The film goes further than stylising textual/ visual stills, and uses animation in many intertitles to enliven the text themselves. For instance, a dialogue between the main character Old Tongbao and his daughter-in-law, A Si’s Wife, is rendered as follows in the film script:
[INTERTITLE] A Si’s Wife: ‘If we hurry to buy mulberry leaves now, what do we do if, like last year, we end up with too much?’
[CLOSE-UP] Old Tongbao heard the words ‘last year’ and became stern in the face.7
Here, the intertitle containing A Si’s Wife’s speech is arranged in five lines, of uneven indentation. After several seconds of display, the words ‘last year’, which sit in the second line, suddenly separate from the rest of the text and advance forward, while the rest recedes into the background. The words ‘last year’, now taking up two-thirds of the screen, remain on display for a few more seconds before the camera cuts to a close-up of Old Tongbao’s angry face.
The same device is used again in a later scene, demonstrating a process in which the animated characters on screen ‘act out’ the description of Old Tongbao hearing the words ‘last year’ in the original short story as well as the film script.
This process is best explained by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation, which elucidates the twin logic of transparency and hypermediacy, whereby a new medium borrows from, and refashions older media.8 In the animated intertitles of Silkworms, the process of remediation of a literary text by the silent film medium undermines the prioritisation of human performance articulated by Zheng Boqi and Shen Xiling. By visually representing the verbal description in the script, the text of the intertitles is made to perform for the audience in capturing the instantaneous moment of Old Tongbao’s change of an emotional state. On the other hand, the silent film achieves the effects of orality and aurality – the selective enlargement of text as representation of an emphatic verbal statement and speech, the representation of an verbal description of the act of listening – that exceed the limitations of its own, silent, medium.
Thus, the intertitles of Spring Silkworms succeed in collapsing the boundary between its reviewers’ perceived medium-specific properties, and function as a site in which issues of fidelity of adaptation, dramatic performance, and the representational mode of ethnographic documentation confront each other and reconcile through the intermediality of literature and film. Unfortunately, the potential of further experimentation with intertitles would soon be superseded by the proliferation of sound films, already underway in 1933. Nevertheless, through the framework of remediation and intermediality, the creative manipulation of intertitles by the filmmakers of Silkworms offer productive analytical grounds for revisiting the discursive incongruities that troubled early film adaptations in China, as well as the 1930s leftist project of promoting cultural forms capable of reconciling the intellectuals’ aspirations for artistic reform with their political agenda.
1. Since the compound wenyi means literature and the arts, the Chinese term is also sometimes translated as ‘New Literary Film’. Here, I have opted for ‘New Arts Film’ to retain the broader scope of the movement.
2. For more detail on this narrative of failure, see the discussion of Silkworms’ reception in Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema: the Chinese Left-wing Cinema Movement, 1932–1937, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002, pp. 46–47.
3. Chen Bo and Yi Ming (eds), Sanshi niandai zhongguo dianying pinglun wenxuan [A select compendium of film comments in the 1930s], 148 Chuncan/Spring Silkworms (1933) Beijing, Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1993, p. 250.
4. Yiman Wang, ‘From Word to Word-Image: Film Translation of a “Sketchy” Chinese Short Story: Spring Silkworm’, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2005, pp. 41–50.
5. Chen, A Select Compendium, p. 255.
6. Ibid., pp. 251–252.
7. See the film script for ‘Spring Silkworms’ in Xia Yan, Xia Yan quanji [The complete works of Xia Yan], Hangzhou: Zhejiang wenji chubanshe, 2005, Vol. 4, p. 27.
8. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation, Understanding New Media, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1999.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Mingxing (Star) Film Company. Director: Cheng Bugao. Screen adaptation: Xia Yan (pseud. Cai Shusheng). Original story: Mao Dun. Cinematographer: Wang Shizhen. Music: He Zhaohuang and He Zhaozhang. Cast: Xiao Ying (Old Tongbao), Yan Yuexian (A Si’s Wife), Gong Jianong (A Si), Ai Xia (Lotus), Zheng Xiaoqiu (Duoduo), Gao Jingping (Sixth Treasure), Zhang Minyu (Little Bao).]
Chris Berry, ‘Chinese Left Cinema in the 1930s: Poisonous Weeds or National Treasures’, Jump Cut, Vol. 34, 1989, pp. 87–94.
Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt (eds), Intermediality in Theatre and Performance, Amsterdam & New York, Rodopi, 2006.
Jubin Hu, Projecting a Nation: Chinese National Cinema Before 1949, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2003.
Paul G. Pickowicz, ‘Melodramatic Representation and the “May Fourth” Tradition of Chinese Cinema’, in Ellen Widmer and David Der-wei Wang (eds), From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth Century China, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 295–326 and 425–8.
Vivien Shen, The Origins of Left-wing Cinema in China, 1932–37, New York, Routledge, 2005.
Zhang Zhen, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 244–97.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.