Searching for Brodsky
Taiwan, 2010, colour/b&w, 16:9, 60 mins.
Director: Xie Jiakun 谢嘉锟.
Revealing documentary on “China Film King,” Russian businessman-filmmaker Benjamin Brodsky.
In 1989 personal materials and a copy of Benjamin Brodsky’s documentary, A Trip through China 经过中国 (1909-12), were discovered by Brodsky’s grandson Ron Borden in the attic of his Los Angeles home. Via LA-based autoparts businessman Wang Xining, they found their way by chance to the Taibei Film Archive, finally shedding some light on a little-known pioneer of Chinese cinema. Taiwan film scholar Liao Jinfeng travels from Taibei to Japan, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, walking in Brodsky’s steps and showing footage of the film to scholars.
For years the shadowy Benjamin Brodsky was known only from two lines in the two-volume The Development of Chinese Cinema 中国电影发展史 (1963) by Cheng Jihua 程季华, in which he was described as an “American film businessman” and the founder of a company that made films in Shanghai and Hong Kong around 1909. (His last name was even transliterated wrongly, as Brasky.) In fact, his activities were reported in US papers like The Los Angeles Times and Variety during the teens but until hard materials came to light by chance in 1989 (including nine reels of his documentary A Trip through China 经过中国, 1909-12) Brodsky’s true position in Chinese cinema was hard to establish. Even then, after the materials ended up in the Taibei Film Archive, it wasn’t until 1995 that a Taiwan film journalist, Zhang Jingbei 张靓蓓, revealed him properly in an article in the China Times 中国时报.
The documentary Searching for Brodsky 寻找布洛斯基 by Xie Jiakun 谢嘉锟, made with Liao Jinfeng 廖金凤, a scholar at the National Taiwan University of Arts (where Xie is a lecturer), is the first to show extensive clips from Brodsky’s well-preserved feature-length documentary – the earliest surviving footage of everyday Chinese life – and dig a little deeper into Brodsky’s past. Typical of early film pioneers, he was basically a showman and businessman, but one with a genuine passion for his subject and for recording life without exoticism or condescension. (One intertitle even sarcastically noted: “The Chinese are fond of tender young bamboo shoots, while the Americans, as usual, prefer the kind of fruits and vegetables that grow in cans.”) He subsequently moved to Japan, where he made the documentary Beautiful Japan, which even included material on minorities.
Brodsky (1877-1960) was a Russian from a poor background who entered the US illegally by boat, worked in a circus, eventually bought it, and then moved to China in 1909. He spoke nine languages and four dialects. Xie’s film drops tantalising other details about him – that he was well-connected in China (the first person to be allowed to shoot in the Forbidden City), that he controlled an exhibition chain of 80 cinemas, that he funded some of the earliest Hong Kong movies – but unfortunately doesn’t go any farther down these biographical avenues. Also, the film thanks in its end credits but never interviews his grandson, Ron Borden, who unearthed the materials in the first place.
The body of the film follows Liao as he travels through Northeast Asia showing Brodsky’s film on his computer – to especial acclaim from scholars in China, who’ve never seen it. Most fascinatingly, it compares footage of Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing shot by Brodsky with how the cities look today; less interesting are the awed comments by scholars, which are basically all the same. More biography on Brodsky himself, and less footage of Liao walking around with his backpack, would have been welcome, as well as an overhawl of the English subtitles and name captions. But at only 60 minutes, the film never drags. Next up for rediscovery: Chinese American director-cum-restaurateur Wu Jinxia 伍锦霞 [Esther Eng]?
[An 84-minute Director’s Cut appeared in 2014.]
Presented by National Taiwan University of Arts Motion Picture Department (TW). Produced by 48ers Production (TW).
Photography: Liao Jingyao. Editing: Hong Jianyao, Xie Jiakun. Music: Liu Fuyuan. Sound: Wu Fan, Luo Xiulian, Liu Fuyuan.
With: Gao Xiaomei, Wang Xining [Calvin Wang], Jing Yingrui [Ray Jiing], Zhang Jingbei, Liao Jinfeng, Okada Kazuo, Okada Masako, Wang Baomin [Frank Wang], Huang Tingfu, Luo Ka [Law Kar], Zhang Jingyue, Li Yizhong, Fang Fang, Lu Hongshi, Zhu Tianwei, Chen Shan, Zhong Dafeng.
Premiere: Taibei Film Festival (Voices from Asia), 2 Jul 2010.
Release: Taiwan, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 5 Jul 2010.)