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Chinese Film Series Opens With Classic Epic

December 02, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"The Spring River Flows East," a two-part, 200-minute 1947 epic often referred to as China's "Gone With the Wind," launches a Monday evening series of Chinese films tonight at the Nuart. The more apt comparison might be with "The Birth of a Nation," since the cast's histrionics seem more appropriate to a silent film than to a talkie. Yet for all the tediousness of its overacting, the film has considerable expressive power, and writers-directors Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli sustain their picture's large scale and scope.

The film tells of an idealistic Shanghai schoolteacher (Tao Jin) separated from his family during the Sino-Japanese War in the '30s and rescued by a shallow heiress (Shu Xiuwen) living in unoccupied Chungking. With a self-knowledge unusual for the heroes of such sagas, Tao admits to himself that he's going to hate the man he's soon to become, secure in his luxurious new life while his devoted wife (Bai Yang) struggles to care for their young son and her elderly mother-in-law (Wu Yin), as they endure unspeakable hardships at the hands of the Japanese and in the chaotic aftermath of World War II.

The second part is easier to take than the first, for it is set in a glittering Shanghai in that brief giddy period between VJ-Day and the Communist takeover in 1949, a time in which the Chinese cinema was remarkably free of censorship, political or sexual. It is implicit in the film that its hero's moral disintegration is as much a comment on Chiang Kai-shek's China as it is on the evils of war. Information: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.

What sly fun Bette Gordon's "Variety" (at the Nuart Wednesday and Thursday with "Stranger Than Paradise") is. In this near-surreal, low-budget Manhattan movie, Gordon's pretty, wholesome-looking heroine (Sandy McLeod), in need of a job, becomes a box-office cashier at a Times Square porno theater, an experience that unleashes her sexual imagination. There's a zany, intensely visual, odyssey-like quality to "Variety" that recalls "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Desperately Seeking Susan." Indeed, John Lurie, the star of the Jim Jarmusch film and also the composer of its sound track, contributed "Variety's" new wave-ish music. "Variety" is even more complex than "Stranger Than Paradise," especially in the challenge it raises to the usual feminist view toward pornography, and is equally deserving of a regular run.

When David O. Selznick discovered Ingrid Bergman, he decided to introduce her to American audiences in "Intermezzo," a 1939 remake of one of her most popular Swedish films. Bergman's naturalness and Leslie Howard's romantic gallantry break through the thick gloss Selznick applied to this classic women's picture about a budding concert pianist who falls in love with a renowned--and married-- violinist. What nearly does the lovers in is the film's score, an insistent pastiche of Grieg, Chopin, Tchaikovsky.

Playing with "Intermezzo" Friday at 1 p.m and again at 8 in the County Museum of Art's "50 Years of Film from the Museum of Modern Art" is "A Bill of Divorcement" (1932), which marked Katharine Hepburn's film debut and the beginning of her long association and friendship with director George Cukor.

The museum's MOMA double feature at 8 p.m. Saturday is "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947), which brought Loretta Young her Oscar. It will be followed by "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," a timelessly enchanting 1938 version of the Mark Twain classic that has just been restored to its original rich Technicolor. Tommy Kelly and Ann Gillis are the perfect Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher as are May Robson as Tom's long-suffering Aunt Polly and Victor Jory as the evil Injun Joe. Even with its scary concluding cave sequence, which was so difficult for James Wong Howe to photograph in shadows, you have to wonder, with regret, whether "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" isn't a mite tame for today's youngsters. Information: (213) 857-6201.

Among the weekend's offerings in the Indian cinema retrospective at UCLA is Saeed Akhtar Mirza's "A Summons for Mohan Joshi" (1984), a dark satire on contemporary corruption and terrible living conditions. A naive elderly man (Bhisham Sahni) decides to sue his landlord for repairs to an ancient Bombay tenement that has been his family's home for decades only to trigger an unending legal and bureaucratic nightmare for himself, his family and his neighbors. Mirza's film is as admirable in its sharp, unsentimental tone as it is awkward in its execution. And at a 130-minute running time it becomes as merciless as Sahni's cruel fate. Information: (213) 825-2345.

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