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Yellow Earth and The Trials and Tribulations of Screening 35mm in the 21st Century

As the person charged with the task of seeking out prints for films screened in the Walker Cinema, I’ve found historically that 35mm prints from the 1980s are the hardest to find. Why this is is anyone’s guess; perhaps films from the 80s aren’t old enough to be considered “classic,” but aren’t recent enough to […]


As the person charged with the task of seeking out prints for films screened in the Walker Cinema, I’ve found historically that 35mm prints from the 1980s are the hardest to find. Why this is is anyone’s guess; perhaps films from the 80s aren’t old enough to be considered “classic,” but aren’t recent enough to be still lying around archives. This black-hole-of-a-decade rule has certainly been true of the last several Walker film retrospectives: for the Mike Leigh Regis Dialogue and Retrospective, it was High Hopes (1988) that proved exceeding difficult to locate, and for Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple (1984). For the current series The People’s Republic of Cinema: 60 Years of China on Film, it was the 1984 Chen Kaige film Yellow Earth.

By no means an obscure filmmaker, Chen Kaige is probably best known for his 1993 Oscar-nominated film Farewell My Concubine.  His earlier Yellow Earth announced the arrival of the so-called Fifth Generation Filmmakers in China, and is typically listed in the top five on “Best of” lists for Chinese films ever made. I did not predict that this major work by this well-known filmmaker would be so difficult to secure for the series—but it was.

To give a glimpse into the process by which film exhibitors can go through to screen films, and provide a sense of the rarity of the 35mm medium, I present to you my epic battle for Yellow Earth—in timeline form. My search began on July 1.

  • 7/1: I always start with the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). The company credits section for Yellow Earth lists International Film Circuit as the distribution company for the film. I send an inquiry to them. A general Google search for “Yellow Earth” and “screening” lets me know that Harvard Film Archive screened it last spring, so I also email a colleague there and await a response.
  • 7/2: International Film Circuit no longer holds the rights or prints of the film, and suggests I contact the British Film Institute (BFI).
  • 7/7: BFI informs me that they only have a 16mm print of Yellow Earth.
  • 7/14: I retrieve an archived file from the 1993 Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with Chen Kaige, for which we screened Yellow Earth. At that time, we dealt with an L.A-based company called China Film Import & Export Inc. for the print. I shoot off an email to them.
  • 7/22: Second email to China Film Import & Export. No response. When I try to phone them, I find the number disconnected.
  • 7/25: I email the China Film Archive (in Beijing), inquiring about several titles for the film series.
  • 7/28: The China Film Archive indeed has a print! They will look into its availability.
  • 7/30: The Harvard Film Archives replies to the Walker Associate Curator that they got the 35mm print from the China Film Archive, but have also heard of a print in Scotland and will inquire on our behalf.
  • 7/31: Harvard reports that the Scotland venue is in the process of sending the print to an archive.
  • 8/8: Still no word from the China Film Archive. I send a prodding email.
  • 8/11: As was suggested by the BFI, I inquire with the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA)  in England. They ask for a written request.
  • 8/17: Bad news. The China Film Archive finally gets back in touch to say that the film is already booked elsewhere–-with the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China looming, many film series are planned around the world.
  • I step up my efforts and send a follow up email to the ICA.
  • 8/31: Another follow up email to the ICA.
  • 9/2: ICA replies to say they no longer have the rights to the film. I call her directly and get a disgruntled response that in the past ICA has had to pay fees when other sites screened the film. I assure her that this would not be the case with us, and finally get her to agree to let me know who now holds the print so we can contact them directly.
  • 9/8: More nudging and she sends me to Perivale.
  • 9/9: The response: “We do not have a print at Perivale. The only copy on our system is out since Feb 2007 at Filmhouse Edinburgh!” At this point, I have forgotten that Harvard had referred us to Filmhouse Cinema in Edinburgh back in July. I call Edinburgh only to find out that the print had been sitting at their Cinema for a long time, and when Harvard called them on our behalf it made them think it really should be sent to a European archive for proper storage. It seems that our very inquiry may have made screening the film impossible, as the process of the new archive accepting it, inspecting it and sorting out rights issues will take more time than we have at this point.
  • 9/11: Shot-in-the dark query to the Chinese Taipei Film Archive. No dice.
  • 9/18: I’m starting to panic. I look up Chen Kaige’s agent on IMDB. The agency refers me to a Moonstone Entertainment, which produced Chen’s The Promise. They tell to contact the director of the company, “Etchie,” to whom I send a rambling email about Yellow Earth. No response.
  • 9/24: It’s gut-check time. The brochure for the People’s Republic of Cinema program is due at the printers. We scramble for a screening backup, and the best we can find is a DVD with both English and Japanese subtitles. I cross my fingers, and optimistically keep the 35mm listing in the brochure’s Yellow Earth description.
  • 10/8: Our University of Minnesota co-presentation partner Jason McGrath inquires on our behalf on several international listserves (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture and the Chinese Cinema List). A response comes in from someone who had previously worked at the USC School of Cinematic Arts archive, who says they had a print in the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. A 35mm print inside the country??? Hurrah! But, this news proves too good to be true. Upon inspection it’s discovered that the print is in such bad shape it’s unscreenable.
  • Another response to the listserve: “Have they tried the BFI and the National Film Archive in the UK, or its equivalent in Canberra, Australia?” Well, this was interesting. I looked up the Australian archive and found The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I send an email.
  • 10/9: Success! The NFSA agreed to allow us to screen their print. Finding a print can be only half the battle, as rights must be cleared, and several more frantic emails to the China Film Archive to ascertain the rights holder ensued. In the midst of this, as our screening date creeped closer and closer, I receive a call that an overseas package has arrived…Yellow Earth.

I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy Yellow Earth in glorious 35mm….

Now, on to the next series!

Special thanks to the British Film Institute, Contemporary Films (London), Fortissimo Films (Amsterdam), Celluloid Dreams (Paris), XStream Pictures (Beijing), and filmmaker Ying Liang for providing the films in this series. Very, very special thanks to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

  • Film and Video » Yellow Earth and The Trials and Tribulations of …

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Daniel says:

    Wooow, I will now feel really guilty for missing this tomorrow night. People honestly owe it to you to see this for as much work you put into it!

  • TCFilmGeek says:

    Don’t miss Chen Kaige’s YELLOW EARTH on 35mm tonight at the Walker. Read this amazing print search chronicle to see why

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • brent says:

    what chinese cinema list did you inquire with? would love to join it.

  • Jenny Jones says:

    Jason McGrath reports that it’s actually called Chinese Cinema Digest. Here’s the contact info:

  • brent says:

    ahh yes, our good friend shelly kraicer’s list. thanks!

  • Marian Luntz says:

    I salute you for providing this window into a film programmer’s world! It’s not just all fun and picking/showing the movies we like. Onward to my personal challenge, finding a subtitled print of Percy Adlon’s CELESTE.
    All best from Houston, a day before snow is predicted,
    Marian Luntz
    Curator, Film and Video
    The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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