N.Y. fest slates films from China 'black hole'

Retrospective of well-known and rare pics covers 1949-66

NEW YORK -- Next September's New York Film Festival, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, will feature a rare retrospective of films made between 1949 and the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Richard Pena, director of the NYFF and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, went to Beijing for a week in July to work with the China Film Archive to organize the first major U.S. screening of a collection of about 20 films made in the early years of China's state-run studio system.

In an interview, Pena said that there is a lot of scholarship on Chinese films from the so-called Golden Era of the 1930s, a little less from the 1940s, and a lot on films made after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

"But that period from '49 to '66 is like a black hole," Pena said. "Almost no one has written about it. Nobody's not interested in the period, but it's just not an easy era to tap into."

The retrospective will revisit the best-known films from the period, including works by director Xie Jin ("Two Stage Sisters," "Red Detachment of Women"), but also will bring to light some gems unknown outside China.

"It's a project I've been wanting to do for a long, long time," said Pena, whose classes at Columbia University include one on Chinese cinema.

A scholar Pena met with in Beijing was at once complimentary and critical of his proposed list of films and ultimately introduced him to a "whole genre" of detective films from the period, "some of which are very good," Pena said.

Pena said that his contacts at the CFA, which reopened in a new state-of-the-art building in 2005 for the centenary of Chinese cinema, "couldn't have been nicer and more hospitable."

"I said, 'We can't do this unless you agree to make good quality, English-subtitled prints. The ball's in your court,' " Pena explained. "And they said, 'Yes, we think it's a wonderful idea, come up with a list and we'll do the show.'"

"Whereas previously you had a well-trained generation of film archivists who did a great job of preserving Chinese cinema but who were less interested in the diffusion of it, this new group is ... already suggesting projects they'd like to see us do," he added.

Pena said that the CFA has agreed to make the prints and do the English subtitling.

He said that he hopes to get director Xie to come over from Shanghai to participate in a conference planned around the retrospective.