From the canvas to the cinema.
David Liu | 22 February 2014
The Calling of St. Matthew (Caravaggio, 1599-1600; oil on canvas)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
"I was instantly taken by the power of Caravaggio’s pictures. Initially I related to them because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story. The Conversion of St Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes. He was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action. You come upon the scene midway and you’re immersed in it. It was different from the composition of the paintings that preceded it. It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct.
He would have been a great filmmaker, there’s no doubt about it. He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It’s basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St. Matthew, but in New York.”
— Martin Scorsese, from Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon
Spring in a Small Town / 小城之春 (Fei Mu, 1948)
David Liu | 7 February 2014
Rejected by the Communist government in 1949 for its lack of political commitment, Fei Mu’s masterpiece about a bourgeois family in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War remains, along with The Spring River Flows East (1947), one of the definitive pictures to emerge from that period. The film boasts superbly understated performances from lead actress Wei Wei and actors Shi Yu and Li Wei, three individuals caught in a love triangle forged out of time and circumstance.
Fade transitions and subtle camera movements reinforce the narrative’s emotional subtext, which centers on Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei)’s inner conflict between loyalty to her ailing husband and attraction to a visiting former flame. Fei frames her solitude within the context of a nation’s existential despair as China struggles for air between two vastly divergent historical periods, anchored by the claustrophobia of ruined city walls.
Spring in a Small Town — along with Fei, whose other works include 1936’s Blood on Wolf Mountain and 1940’s recently discovered Confucius — saw its reputation restored in later years, topping the Hong Kong Film Awards’ 2005 list of the 100 best Chinese films. Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang paid his respects with a remake in 2002, Springtime in a Small Town — a testament to the vitality of a national treasure.