The British Film Masters Retrospective 2023 closed its curtains in Shanghai, here is our exclusive coverage.

Last weekend, the meticulously curated British Film Masters Retrospective, organised by the Shanghai Art Film Federation, came to a successful close in Shanghai. Over the course of half a month, the federation introduced audiences to 12 classic films by 11 British directors. These works not only broadly showcased the diversity of British cinematic art, but also highlighted the directors’ profound insights into human psychology, society, and cultural phenomena. From classic psychological thrillers to social satires, from poetic romances in film to exquisite adaptations of literary works, the multifaceted nature of British cinema was fully displayed.

Audience crowd at the British Film Masters Retrospective in Shanghai, September 2023


Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense and Thriller Films

Alfred Hitchcock, a director who enjoys widespread acclaim among Chinese moviegoers, had two of his works showcased in this British Masters Exhibition: Spellbound and Strangers on a Train. Both films demonstrate Hitchcock’s mastery of the thriller genre, particularly his ability to create tension and suspense while delving deep into the complexities of human psychology. In Spellbound, Hitchcock ventured early into the realm of psychological thrillers, successfully melding psychoanalysis and mental disorder to explore the dark facets of human psychology.

Meanwhile, Strangers on a Train unfolds a spine-chilling tale through seemingly ordinary dialogue, revealing how trivial actions and words can lead to unpredictable and terrifying consequences. Hitchcock’s cinematic art is not just a feast for the eyes and emotions, but also a deep exploration into the human psyche. Through rich visual techniques and subtle insights into human nature, he successfully touches on the deepest and most secretive fears and desires buried within people. These common themes and techniques not only solidify Hitchcock’s immortal status in film history, but also make his works a profound commentary on human nature and social psychology.

Beyond a Child’s Perspective: Philosophical Reflections on Society, Human Nature, and Civilisation

In this screening, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol and Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies collectively showcase the British film industry’s expertise in revealing the complexities of the adult world through the lens of childhood. While both films focus on children’s experiences, they transcend the straightforward narrative of coming-of-age stories and serve as deep philosophical reflections on society, human nature, and civilisation.

The Fallen Idol exemplifies Carol Reed’s extraordinary directorial talent. Not only commercially successful, the film has also received indisputable praise for its literary value. Through the innocent yet piercing perspective of a young boy, the film exposes the moral ambiguity and ethical complexities of the adult world. It’s a thought-provoking film that prompts the audience to reconsider the cost of growing up and the uncertainties of entering adulthood.

Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies, on the other hand, infuses modern drama’s avant-garde spirit into cinema through its compelling story and visual impact. The film delves into the frailty and eventual collapse of social structure and civilised rules when a group of children are stranded on a deserted island. Not merely an unflinching portrayal of the darker aspects of human nature, the movie is also a scathing analysis of the foundations of societal civilisation.

The Multidimensional Complexity of Human Nature

Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, Joseph Losey’s Accident, and John Schlesinger’s Darling each delve into the multidimensional complexity of social hierarchy, moral ethics, and human nature. These films explore these intricate subjects across different historical and cultural settings. Kind Hearts and Coronets skillfully deconstructs ingrained concepts of social class and moral ethics through humor and satire, enabling audiences to have a more profound understanding of these seemingly simple yet actually complex social phenomena. The film’s re-screening not only allows a new generation to revisit this classic of British cinema history but also imbues it with new contemporary significance.

Joseph Losey’s Accident delves deeply into the subtle relationship between love, power, and morality. The film intricately explores the disappointments and confusions of middle-aged men, revealing underlying moral and ethical complexities that can be unsettling. This film is undoubtedly a comprehensive decoding of the complexities of human nature and social norms.

John Schlesinger’s Darling peels away the layers of 1960s British society and culture from the perspective of a young woman. It’s not just a critical examination of the social and moral norms of the time but also a vivid social and cultural panorama. Each of these three films showcases a high degree of complexity and depth in their examinations of social class, moral ethics, and human nature, reflecting the British film masters’ precise and insightful observations of intricate human emotions and social phenomena in unique but mutually resonant ways.

Gender, Identity, Time, and Love

While Sally Potter’s Orlando and David Lean’s Summertime stand alone in terms of theme and emotional texture, they both offer profound explorations into some of the most complex and sensitive elements of human experience—gender, identity, time, and love.

Sally Potter’s Orlando is a grand epic that traverses time and culture, allowing viewers to rediscover themselves and others in a diverse, complex world. The protagonist Orlando is a gender-fluid character, providing the film with a unique, multidimensional lens to explore issues of gender and identity. It’s a story not just about time, history, and power, but also about how individuals are understood and shaped within the broader contexts of society and history.

Through Orlando’s eyes, we see the constraints, oppressions, and opportunities faced by women in different cultures and epochs. This perspective not only amplifies the diversity of women’s voices but also unveils the complex ways gender impacts both the individual and society. The film, with its innovative and feminist perspective, challenges traditional film narratives, achieving considerable success commercially, critically, and socially. It not only expands the boundaries of cinematic art but also ignites a societal dialogue about gender, identity, and history.

In contrast, David Lean’s Summertime centers on a middle-aged woman experiencing a spiritual awakening during a brief trip to Venice. The film sensitively captures the multiple dilemmas that women at this life stage may face: the loss of unrealised dreams, the anxiety over the passage of time, and a reevaluation of personal worth and identity. Offering a rich and nuanced portrayal of women’s emotional worlds, the film emphasises the importance of a female perspective in deciphering the complexities of human emotions and societal phenomena.

