertaining), and eventually became its leader. Throughout his life we encounter Greek choruses composed of young singers who add melodic punctuations of approval and disapproval to unfurling events, puckish young men caught between rebellion and filial piety, affable drunken demons, and the somber characters that will become Qiu’s family and friends. This is all captured in a visual style so lush and lovely it’s difficult to look away, even as Qiu’s life becomes more depressing and the stakes more dire.

Qiu, the director, says, “The story is inspired by the life of my grandfather, the Sichuan opera clown-role actor Qiu Fu-xin. Growing up in the daily reality of an opera troupe, I suppose I had an odd, piecemeal view of this world, seen only from the inside as a moving collage of faces, expressions, voices, gestures, sounds, smells and colors, warm or cold, damp or dry, drunk or sober…” This haziness, the sweeping feeling that makes large swaths of time pass in an instant, is replicated through dioramic sets that only mingle with realism, and an ensemble of eccentric characters that come and go from Qiu’s life in a flash.

The film is exquisitely shot on entirely constructed, rich and painterly sets that are immaculate in their attention to detail. Everything, from the color palettes to the dynamic and dreamlike designs, is cohesive and always pleasant to watch, even when characters are just silently eating meals or playing mahjong. The camera acts almost cloud-like, gently and omnisciently following characters through these spaces. Like a stage performance, a viewer’s attention drifts through every dimension of the set, even to the extras at the very back of a crowd. Qiu directs every member of his cast with a great deal of grace and concision, even during the in-between moments, when we’re simply watching someone get from point A to point B. In those moments, everything from a tree to a bricklayer has a specific task, a way that they are supposed to move and create sound, visual rhythm, atmosphere.

The barrier between performance and “real life,” between what is natural and what is artifice, is a penetrable sheath that at one point Qiu literally cuts through. This imbues the film with a playful expressiveness that gives homage to the self-aware artifice of a community theater production, where rippling ribbons are used to mimic ocean waves and balls of cotton become clouds. If the set design offers a visual feast, it feels right to say the spirit of the film is a hungry ghost. The characters search for nourishment both for the body and soul, and find it through shared meals (which become even more important during the impoverished years of Mao’s reign), companionship, sometimes drugs (there is a particularly dark passage of time where the performers become addicted to opium), and, of course, through art, which must prevail even in a cruel and depraved world.

It’s evident that Qiu is a visual master, but I’ve found that not enough reviews cite the strong writing, which, even via the subtitled translation, is rich and poetic, a solemn and steady dialogue about how life flows into death, and vice versa. The standout performer is Yì Sīchéng 易思成, in his first role, who soliloquizes with a uniquely lilting voice and a quiet and compelling empathy that is worn down by time but ultimately goes with him to the grave. The film captures something refreshingly humanistic about the distress, upheaval, and trauma that China experiences in such a short span of time, starting with the 1920s, through the war with Japan, and up until the Cultural Revolution. These cultural milestones are not presented as an entire country’s wins and losses, honors and shames, but are instead rooted in how individuals and their passions, beliefs, and families were unmoored because of unrest and revolution.

The film says, “A new play always tells old stories,” which feels so right. A New Old Play is as much a modern myth as it is a historical portrait of a community. It’s a work that feels daring, but also devoted to an art form’s legacy, one that I didn’t care much about till I saw this film, and now desperately hope has a beautiful future.

The film will have its U.S. premiere at the Museum of Moving Image’s First Look Festival, with further American releases to follow soon.