A New Old Play is a rich, complex contribution to the Chinese folk tradition, and a “theater” film for the ages.
Without getting too far into Bresson’s dissection of the irreconcilable differences between the artistic media of film and theater, there has been a longstanding interest, and thus conundrum, in how to depict the staging of a theatrical production on film. From Busby Berkeley backstage musicals to The Golden Coach to Rivette’s masterpieces to Vanya on 42nd Street to, of course, Drive My Car, films about theater are typically just as much about the communal nature of the endeavor, the relationships that are formed in the intimate times of living and working together.
And then, there are those films, like The Travelling Players and Platform, that use theater and performance as a means to convey and explore the grand sweep of history, as the relatively static nature of performance and style is met by larger social and governmental forces over decades. Qiu Jiongjiong’s feature debut, A New Old Play, fits in very much with this lineage of acting-troupe epics, running just under three hours and spanning the 1920s to the 1980s in the Sichuan Province. Unlike its predecessors, however, it totally focuses on a single actor: a clown, Qiufu, who is based on Qiu’s own grandfather. It also explicitly takes a retrospective look: the film begins with two demons arriving to bring him to hell, and the rest of the film threads this long journey alongside a chronological retelling of his ascent to stardom in the New-New Troupe and Opera School (at age seven), and how he, his family, and his collaborators weathered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the upheaval that the Chinese Communist Party introduced into an already fraught environment.
In a sharp break from the documentaries that have made up Qiu’s work to date, A New Old Play instead opts for an approach that emphasizes artificiality and stylization of these spaces of the past and the supernatural. Seemingly every scene takes place on a set, each crafted to maximize what feels like a handcrafted quality to the film, where the distressed and flat personality permeates the backdrops of man-made structures and landscapes alike. A golden statue is embodied by living flesh, ocean currents by billowing fabric, and brick walls look like plywood painstakingly painted to suggest the mortar without fully defining it. All of these might strike one as budgetary necessities, but the effect here is far from, say, the nightmarish distortions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the opposite approach of reflection of present onto past in Platform. Instead, this abstraction suggests an archetypal base to build upon, a physical closeness of space and a continuity between the “real world” and the purposeful unreality of theater, literalized in a shot that tracks right as bricks are rolled on-stage from a daytime view of distant mountains, then off-stage into the painted night sky and distant city. And while Qiu is free to mix up his style, throwing in oblique angles and handheld when necessary, much of the film is shot in single-direction tracking shots and tableaux teeming with people, where the distinctiveness of the faces meld into a tapestry of expressions and reactions, all similar but none totally alike.
That quality serves the film well: Qiufu is certainly the main character, set apart by this supernatural intervention and his obdurate commitment to craft, even as his fellow cast and crew fall away due to the ravages of time, while also being instantly recognizable thanks to his ever-present large ears, red nose, and beanie. But this is as much a portrait of community, leaving plenty of time to consider how people contend with the weight of change and history, each interaction another building block in a conception of history that is resolutely intimate and aggregative. Even the intertitles that help clarify when the next decade has passed for those very unfamiliar with Chinese history — as someone of Chinese descent, the careful but never overstated intertwining of history into the narrative moved me — convey these changes in more poetic terms.
All this while, Qiufu is on his way to the afterlife, where he will have to drink a soup of forgetfulness to enter, or otherwise wander as a ghost among the living. This voyage into the unknown carries the same genial tone as A New Old Play, of a resigned acceptance of the inevitable that carries with it a whole world of mystery and discovery. The film closes with Qiu himself appearing in front of the camera, one of the most fitting cameos in ages, as he implicitly puts himself in the lineage of these performers and artists who have contributed to a rich Chinese folk tradition. On the strength of A New Old Play, such a gesture is more than earned.