Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
"The Opium War," now at the K-B Janus, turns out to be a relic as well as curiosity. Evidently the first Communist Chinese dramatic feature to receive regular art-house distribution in this country, the film was made in 1959 and the withdrawn upon the advent of the Cultural Revolution, possibly in line with a systematic suppression of productions that predated Mao's new social scheme and possibly because the lead, Chao Tan, was out of favor with Chian Ching.
It's impossible to account for the suppression on the mere basis of the movie itself: a pious, stilted patriotic costume drama extolling the character of Lin Tse hsu, an imperial minister endeavoring to stop the opium trade introduced in Canton by British merchants during the 1830s. The film expresses unimpeachably nationalistic sentiments. The only tangible sources plistic, outmoded exposition and poderous pictorial stlye-in short, the pervasive klutziness of it all.
"Lin Tse-hsu," as the film was originally titled, scarcely qualifies as an artistic event comparable, say, to the discovery of some lost silent classic or the Soviet Union's release of the second part of Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible" in the late '50s. The closest American equivalents to "Lin Tse-hsu" are such rarely revived exotica as "The Egypyain," "Land of the Pharoahs," "Demertius and the Gladiator" and "The Barbarian." In good conscience we couldn't dummp those schnorrers on the Chinese market, but if "Jaws" and "Star Wars."
"Lin tse'hsu has a fundamentally strong story. A loyal servant of the emperor succeeds in his mission to suppress the drug trade and vicious foreign influences. Subsequent events turn him into a pariah, hanished by the emperor for reasons of political expediency.
What "Lins Tse-hsu" conspicuously lacks is adequate dramatization of this intriguing outline. In part the filmmakers seem inhibited by deliberate chauvinistic obfuscation. The British are depicted as leering, cringing villains, and their forces are last seen beating a hasty retreat from the rocks and spears of Lin's stalwart militia. In fact, Lin's mission was a temporary triumph at best. The British imposed their will during this period of history and one of the things Imperial China lost as a conswquence of the wars provoked by the opium trade was Hong Kong.
Lin's downfall seems to spring from sheer caprice when someone bad-mouths him to the emperor. "All Canton is buzzing over a song" claims the disgruntled party. "Would you like to readit?" The emperor obliges, and according to the subtitles, the lyrics go, "Lins and Teng do whatever they want. They have made man illegal arrests." Instead of tossing the flimsy libel aside with a remark like "Not very catchy, is it?," the emperor chooses to interpret it as damning evidence that the once-trusted Lin has overstepped his authority.
Chao Tan has considerable authority in the role of Lin. His restrain puts him several cuts above most of the other cast members, who make it appear that Occidental comics haven't been broad enough when they can cature Imperial Chinese in the act of lowtowing chortling or flashing conspiratorial glances.
Some advance reviews had me aniticioationg breathtaking vistas of the Forhidden City and the Great Wall and Canton. Those scenic wonders turn cut ot be fleeting at best, and two decades in the vault has done nothing to enhance the movie's colour, which looks as faded as the color in a typical theatrical print of American films of the same vintage.
Like virtually every movie, "Lin Tse-hsu" reveals interesting things about the culture that spawned it, but it's difficult to greet this 20-year-old mediocrity as a major culture revelation. Perhaps the import of earlier and later Chinese features will put it all in perspective. In the meantime one can't help wondering what sent "Lin Tse-hsu" to the head of the American import line. It must have been either the drug angle or the fact that the British are the bad guys.