Victoria University of Wellington
A sip of tea before the world turns upside down…again: Brian Brake’s 1959 photographs on the set of the Jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) film Women Generals of the Yang Family
Leading New Zealand photographer, Brian Brake, was one of only a few western photographers granted entry to China in the first decade following Communist victory in 1949. Among 114,000 of Brake’s images held in Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand are a number taken on an outdoor film set during the 1959 making of Shanghai Jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) Theatre’s moving-image adaptation of the ‘newly-written historical’ stage play, Yangmen nüjiang (Women Generals of the Yang Family). Released in 1960, but banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), it is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful filmic adaptations of a xiqu (Chinese opera) stage play and laid important theoretical and practical ground for future experimentation. Brake’s images capture casual moments of actors in full make-up and elaborate headdress smoking, chatting, drinking tea while awaiting their next shot. Film crew measure distances to set actor marks. Brake’s chromogenic processes emphasise the striking contrast between subdued greys and blues of the crew’s cotton clothing and the rich palette of elaborately embroidered stage costumes. The edge of a painted backdrop of clouds reveals real clouds floating by while crew apply artificial greenery to the parade ground scuffed during previous takes. Captured at the margins of this successful effort to exploit theatrical languages for cinematic space, the images were unseen by the film’s eventual audience. This paper considers how the images document a convivial if precarious balance of tradition and technological advancement and mark a growing sense of artistic mastery that was both carried forward and utterly upended by the Cultural Revolution.
Megan Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Theatre Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research includes a focus on xiqu (Chinese Opera) in contemporary China, which has been published in TDR, Asian Theatre Journal, Theatre Research International and Australasian Drama Studies.