“A new play always tells an ancient tale” according to an intertitle a little more than half way into Qiu Jiongjiong’s three-hour Brechtian epic of mid-20th century Chinese history as witnessed by a Sichuan Opera performer, A New Old Play (椒麻堂会, Jiāo Má Táng Huì). Inspired by the life of his grandfather, Qiu’s absurdist drama is a cradle to grave journey through turbulent times but also a questioning of the nature of art at the intersection of politics and commerce, its uses and misuses in a constantly evolving society. 

As the film opens a pair of grim reapers kick start a pedal bike rickshaw and deliver a summons from the King of Hell to Qiu Fu (Yi Sicheng), now in his 70s one of the finest clowns of the Sichuan Opera. Qiu Fu does not want to accept that he is dead and tries to run away but running away from death will always be a futile endeavour. Oxey and Horsey will escort him to the Ghost City and the afterlife where he will be relieved of all his pain and suffering after drinking Mother Meng’s Soup of Oblivion. But if it all just disappears in the end, what was the point of it all? Two young lovers discuss between them their immediate fate and decide to stay on in limbo where they still remember their love. Qiu Fu wonders how he’s supposed to perform Sichuan Opera for the King of Hell if all his memories and long years of perfecting his craft have been taken away, but is told that each of us has a “secret code” that can never be erased his presumably being clowning. When everything else is gone, Sichuan Opera will survive. 

Then again Qiu Fu has found himself playing many different roles in the course of his life beginning with plucky orphan, convincing former nationalist soldier turned stage performer Pocky (Qiu Zhimin) to train him up as an apprentice. Pocky meanwhile will turn out to be on the wrong side of history, a Nationalist loyalist quickly outmanoeuvred by the times in which he lives. One moment, the troupe is performing pro-Nationalist patriotic fare with titles such as “The Patriot Beggar” and “Behead Ma Miao” crying “down with traitors” in front of signs which say “save the nation fight communism” only to find them replaced by those which read “save the nation down with Chiang Kai-shek”. A fearful Pocky sends the troupe to Taiwan but discovers Sichuan Opera doesn’t travel as well as he’d assumed, the actors quickly reduced to begging and finding even that somewhat competitive. 

Qiu Fu’s greatest performance may even have been when dragged onstage by the communists as an example during a lecture on opium addiction having been forced to endure going cold turkey, claiming that his Lenin suit is far superior to the fine robes he once wore as an opium addict. The “theatre of joy” is now “the people’s theatre” but the promised new era almost immediately disappoints. Red brick buildings sit incongruously amid the traditional houses with their ornate tiled roofs while Oxey and Horsey lurk forever in the shadows waiting to escort those succumbing to the famines provoked by the Great Leap Forward though even they are afraid to use their rickshaw in this age of austerity. No longer the representatives of a new world, the troupe finds itself on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution, Pocky branded a reactionary warlord while others are forced to wear signs reading “theatre tyrant” or “gangster” only for Qiu Fu to turn his humiliation into a show clowning for the local children who giggle at them in their funny hats as they stand in the courtyard in front of the theatre displaying their sins for all to see. Before too long Qiu Fu is forced to brick himself up inside a pig sty while his wife (Guan Nan) is encouraged to divorce him testifying to his faults before a judgemental panel of ideological purists. Once rehabilitated he must once again play the beggar, cast as a villain forevermore. 

Qiu Fu’s memories seems to end soon after the Cultural Revolution though he must have lived on a little longer, the story of his life told to a series of ghosts caught up in a kind of bureaucratic hell apparently undocumented in the land between life and death. Now you see him, now you don’t, Qiu Fu’s life both eternal and gone an instant. Using a series of deliberately theatrical stage sets, Qiu’s beautifully ethereal production design is somewhere between Roy Andersson and Arthur Rackham’s Brothers Grimm in its oneiric mists and pale-faced ghosts, Qiu Fu always sporting a bright red nose and gnome-like little red beanie accompanied by a pair of oversize glasses to remind us of his age. Imbued with an ironic sense of humour, the tale is sometimes broken by a series of Brechtian intertitles written in the rhythms of Sichuan Opera the techniques of which Qiu repurposes to fantastic effect, boats travelling on seas of silk, or small boys floating away on clouds above model cities and armies at war. Is it life or death that’s a dream? Both or neither perhaps it’s all the same a cyclical opera to be performed in perpetuity telling an old story in a new way from here until eternity. 

A New Old Play screens in New York March 18 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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