Long-Lost Silent Film Returned to China

"The Cave of the Silken Web," shot in 1927
"The Cave of the Silken Web," shot in 1927
 China Film Archive

Norway returned a long-lost silent Chinese film to Beijing on Tuesday.

The nitrocellulose copy of The Cave of the Silken Web, produced in 1927, was discovered in Norway's national library in 2011 and is believed to be the only print in existence.

The film, directed by Dan Duyu and shot in black and white, is the first known movie adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, famous for its Monkey King hero. Well known and beloved by most Chinese, the story has served as the source material for some of the country's most successful box office hits. In 2008, Lionsgate and China's Huayi Brothers partnered on the Journey to the West-inspired co-production The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Stephen Chow topped the Chinese box office with his take in 2013, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which grossed $205 million. And this year, Donnie Yen's The Monkey King is leading the annual box office. The film grossed $169 million in its first week of release in January.

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Written by Wu Ceheng'en during the 16th-century Ming Dynasty, Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of classic Chinese literature. Produced during the Shanghai moviemaking boom of the raucous 1920s and '30s, The Cave of the Silken Web re-creates one of the classic story's most memorable episodes. In the film, Tang Sanzang, a pilgrim monk who serves as the Tang Dynasty emperor's protector, is sent on a mission to recover some sacred Buddhist texts. He ends up trapped in the Cave of the Seven Spiders, who want to feast on his flesh, believing it will make them immortal. The monk is eventually saved by his disciple Sun Wukong, who later becomes the text's hero, the Monkey King.

The Cave of the Silken Web was given its Norwegian premiere in Oslo in January 1929 with Norwegian and Chinese subtitles, according to Agence France-Presse. A spokesperson for China Film Archive, where the film will now be held, told AFP it was the first Chinese film shown in Norway.

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Norway likely meant for its return of the film to be interpreted by the Chinese as a good faith gesture. Relations between the two nations have been strained since the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo, a vocal advocate for Chinese democracy. China suspended bilateral talks with Norway after the award, demanding an apology. Although the Nobel Committee is appointed by Norway's parliament, the counry's leaders said the government had no direct control over who wins the awards and that an apology wouldn't be appropriate.  

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