Interesting but mixed double feature DVD
Barbara (Burkowsky) Underwood | Manly, NSW Australia | 09/28/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The two Chinese silent films on this DVD are of a high standard, and being made at the very end of the silent era, they have a well-developed style much on the same level as American and European films of the late 1920s. This is especially evident in "Two Stars in the Milky Way" which opens with two very artistic scenes, showing that Chinese filmmakers had a good eye for photography and cinematography in general. The settings are basically contemporary and might surprise some viewers due to their modern look at times, but they also have an unmistakable Chinese character. The very pleasant musical accompaniment is also an interesting blend of Western orchestral music and oriental sounds, and is very well suited to the scenes in both films. Unfortunately, the picture quality of "A Spray of Plum Blossoms" leaves a lot to be desired, having a number of scenes too light, as well as jumping in and out of focus, and intertitle frames cropped so that often not everything is easily legible. All these drawbacks make this excellent film somewhat annoying to watch, but thanks to the music and an overall good and interesting story, I still found it worthwhile viewing. In fact, the DVD is good value because the second film, "Two Stars in the Milky Way" has very good picture quality throughout, and is a delight to watch. It is a nice and simple story about a country girl who is discovered by a film crew because of her beautiful singing voice. When she becomes a popular actress and develops a romance with her leading man, things seem like a fairytale for her until his secret is revealed. A few lengthy scenes in this film focus on the actress singing, but without a live performance or authentic recording of the songs which no doubt were played or performed in cinemas with the original screening of this film, those scenes can become a bit boring. But otherwise "Two Stars in the Milky Way" is a smooth-flowing and elegant film, and contrasts well with the different theme and more complex story of "A Spray of Plum Blossoms". Also a love story, it has more characters and dramatic action than "Two Stars" as two old friends become rivals for the same woman, leading the more unscrupulous one to plot against his friend to get him out of the Army and thereby out of the way. But another suitor and a left-behind fiancée make the plot more intriguing and much faster-paced than the other film. Both films feature a strikingly handsome actor who goes by the names of Jin Yan and Raymond King, but I'm calling him the Chinese Rudolph Valentino, not just for his looks and romantic hero roles, but his intense facial expressions which reminded me of Valentino. All in all, both films have quite a lot to offer; it's just a pity that the picture quality of "A Spray of Plum Blossoms" is rather poor and doesn't do the film credit.
Poor video quality
J. L. Gomer | Marysville, CA United States | 03/07/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Barbara's review is comprehensive as to story details and the technical quality of these films. I'm a big fan of silent films and I enjoyed these, the only two examples of silent Chinese cinema I've ever seen. However, the poor video quality will put most viewers off. The stories are typical melodramas for the period and reasonably well acted. The DVD case gives the running times of the films as 100 minutes each. Actual running times are 86 minutes for Two Stars in the Milky Way, and 112 minutes for A Spray of Plum Blossoms."
'Two Stars' a fine silent by any measure
Cody K. | Jamokidence, Rhode Island, USA | 03/31/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"[This review refers to the Cinema Epoch DVD of 'A Spray of Plum Blossoms' and 'Two Stars in the Milky Way'.]
I bought this DVD recently out of curiosity after reading Barbara Burkowsky's excellent review. Both films sounded interesting, and both are, but I'm completely enthralled by 'Two Stars in the Milky Way'. I'm surprised that it's not much better known -- it's an excellent silent film, head and shoulders above many. It's a very late silent (1931), and one that was apparently sent to theaters as a hybrid of silent and sound. (There's a scene in which a master of ceremonies, about to roll a scene from a film, engages a radio to provide sound for the song in the film; and though whatever soundtrack there originally was is not included on this disc, there are credits for sound among the opening titles.)
Polished, sophisticated, and in every aspect a world-class entry, it's a delight throughout, and very much up to the standards of European or American films of the time.
