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March 4, 2012

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Restoring celluloid cinema gems

A black-and-white silent homage to old Hollywood, "The Artist" is an Oscar-winning testament to nostalgia for old and classic movies. And that applies not only to Hollywood but also China, which enjoyed its golden days of cinema in the 1920s and 30s.

But many originals of old and modern Chinese classic films have been lost and many celluloid copies have been severely damaged, scratched, abraded by dust and reduced to yellowed plastic and powder.

This is the result of improper storage and handling; excessive use and exposure to air makes the plastic shrink and turn brittle. Temperature and humidity must be precisely controlled and archivists today insist on preserving the intact original master, extra unused footage and documentation.

Improperly preserved film can deteriorate much faster than many photographs or other visual presentations.

Restoration and preservation of old movies is an urgent task for China's 107-year-old cinema industry, as is reviving interest in old films that today are eclipsed by faster-paced action films and blockbusters with special effects.

Every year China produces around 400 films and that number is rising, but quantity isn't quality and experts are turning their attention to preserving China's cinematic past.

In 2006, the China Film Archive, which has a collection of around 600 domestic and foreign films, launched a 280-million-yuan (US$44 million) project to restore 5,000 Chinese pictures and bring them back to life.

So far, more than 4,800 films have been converted to digital copies; of these, 106 classic productions have undergone detailed repairs on image sequences and soundtrack, says Zuo Ying, a technical director of the project.

Most of the restored films are critically acclaimed and have significantly influenced Chinese cinema. They were produced from 1922 to the early 21st century and include Zhang Shichuan's silent movie "Laborer's Love" (1922), the earliest extant Chinese film, and Cai Chusheng's box-office hit "Song of the Fishermen" (1934), China's first award-winning film at international film festivals.

More than 70 film experts, scholars and technicians have been involved in the project. The process requires multiple complicated steps including footage cleaning, digital scanning and enhancement, color and sound correction. It takes 30,000-50,000 yuan and at least a month to restore one old film and remove the dust, scratches, stains and flickering.

"Some old footage, after long-term exposure and erosion, become too brittle and mutilated to be transferred into digital copies," Zuo adds. "We have to soften and flatten the footages very carefully with physical and chemical means."

Another challenge is posed by missing and inadequate video sequences and materials for the original film.

Consider the 1934 film "Song of the Fishermen." The original footage was lost in war and the only footage copy was also seriously damaged at that time. Some image sequences were not well preserved.

Lack of restorers

Zuo and his team turned to film experts and scholars to find related video sequences from that period and create similar scenes and images with new computer technologies to fill the gaps in footage.

Not all missing sequences can be restored, especially since the cast and crew are no longer available to advise.

"Restored film is required to strictly conform to the original artistic and cinematic style of the filmmaker," Zuo says. "Thus, we should be very careful about the restored color and sound of the film to maintain its flavor."

Though film restoration started as early as the 1970s in Western countries, it is still a new profession in China. To date, film restoration is not a major in China's film academies and there is a severe lack of young professionals.

Many restoration technicians today are computer science graduates who lack sufficient background in filmmaking and cinematography. Some have little sense of film art and aesthetics.

"Most Chinese film college students would rather choose careers as film directors than the time- and energy-consuming work of film restoration technicians," Zuo says. "Film restoration is a respected position in the West, but in China we still need to raise public awareness of its importance."

Repair, restoration and digitization of 150 more old films is expected by the end of the year, according to Sun Xianghui, deputy director of the China Film Archive.

Most of the restored films will be screened in rural areas and at film festivals. But there are no plans for commercial screening at this time.

The films made from the 1930s through the 1950s are of high aesthetic and cultural value. Many films provide an academic insight into daily lives, customs and even fashion and have inspired many generations of Chinese film artists.

In recent years, some Hong Kong filmmakers have screened restored old movies, but the box-office returns have not been impressive.

On February 24, after two years of repair on color, soundtrack and dubbing, the 1992 Hong Kong martial arts film "New Dragon Inn" was screened in domestic cinemas. So far the film has taken in only tens of thousands yuan, far below its restoration budget of 2 million yuan.

Producer Ng See-yuen says that restored version pays tribute to the flourishing Hong Kong martial arts cinema of the 1990s. He says the film not only satisfies the nostalgic yearnings of people in their 30s and 40s for classic films but also attracts younger viewers with its old-time star-studded cast and smooth storytelling.

Ng's two other restored films, "Ashes of Time Redux" (2008 original) and "A Chinese Ghost Story" (1987 original), were also not as popular as expected. The restored "Ghost Story" only took in around 3 million yuan nationwide. "Ashes of Time" did a fairly good job with 26 million yuan in box office nationwide.

Ng's next restoration project will be Tsui Hark's fantasy film "Green Snake" (original 1993), an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Hong Kong writer Lilian Lee.

Zhang Jian, a 30-something movie fan, has watched "New Dragon Inn" many times on DVD. He and his wife attended the restored films screening on the first day of release.

"The restored film is brighter, cleaner and more beautiful," Zhang says. "It looks every bit as good as a film shot yesterday and it brings back my memories of Hong Kong cinema."

Hollywood 3D

But many young moviegoers prefer to watch new Hollywood blockbusters and thrillers with extravagant stunts and visual effects.

In contrast with the approach in China, recently restored Hollywood films have been mostly re-mastered in 3D to make up for the inadequate technology when the films were first screened decades ago. Producers also tend to restore films with universal appeal, such as science fiction, fantasy and adventure. The black and white classics have already been restored.

In early April, the 3D and IMAX 3D version of James Cameron's epic romance and disaster film "Titanic" will be released in China to mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic setting sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York.

Hollywood's new 3D version of "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" have been well received; many spin-offs have been developed, including DVDs and books. The "Star Wars" series, "The Matrix," "Transformers" and "Toy Story" are likely to be screened in new 3D versions.

Last year the restored legendary German expressionist film "Metropolis" (1927) was released to worldwide acclaim.

This year's 15th Shanghai International Film Festival in June will screen three restored Chinese films, including "Crossroads" (1937), "Spring River Flows East" (1947) and "Eight Thousand Li of Clouds and Moon" (1947). Old movies will also be accessible through the Internet and mobile phones for the first time during the festival.

Restored Chinese movies face major challenges in marketing and distribution, according to Wu Hehu, deputy director of Shanghai United Cinema Lines, the city's major cinema chain. Some classic movies are already available on the Internet and DVD market, Wu says.

"Without innovative elements and changes to the story, it's hard for them to generate much interest among today's cinema goers and recover costs," he says.

In foreign countries, there is relatively a favorable market for restored classic movies. Most films can recover restoration costs through screening at film exhibitions.

In Europe, some luxury fashion brands sponsor the repair, restoration and screening of classics because of the films' historical and cultural values and depiction of life in earlier times.

"The Oscar recognition of the silent black-and-white romantic comedy drama 'The Artist' demonstrates today's audiences' rising demand for this genre," says Professor Gu Xiaoming, a film expert from Fudan University. "Film is a special art form since it connects with and reflects the social and cultural ambience of a specific passing era."

The restored movies can mingle with the different aesthetic tastes of varied generations and help young people learn more about the life of older generations, he adds.

It's not enough to merely screen old movies, there should be more exhibitions, academic workshops and other information to supplement the screenings, he says.


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