Metaphor, War, and Philosophical Discourse

Though Martin Rosen’s Watership Down Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death, and Derek Jarman’s War Requiem vary significantly in form and style, they each display impressive creativity and depth in exploring profound themes of human nature, survival, and social structure.

Watership Down uses the story of a group of rabbits seeking a new home as a metaphor, exploring universal issues of courage, freedom, and community survival in a parable-like fashion. Rich in imagination, the film constructs a highly complex worldview, making us reevaluate both the cruelty and beauty of the natural world and challenging our traditional perspectives on courage, sacrifice, and community.

Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death is more like an in-depth philosophical conversation, full of challenges and revelations. The film ingeniously utilises the exchange between a robot and a journalist as a narrative framework, touching upon a series of thought-provoking themes—the moral dilemmas of war, the multiple facets of human nature, and the philosophical and ethical issues that artificial intelligence may bring. Through these interwoven topics, the film offers a novel way to scrutinise and interpret the complex, multidimensional structures of human society and civilisation.

Derek Jarman’s War Requiem delves deeply into the themes of war, death, and human tragedy through multiple layers of sight and sound. Breaking away from traditional narrative constraints, the film does not employ any dialogue but relies entirely on music, visuals, and performances to convey its message and emotions. This artistic choice not only gives the work an avant-garde and experimental atmosphere but also effectively guides the audience into a psychological space for profound introspection about human nature and societal misfortune.

Director Arthur Jones: Cinema as a Cross-Cultural Art Form

Director Arthur Jones attended the British Film Masters Retrospective 2023 in Shanghai, photo by Ketong Ou.

Arthur Jones, a British filmmaker and an old friend of the UCFC in Shanghai, director od documentary The Six, which we distributed in the UK. He purposefully bought tickets to attend the British Film Masters Retrosepctive. Arthur Jones chose to watch the animated classic Watership Down. He recalled that the last time he watched the film was in his childhood, and he was captivated by its theme song “Bright Eyes,” which topped the UK music charts for six consecutive weeks and became a household tune. “Upon re-watching Watership Down, I discovered many metaphors I hadn’t noticed as a child,” Arthur Jones said. “This is an animated film not just for kids; it conveys messages that transcend generations. Great films are like that—you gain something new every time you watch, no matter your age.”

During this big-screen revisit of the classic, Arthur Jones was amased by modern restoration technologies. He remembers that when he watched this movie on a TV screen during his childhood, the picture quality was far less vivid. After meticulous 4K restoration, the 1978 film looks incredibly vibrant on today’s big screens, almost making viewers forget its age. On another note, as a British who has lived in Shanghai for over 20 years, Arthur Jones was deeply moved and proud of the enthusiastic response to the film festival. “I am delighted to see an audience here that loves and appreciates art films. In this era of advanced internet and streaming, people are still willing to leave their homes and come to the cinema to experience the magic of classic films, demonstrating the indescribable allure of cinema as an art form.”

Arthur Jones expressed his satisfaction with the film association for organising the British Masters Retrospective, allowing Chinese audiences to enjoy more British classics on the big screen. This point particularly excited him because, even in the environment where he grew up in Britain, there were some classic works, like Lord of the Flies, that he had never had the opportunity to watch. The festival not only gave him the chance to catch up on these films but also showed him the strong interest and warm reception from Chinese audiences for British art films.

“In these times full of uncertainty, skepticism, and social divide, cultural and artistic exchanges become even more crucial,” Arthur Jones continued. “Film has a unique charm; it can transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. More importantly, at various moments, it can offer indescribable solace to our souls. Through this festival, I am more convinced than ever that, be it in Britain or China, films have a cross-cultural, cross-border resonance and impact.”

Back to the Big Screen: A Resonance Between Chinese and British Audiences

The British Film Masters Retrospective not only successfully attracted a large domestic audience but also received high levels of recognition on multiple fronts. Audiences learned about the event in various ways—through social media, friend recommendations, and specialised film fan groups—reflecting their enthusiasm and initiative for cinema. One attendee noted, “I found out about the film season without even actively looking for it because ardent film fans share such events in their circles, and I also saw articles on public accounts.”

When it came to film selection, the audience gave exceptionally high praise, generally considering the choices to be of leading domestic standards and highlighting the organisers’ excellent aesthetic judgment. In addition, audiences also expressed their fondness for the style of British directors, noting the warmth, delicacy, and ornate expressiveness that come through in their works. One audience member noted the diversity of the films showcased, “not only are there household classics like Hitchcock, but also rarely seen art films starring Swinton.”

Sino-British Confluence: Our Vision

This British Film Masters Retrospective not only provided a high-quality cinematic experience but also fostered a professional and passionate atmosphere among film enthusiasts. The success of the special season underlines the influence that the Shanghai alliance has had in promoting film culture since its establishment in 2013. With its core philosophy of “Rooted in Cinema, Anchored in Art,” the organisation not only strives to incorporate art films into the everyday viewing experiences of Shanghai audiences but also promotes the internationalisation of excellent domestic art films.

The UK-China Film Collab is keen to collaborate with the Shanghai Art Film Federation, continually encouraging debate and discussion via film. We look forward to providing richer and higher-quality cinematic experiences for audiences in the future, while also fostering deeper interactions and collaborations between the UK and China in the realms of film as art, culture and business.