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Epic in scope, carnivalesque in tone and almost unprecedented in style: A New Old Play

Monday 7 November 2022, by Judy Harris

Set in an exquisite hand-crafted world made up of painted backgrounds, miniatures, intricate compositions and theatrical props, A New Old Play may at first strike one as sui generis. While the history of cinema is rich in hand crafted worlds and ingenious practical effects (e.g. the works of Méliès, Tourneur and Zeman), such techniques have historically been dismissed as uncinematic and are usually permitted only in science fiction, horror or children’s cinema. The hostility directed toward the use of craft practices in film was evident from the earliest decades of filmmaking as the medium was celebrated as supremely modern, a mechanised artform that superseded the clumsy labour of painters and illustrators. Early critics were ferocious in their desire to protect the medium from the influence of theatre and waged a discursive battle against theatrical films fought by figures including Louis Delluc, Hugo Munsterberg and Louis Aragon (who hoped to rid cinema of ‘the old, impure, poisonous alloy that links it to a theatre whose indomitable enemy it is’). Jiongjiong, thankfully, is having none of this.

A New Old Play centres on the recently deceased clown Qiu Fu as he looks back on his life as a member of the ‘New-New’ Sichuan theatre troupe, a life which occurred among the wars, famine and revolution that make up 20th century Chinese history. Qiu’s is an enchanted world inhabited by demons and often filled with smoke and candlelight and the film traces his memories as he sits in purgatory, waiting his passage to hell. As personal and historical events play out the camera sweeps back and forth across the cardboard world, its horizontality more than compensating for its lack of depth. The static sets resound with aural movement– songs, gunshots and chirping birds reverberate around. Unlike so many films where human liveliness is forsaken in place of luscious sets and intricate scenic compositions (such as the reified characters that parade through the films of Wes Anderson), here the humanity of the characters remains and the perils they face have real weight. Qiu is an engaging and endearing protagonist, based on Jiongjiong’s grandfather. Abandoned by his mother at aged seven he becomes a clown in order to win back her affections and assure her of his economic viability. Enduring war, famine and addiction Qiu and his troupe draw you into their world, a treacherous and unstable place but one filled with play and humour.

It is perhaps no surprise that it would take a painter and illustrator to embark on such an ambitiously intermedial filmic project. A New Old Play is a match which should light a fire under the cinematic imagination. Epic in scope, carnivalesque in tone and almost unprecedented in style, the film is a beautiful reminder of the aesthetic power of cinema.

A New Old Play is showing at the Garden Cinema in London. Judy Harris will be introducing the film in person on 20 November.

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