Metamorpho-poetic Legending in 1950s Film: (1) Ashima

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But though no film of “third world” provenance known to me has since then so successfully wedded Grecian metamorphic myth to culturally creole celebratory “event”, there is in fact one particular opera-in-film produced in (of all places) Socialist Bloc China, entirely from “dialect” vernacular material that is hauntingly resonant with the Orphic plotline as as well as filled with infectious dance and song of hybrid provenance. The film is Ashima (1964), produced in color and starring a truly aboriginal (Yunnan Bai) actress of bilingual skill, Yang Likun, at the time China’s most promising globally-projected film actress, whose subsequent ruin at the hands of the culture-purificationists of the later 1960s has served only to further exalt the finished work, adding as it were another layer of legend to the legend recounted by the film.

If it stands apart or above the sadly aborted repertory of other “tropical”, extra-Sinitic films of operatic nuance and self-consciously double-languaged design (Liu Sanjie 1960 and Wuduo jinhua (1959) are the only others to have reached as-intended completion – another, Lusheng Lian…) would have been of the same idea but fell victim to intrusion in screen of army regulars) , one very compelling reason is that it is uniquely daring in its incorporation of utterly non-indigene core elements from “Western” opera as evolved from Monteverdi to Wagner. Melodic song is continuous, leitmotif clearly worked out, melodramatic interlude and pre-messaging ever present: but above all is the infectious deployment (and success there with) of what we would call “chorus” effect: the use of collective, always masked (non-diagetic) and generally feminine vocal sound sometimes extending into collective dance – what we would identify as confirming or foreboding “chorus”, meant to voice a collective response embodying the endorsement (or contra-) of a never fully shown public. Incorporated however or complemented (and here enters the indigene element) through the acoustic of echo – of source-“invisible” music – morever of echo of a unique character in that it is meant to describe location or geoscape by its time-lapsing, volume, pitch: of echo that (going still further) comes to sound like and even be a substitute for speech, as if the surrounding geomorphs (dimiao) are talking to us, though of course it is understood that hearing and deciphering are privileged skills, distributed only to validated members of the commune. Echo not only replaces direct speech, it defines authenticity and chthonicity. ////

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