The prelude in the script sets up an opening scene in an elementary school classroom where instruction on the history of China’s silk industry is taking place. A series of intertitles mimicking textbook lessons describe the recent decline of the domestic silk industry under imperialist economic incursion. The tranquil classroom quickly dissolves into a montage of newspaper headlines, economic charts, mounds of man-made silk on the docks of Huangpu River, rioting workers, foreign merchant- and warships, and other such visual cues for a silk industry in crisis. The overtly pedagogical tone of Xia’s prelude is unmistakable. This pedagogy is not only occasioned by the socio-economic crisis of the Chinese silk industry, but also by the considerable distance between the environments of urban commerce (as depicted in the montage in the prelude) and rural production (the main subject matter of the original text and the film). In an article on Silkworms that challenges the viability of visually oriented arguments prevalent in adaptation studies, Yiman Wang argues that ‘By mapping cinema spectatorship (where the audience is interpellated by a filmmaker’s imagery and story) onto classroom experience (where the students are educated on China’s declining silk industry by a teacher), the prelude converts the cinema into a social classroom and the elementary school students into prototypical film viewers’ (original emphasis).4 Wang’s observation on cinema spectatorship is important here; what I would add to her insight is that the ‘social classroom’ in this instance is Shanghai, and the ‘prototypical film viewers’ the city’s urban moviegoers. This specific demographic is crucial for understanding Xia’s evocation of the documentary and educational mode because the basis for the film’s instructional address is an ethnographic account of the rural silkworm farming industry, which is unfamiliar to an urban audience.
Interestingly, the prelude sequence was almost completely removed from the film after the pre-release screening; all that remains in the final-cut version on opening night was the blackboard motif used in dialogic intertitles and the shot of Mao Dun’s print edition of ‘Spring Silkworms’, which opens the film. This is likely due to complaints by the symposium participants, who considered the prelude too lengthy. Thus, any evidence of Xia Yan’s overtly pedagogical framing and ethnographic rationale was effectively removed from the final film-text.
An obvious question emerges: if the group’s primary critique of the film was focused on its over-fidelity to the short story – a charge which Xia Yan concedes – then why delete the only portion of the film that marks a significant departure from the original text? In one of his responses to the other participants, Xia Yan admits, ‘Bugao was too faithful to my script, and I was too faithful to the novel. As a result, this film might be too “literary” [tai wenxue]. Furthermore, to those who are not particularly interested in literature, I’m afraid it is of less educational value’. 5 This is only a partial concession, since the subtext of Xia’s comment implies that the merits of his adaptation is understandably lost among an audience with little interest in literature – namely, leftist literature – referring, no doubt, to an uncritical, popular mass that prefers entertainment films. Thus, the practical conflict between a pedagogical cultural form that still holds mass popular appeal is left unresolved.
The issue of medium specificity also deeply troubled the reviewers of Silkworms. Zheng Boqi, assuming the pseudonym Xi Naifang (a transliteration of ‘cinephile’), argues that the film rendition of the literary work should emphasise performance and not adhere to the original because ‘every type of art has its own specific properties’. 6 For Zheng, performance is one of the essential properties specific to the film medium, and thus requires a departure from literature in the process of cinematic adaptation. Shen Xiling (1904–1940), another leftist filmmaker, echoes Zheng’s iterations about performance and dramatic effect. Shen laments a lack of ‘dramatic elements’ (ju de chengfen) and suggests that the film’s sense of dullness results from its misplacement of climactic tension onto the bodies of silkworms rather than the human actors.
These reactions are revealing in terms of the respondents’ belief in the fundamental difference between the mediums of literature and film, and can be explained by much of the camera work used in the film. As far as Cheng Bugao and Xia Yan’s faithful adaption goes, we have seen how the ‘sketch’-like quality of Mao Dun’s short story translated to the filmmakers’ use of the documentary mode. This required painstakingly detailed filming of silkworm cultivation, in which the actors enact intricate procedures in front of the camera. Many of these sequences were captured with medium to medium-long shots, and leave little room for close-ups of the actors’ expressions and body language. Instead, nearly the entire middle portion of the film documents silkworm cultivation, only depicting obstructed human bodies and the hands that labour over the silkworms. It is precisely because of these filming and editing choices, motivated by the filmmakers’ aim to faithfully reproduce and represent the harsh conditions and laborious processes of growing silkworms in the documentary mode, that dramatic human performance was relegated to the back seat.
However, whereas the human actors do not come across as the centrepieces of dramatic performance in Silkworms, the intertitles of the film, through their elaborate design, layout, and even animation, consistently contribute to the dramatisation of the plot. The meticulous presentation of the intertitles delegates them into two categories: dialogic intertitles that represent the characters’ speech, and descriptive intertitles that function as narration. The former use a classroom blackboard motif to present the spoken lines. The latter, often used to signal or set up scene changes, use patterned geometrical shapes in the background, which are reminiscent of avant-garde woodblock prints popularised and promoted by leftist intellectuals during the same era. All the intertitles feature enlarged key terms, skewed or arched textual alignment, and other forms of visual embellishment. These typographical strategies, in both the descriptive and dialogic intertitles in the film, constitute a kind of visual theatricality that enhances the emotive qualities of the characters and the storyline.