'Two Stars' is greatly enhanced by Toshiyuki Hiraoka's minimalist score, composed largely of synthetic small-orchestra-style variations on a handful of recurring themes, which create a meditative, dreamlike mood throughout the film, breaking out of the pattern only occasionally where the film calls for scene-specific music, such as in the scene of a tango exhibition performed by the two stars. But even then the music remains dreamy -- it's closer to a waltz than a tango, but somehow, it still works beautifully with the dancers' elegant performance.
The entire cast deliver fine, natural, "modern" performances without much trace of the over-emoting often associated with silent films. There are some quietly stunning scenes, such as one in which (the incredibly handsome, if over-made-up) Raymond King and Violet Wong exchange a glance and the intensity of their attraction is evident. A bit later, a bit of jealous drama at a miniature golf course is well set up and very neatly performed.
There's a mesmerizing scene in which Violet Wong sings a song of several minutes duration in a classical Chinese setting; a film crew is shooting a scene from the play "Love's Sorrow in the Eastern Chamber". We don't hear the song, of course, but the nuance in her acting makes it very clear that it's a sad love song (presumably the same as in the clip that's later shown with radio accompaniment). Her face, and the stylized movements of the classical theatre tell the whole story, while Hiraoka's score increases the poignancy and poetry of the scene. She hardly moves during the whole scene, which is taken in just three shots over the song's four minutes, but still it's eloquent, and she moves, if one watches carefully, from despondency to longing, to anger (and maybe a bit of a wish for vengeance) to sheer, doting love. As it ends, the camera draws back slowly and we see the cameras of the film crew, we're back in 1930 and the contemporary story resumes. The music takes a new, more dynamic tone as the cast and crew celebrate what they know has been a successful take. Unfortunately, here is where a better-preserved and crisper print of the film would come in handy; because of its length it takes a little patience to watch this scene through, but I'm pretty sure that a pristine print would show this particular scene to be an unsung classic [no pun intended, honest] of silent film.
The contemporary setting circa 1930 is very well represented here: there are a number of beautifully designed pure Art Deco sets that bespeak a thoroughly cosmopolitan sensibility. Many of the costumes are likewise stylish and modern and contrast nicely with the classical costumes of the stage scenes. A charity show brings us to a couple of interesting dance numbers, one a mechanistic, modernistic, militaristic goofy thing performed by, according to the credits, the "U.P.S Follies", and the other in which our heroine impersonates an Art Deco sculpture (Chiparus, if ya get me) showing off. Both dances are pretty silly, but hugely endearing, thanks again to the excellent score.
While the story itself is fairly routine, it's told with simple grace through the excellent performances augmented by apparently original title cards (beautifully made!) in both Chinese and English. And while the story may be simple, it's fleshed out in scene after scene with small details that lend a good amount of depth to each character.
The film's politics are interesting, too. At a meeting of the studio bigwigs, the director of our film-within-a-film is expected to speak after the apparent studio head makes an impassioned speech about the need for Chinese films to fight against the predations of "opportunists" and to raise the moral tone of the films, thereby diminishing "evil environments". A shot reveals him all but rolling his eyes as the chief's speech drones on, wondering how he's going to match that line of malarkey. All the while, 'Two Stars' itself, the film we're actually watching, is fulfilling its obligation to the censors by letting the studio head speechify in this manner in the first place. I can't help but see this scene as "Two Stars" director Tomsie Sze's wry comment on government pressure on film companies to make "uplifting" pictures. (Tomsie Sze is an anglicized version of the director's name, Shi Dongshan.)
The print isn't perfect by any means, but I've seen some "restored" silents that looked far worse than this one does. Unlike the disc's companion piece, 'A Spray of Plum Blossoms', which is badly battered, 'Two Stars' is never really damaged badly enough to distract the viewer.
'Two Stars' is a very good film that I hope will become better known because of this Cinema Epoch release. With any luck, we'll be seeing more of this kind and quality from Cinema Epoch."