A New Old Play: Years of a Clown, by David Bax
Qiu Jiongjiong’s A New Old Play has, at times, the feel of an old silent picture. To be clear, it’s actually a quite verbose film but perhaps it gives that particular impression because of the use of thoughtfully crafted title cards. These aren’t quick locaters, daters or chapter headings. On the contrary, the whole film occasionally pauses to switch to a black screen with words on it that, functionally, keep us apprised of the events that are occurring in the specific passage of time. But, more than that, they are poetry, facts reinterpreted as lovely little verses.
As the title suggests, though, this is not a movie about a poet. Then again, it’s not about a playwright, either. Qiu Fu (Yi Sicheng) is an actor—more accurately, a clown—in a theater troupe in Sichuan Province during the middle decades of the twentieth century. A New Old Play tells the story of his life and that of the troupe. Qiu does this in the form of a series of tableaux with dramatically painted backdrops.
There’s such a theatricality to A New Old Play that you could almost imagine it all unfolding underneath a proscenium were it not for the fact that it is also fervently cinematic. Though the entire film takes place in the past (or, at least, a slightly outlandish reimagining of it), Qiu is not shy about making it look like a movie of today. There are short but inhumanly smooth camera moves that suggest the use of motion control. And the lighting and color timing have that brushed nickel texture common to high budget, “serious” streaming series.
In that context, “serious” generally refers to non-genre material. But A New Old Play is as much horror/fantasy as it is historical drama. The conceit is that Qiu Fu has died; in the opening sequence, he is visited by demons who, despite being big fans of his work, are duty bound to escort him to the netherworld. There, he relives the most important moments of his life while waiting to move on from this grimy afterlife way station.
Qiu Fu’s time with the troupe stretches from the pre-WWII Chinese Civil War to the years of Japanese occupation to the Communist Revolution and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live–which uses the story of one family to cover essentially the exact same span of time–it’s a remarkably concise, humanist and powerful overview of history that could double as a teaching tool.
Yet, for a three hour long dramatization of a traumatic and turbulent period of Chinese history, it’s also a surprising amount of fun. Don’t forget that Qiu Fu is a clown. He even has a red nose, though that’s more from drinking than from make-up. A New Old Play is as entertaining to watch as it is deeply moving.