Spring Silkworms

dir. Cheng Bugao

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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This early classic of Golden Age Shanghai cinema echoes Visconti's classic La Terra Trema in its beautifully rendered story of a humble silk-farming family struggling to be free of debt to exploitative middlemen.


Hailed as one of the first successful attempts to weave progressive politics into Chinese popular cinema, Spring Silkworms is as notable for its exquisite attention to the details of rural life as it is for its revolutionary spirit. Scripted by the greatest screenwriters of the day, Cai Chusheng and Xia Yan, from the (decidedly unmilitant) short story by May 4th writer Mao Dun, Spring Silkworms follows a humble silk-farming family struggling to be free of debt to exploitative middlemen (shades of Visconti's classic La Terra Trema). While bristling with rage at the destructive macroeconomic forces brought on by late-stage colonialism, the film never sacrifices empathy to ideology; the Marxist message is further modulated by First Generation master Cheng Bugao's lyrical depictions of local farming practices and the gorgeous Zhejiang countryside. Indeed, Cheng's luminous landscape sequences (influenced by ancient scroll painting) attests to Spring Silkworms' enormous continuing importance: regarding nature as virtually a character in itself, the film anticipates similar strategies in such later masterpieces as Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth. "A milestone in the development of Chinese, and indeed world, cinema" (Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics Since 1949).