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Great silent movie finally gets a score
31/10/2007 15:35

Michelle Zhang/Shanghai Daily news

The 1933 silent classic "Little Toys" finally has been set to music and will be screened in all its audible new glory on Friday. The play "Drift" about Shanghai and Singapore will also be staged in the Shanghai International Arts Festival.

Mark Chan says that whenever he steps into the Peace Hotel along the Bund, he gets "a strong, strong feeling that I have been there in a previous life."

His deep fondness for old Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s has driven the multi-talented composer and musician from Singapore to create "Little Toys," the first full-scale scoring of the silent Chinese film of the same name (1933).

The nearly two-hour film will be shown and the score will be performed at the Shanghai Concert Hall on Friday, as part of the ongoing Shanghai International Arts Festival.

An ensemble of eight musicians from both Singapore and China, including Chan himself as the vocalist, will perform as the classic silent film flickers. "Little Toys" starred the 1930s screen goddess Ruan Lingyu, playing a long-suffering artisan toy maker.

The Asian artists, all regarded as the creme de la creme of their craft, will play a mix of traditional Chinese and Western instruments, including the erhu, pipa, gaohu and guan, as well as piano, percussion and cello. Erhu and gaohu are two-stringed bowed instruments, the pipa is a four-stringed lute and the guan is an oboe.

Directed by the then renowned Sun Yu, "Little Toys" is the story of enigmatic Sister Ye (played by Ruan) as a courageous yet soft-hearted maker of traditional toys during a period of upheaval in China. It is known for its realistic details of hardship.

The story follows Sister Ye from her happy and simple early marriage life in a village outside Shanghai through the turmoil of civil war and the Japanese invasion (Manchuria 1931). Manufactured toys take the place of her lovely handmade toys.

She spends her lonely older years bereft of husband and daughter. But in an extraordinary encounter, she meets the son who was stolen from her many years before.

Chan watched 15 Chinese silent movies of that period before he decided to compose for "Little Toys," which, according to him, "possesses a most unusual mix of naivete and deep human insight."

"It was the fine and winning balance of the human story played out against the backdrop of such important historical events that convinced me to choose the film," he says.

"I wanted very much to create a score that incorporated traditional Chinese instruments like erhu, pipa and dizi (side-blown flute) with Western instruments like the piano, cello and keyboards."

According to the musician, "Little Toys" most naturally lent itself to this idea with its portrayal of rural, rustic life, the tumult of war as well as the bustle of a modern metropolis.

Chan spent about nine months on the project. Before he set pen to paper, he spent a long time trying to get into the soul of the movie, to learn more about the characters and the tragic life of actress Ruan. She committed suicide at age 25 in 1935. She left a note that read: "Nothing matters."

"Once I opened the first of several doors, the music just flowed!" he recalls. "It is definitely one of the works I'm most proud of. It appeals to many diverse groups and types of people: movie buffs, music lovers, older people, younger generations, those who just want a glimpse of the past, those who want to see what we have become in our day and age ..."

The production deeply touched the audience when it was staged during the 2003 Singapore Arts Festival, Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Copenhagen Images of Asia Festival.

Another co-production by Singaporean and Chinese artists to be staged during the arts festival is the theatrical play "Drift." It will premiere at Shanghai Drama Arts Center tomorrow.

Like most of the previous works of the award-winning Singaporean director Kok Heng Leun, "Drift" is ideological, divided into seemingly separate, irrelevant stories of different characters.

It is a tale of two cities, Shanghai and Singapore, that span across three generations. It touches on such issues as relationship, affairs, immigration, promises ... culture, tradition, history and memories - all set against the reality and the fast pace of modernization.

The latest work of Shanghai's productive playwright Yu Rongjun, the play features Singaporean bi-lingual actors from Singapore's leading contemporary Mandarin theatrical company Drama Box, and veteran actor Zhou Yemang and young actress Qin Xuan from Shanghai Drama Arts Center.

"There is no clear story in the play, which requires the audience to watch with their heart," says Kok, artistic director of Drama Box.

Commenting on the differences between Singaporean and Chinese actors, Kok says that Chinese actors perform in a delicate, deliberate way while the Singaporeans' performance is more carefree and emotional. "It has been a great chance for the actors to learn from each other through the rehearsal," he adds.

The play is scheduled to be staged at next year's Singapore Arts Festival after the Shanghai premiere.

"Little Toys"
Date: November 2, 7:30pm
Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall, 523 Yan'an Rd E.
Tickets: 80-320 yuan
Tel: 6386-5772

Date: November 1-10 (closed on Monday and Tuesday), 7:15pm
Venue: Shanghai Drama Arts Theater, 288 Anfu Rd
Tickets: 80-500 yuan
Tel: 6473-0123