Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong, Dan Duyu, 1927) is a remarkable, ethereal work of early Chinese cinema with a rich history of loss, discovery, and restoration. This projected screening at the Dundee Contemporary Arts, therefore, was a particularly exciting, rare opportunity, which the co-curators of the event – Kirsty Sinclair Dootson (University of St Andrews), Zhaoyu Zhu (University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China), and Yixiang Lin (University of Edinburgh) – responded to with dynamism and sensitivity. Dr Xuelei Huang from the University of Edinburgh commenced the screening, for example, with an animated introduction, in which she described the film’s discovery and subsequent restoration by the National Library of Norway in 2014, where this (incomplete) version of the film had been found in 2011, after a period of being thought lost. Dr Huang’s introduction enlightened the audience to not only the film’s contemporary reception in Norway and China, but also the various idiosyncrasies of the Norwegian subtitles and their irregular Chinese translations, which had been preserved during its restoration and were present throughout the screening for fluent speakers to encounter. The print’s fascinating cross-cultural history was also enriched at this event by Dr Huang’s contextualisation of the film within its global literary and social history, describing its retelling of the classic Chinese novel on which it is based, Journey to the West by author Wu Cheng’en, during the Ming Dynasty.
The novel draws upon the real-life travels of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and tells the stories of his journey towards India with his guardians Monkey, Pig, and Sandy; and in Pan Si Dong we meet these characters as they come up against spider-demon seductresses, who spin their webs, dance, and even change form as they attempt to entice and eat the protagonists. As Dr Huang also discussed, Pan Si Dong is a unique treasure considering how few prints have survived from this period of early Chinese cinema, but even more so for the preservation of its colours and use of technology. Vivid atmospheric effects have been achieved in the film by a ‘tinting’ colour process, which involves submerging the filmstrip in tanks of dye. In the final scenes of the film, for instance, a vibrant magenta colour illustrates the cascading, rising fire throughout the cave, clarifying the danger, and framing the emotional height of those final moments as the protagonists struggle to escape in vibrant red hues. Indeed, this atmospheric chromatism was common in films of the silent era, particularly as a means to show changes in the environment or lighting (inside or outside, day or night), but it was a special joy to have a chance to view Pan Si Dong’s experimentation with colour via a screened projection of the 35mm print, especially due to its particular vividness.
Fig 1. Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong, Dan Duyu, 1927). A climactic fight scene, in a blaze of red.
Fig 2. A spider spirit grabs at Pigsy through her web, Pan Si Dong 1927.
Fig 3. A spider spirit tries to seduce Pigsy, one of the guardians. Pan Si Dong 1927.
Fig 4. An intertitle draws attention to the “huge flame” rising in the cave, rendered in a vibrant red hue. Pan Si Dong 1927.
Among a small group of students from the University of St Andrews, I had also had the pleasure of hearing from Ian Banks, the chief projectionist at the DCA, before attending the screening. His enthusiasm for, and experience of, film projection illuminated this special tangibility of the screening, heightened all the more by its history of loss, and he went on to explain the unique practicalities of the film’s cue marks, rewinding, and live addition of English subtitles, all of which contributed to the enlivened nature of the film’s screening. It also gave us the unique opportunity to see the 35mm print of Pan Si Dong up-close, in detail, before watching the projection later that day. The screening itself responded to this palpable energy with an exciting musical collaboration with Scottish-based electroacoustic composer Aurora Engine, whose work brought an evocative, celestial energy to the event with her live musical score specially written for this Pan Si Dong screening. In her Artist’s Statement, provided in the programme of the event, Aurora Engine, who is also known as Deborah Shaw, wrote that: “I wanted to create a score in which the traditional was firmly present, yet juxtaposed with the sometimes ethereal, sometimes jarring sounds of synthesised and electronically manipulated music.” Accompanying the film’s effervescent use of colour, therefore, the electroacoustic score blended liveness and depth, recorded music and live performance, which acknowledged the film’s vibrancy, mythic themes, as well as the originality of the screening itself. Aurora Engine writes that she “aimed to create a magical work reflecting the literary folklore themes of the film whilst responding to the spellbinding colour changes.”
This screening of Pan Si Dong at the Dundee Contemporary Arts was an animated, effective concert of enriching juxtapositions and international collaborations, therefore, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to experience it.
Recording of Aurora Engine’s performance at the Dundee Contemporary Arts screening of Pan Si Dong (Dan Duyu, China, 1927) The 35mm print of Pan Si Dong (Dan Duyu, 1927) is held at the National Library of Norway and can be viewed online
To read more about the dynamic and experimental work of Aurora Engine.
The screening of Cave of the Silken Web (Pan Si Dong, Dan Duyu, 1927) took place at Dundee Contemporary Arts, 20 November 2022. Colour Across Chinese Cinemas is supported by UK China Film Collab. It has been generously supported by the University of St Andrews Impact and Innovation Fund and the University of St Andrews Department of Film Studies. The screening of Pan Si Dong was also supported by the BAFTSS Colour and Film SIG.
About the author: Grace Pollard, Master’s Student. School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies, University of St Andrews. Her research interests centre on experimental film movements and their convergence with other artistic disciplines, particularly literature and poetics. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.