As one of the rare Chinese silent movies to receive distribution in the West, Hou Yao’s 1927 adaptation of Wang Shifu’s landmark 13th century romantic drama is seen at something of a disadvantage today. The print used for this DVD release is clearly not restored and appears to be missing footage (the ending, in particular, is strangely abrupt). Plus, the intertitles are rather confusing with a mix of Chinese characters plus French and English translations sharing a screen.

However, this compelling tale of a young scholar falling in love with a prime minister’s daughter in the midst of a brigand raid on a Buddhist temple provides a fascinating glimpse at the genesis of Chinese cinema. The production values are mesmerizing, the costuming is opulent to behold, and the electrifying fight sequences are a clear inspiration for today’s Chinese martial arts extravaganzas.

One sublime contemporary touch is a new music score by Toshiyuki Hiraoka, which beautifully underscores the on-screen action in the most subtle musical style imaginable.

Subtlety, however, is absent from many of the performances, where emotion is frequently conveyed by several actors with the rolling of eyes, wiggling of eyebrows, and shaking of the skull in the manner of a bobblehead doll in a hurricane.

If “Romance of the Western Chamber” is uneven, it nonetheless fills an important void in the appreciation of Chinese cinema and the silent movie era.

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