Brian Salter's Blogs:
China through a lens: The National Film Museum


It took a bit of getting there, but after a pretty unexciting bus ride and a five minute walk after that, we pitched up at China’s National Film Museum (中国电影博物馆) located in one of Beijing’s least accessible sections in the north east of the city. You’d think that for something as “important” as this they might possibly have arranged for a bus to go all the way there?

But whinging apart, the museum is actually an amazing place, in an amazing building with an amazing collection – not that it has much English explanatory text, but don’t let that little detail put you off going…

The CNFM is actually the largest professional cinema museum in the world. It was opened in 2005 in celebration of 100 years of Chinese cinema, and designed to showcase the history of Chinese cinema, to host film technology expos, and many academic exchanges and research in order to advance cinema culture both in China and around the globe.

The outside of the building is designed to look like a giant cinema screen with slanted serial structures resembling the effect of a clipboard (or so the blurb would have you believe).

The first basic test, though, is how actually to get into the complex itself. Entrance is free… but you still have to go into a ticket office about 50 metres from the actual entrance to get yourself an entrance ticket. For that you need to show your ID (or passport) – though the girl behind the desk, having asked to see my ID, then didn’t even bother looking at it!

After that you go out the same way you went in, turn right, turn right after another 50 metres and show your ticket to a bored looking entry guard before wandering into an almost empty building (well, it was when I went) where you wander past a number of famous Chinese film posters…

The entrance to the museum also features autographs of famous film stars and directors from all over the world, who attended the museum's opening.

The blurb also boasts a number of superlatives: for instance the CNFM occupies an area of 65 acres, with an architectural space of 38,000 square metres. If you want to walk through all the exhibition halls in the museum (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), you have to walk almost 3kms.

Its 20 exhibition halls tell the story of 100+ years of the Chinese Film industry and its collection houses 1500 films, and 4300 stills from works of 450 filmmakers. As you walk into a massive circular atrium you are hit by a sea of red or green or blue as the light walls that flank a spiral staircase change colour, whilst a giant screen plays movie clips.

The 20 exhibition halls are organized chronologically in order to explain the various periods of Chinese cinema, starting with pre-movie times when light shows of shadow puppetry were all the rage.

Models and posters then move on to some of the gadgets used to display moving pictures, so that the visitor understands the principles of image retention on the retina, before addressing film making itself.

The Frenchman Louis Lumière is often credited as inventing the first motion picture camera in 1895. But in truth, several others had made similar inventions around the same time as him. What he did invent was a portable motion-picture camera, film processing unit and projector called the Cinématographe, three functions covered in one invention.

The world of cinema debuted on 28th December 1895 when the Brothers Lumière showed a 50 second motion picture of workers leaving their factory, along with seven other ‘shorts’, at the Grand Café in Paris.

China first experimented with movie-making ten years later with the production of a 3-minute Peking Opera short, "Ding Jun Shan," or "Conquering Jun Mountain" which is recreated in a model set. China’s first sound-movie was made in 1930.

Overall, half of the 20 halls are devoted to the art of films, naturally focusing their main attention on the history of Chinese cinema and the achievements of individual filmmakers. Two of these halls are all about films from Hong Kong and Macao and also Taiwan. Anyone who thought that Chinese films were simply kungfu and period dramas will have to think again when they see the wide selection of films that were made.

Naturally there is a section on the use of film made by the emerging Communist Party of China for early propaganda purposes and for inspiring the toiling masses.

Followers of this column will know that your favourite blogger takes a delight in many of Beijing’s sometimes-nonsensical signs; and true to form, the signmakers of this museum have apparently been relying on Google Translate once again. Whoever heard of a museum, for instance, that instructs people not to loiter as they go past the exhibits? (Apparently in this case what they actually wanted to make sure of was that visitors didn’t actually sit down on the display!)

Schizophrenia also rears its head here, since you are instructed that you must handle items with care – just so long as you don’t actually touch them!

The remaining 10 halls of the museum, which are located on the fourth floor, deal with the actual mechanics of film production, from shooting and editing, music composition, special effects and animation. Models show various early cinema camera tricks, such as reverse-action shots and using graphics on a piece of glass to simulate difficult to build sets.

There’s even a section entitled The Future of Film – which is a bit ironic given that in the past few weeks it has been announced that film is to be phased out of cinemas around the world entirely within the next two years and only digital movies will be produced.

Without a doubt, my favourite sections dealt with some of the equipment used in cinematography, comprising a vast array of movie cameras, projectors, lighting, editing machines, special effects, recording, developing and printing.

There was even a glass cabinet containing Nagra sound recording machines – which I had used in my early BBC days. And joy-of-joys, a Studer tape machine like we also used at the Beeb – though I somehow suspect the person who set this one up had never operated such a machine himself! (Hint: a full 7” tape reel feeding an open reel on the right? I think not! hahaha!)

No film museum would be complete without a theatre, and the China National Film Museum is no exception. It has an IMAX theatre, a digital projection theatre, and three 35mm projection theatres. (Fact for followers of Trivial Pursuit: the first Chinese IMAX film was “Chang Jiang, The Great River Of China” made in 1999.)

The IMAX screen is 27 metres wide and 21 metres high and, of course, uses 65mm film, which is transferred to an even bigger 70mm for projection. Films are screened Tuesday-Sunday, and tend to attract large audiences. It is said that when Avatar debuted in IMAX, the theatre managed to serve about 10,000 people in back-to-back showings.

Of course, now that film is fast being phased out, and with digital technology very much the wave of the future, it will be interesting to see what becomes of IMAX. The museum doesn’t (yet) have anything to say on this point; but over in the US, IMAX and Kodak are hoping by 2013 to bring digital theatrical projection to the next level using laser technology. Those in the know reckon that 3D film projected using this laser technology is the next “big thing” to hit the industry.

Only time, as they say, will tell.

Bus 402 from the Central Business District goes all the way there