A Soul Haunted by Painting

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A Soul Haunted by Painting

画魂 (Hua Hun)

China/France, 1994, 131’, Mandarin
Directed by: Huang Shuqin
Supervising Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Min Anqi, Huang Shuqin, Li Zhiyu, Liu Heng, Shi Nan, Zhang Yimou
Photography (color): Lv Yue
Art Direction: Chen Chunlin, Zheng Changfu
Music: Liu Yuan
Producers: Huang Sunyi, Gilles Thompson, Tu Yuling, Yu Benzheng
Executive Producer: Zhang Yimou
Production Companies: Shanghai Film Studio, CFCC, Canal +, Classic Film France Productions, Golden Films Ltd.
Cast: Gong Li (Pan Yuliang), Fang Cen (Xiao Lan), Da Shichang (Wang Shouxin), Derek Yee (Pan Zanhua), Gao Junxia (He Qiong) 

Date of First Release in Territory: March 12th, 1994


At the beginning of the 1990s, during the period of economic reforms which were pushing the film industry, among other sectors, in the direction of a profit-based mindset, director Huang Shuqin decided that the time had come to make a film which, unlike her previous work, could also have commercial value. Interested since the beginning of her career in exploring the condition of women – her Woman, Demon, Human (1987) about a female opera star who plays male roles is considered the first Chinese feminist film – Huang chose for her new film Shi Nan’s biography of the artist Pan Yuliang (1902-1977), a singular figure in the Chinese art world. An orphan from a poor family in Anhui, Yuliang had been sold as a teenager to a brothel where she met Pan Zanhua, a cultured and progressive-minded official who took her first as a concubine and then as his second wife. Yuliang moved to Shanghai with her husband where she studied Western art at the Shanghai Art School until the institute was closed in protest against the nude life drawing lessons that were held there. A few years later, unable to get pregnant, Pan Yuliang moved to France to continue her studies, leaving her husband in China with his first wife so they could have a child. After winning a prize in Paris for a nude self-portrait and becoming an established artist in Europe, she returned to China in 1929, where, despite being awarded a professorship at Nanjing University, she clashed with the closed-minded and hostile mentality: the prejudice elicited by her past as a prostitute, contempt for Western art, misogynistic attitudes in the academic environment and Yuliang’s predilection for nude painting made life so difficult for her that in 1937 she decided to return to Paris where, despite her success and notoriety, she lived a solitary life until her death in 1977. 
The film reinterprets Pan Yuliang’s story in a way that, while certainly not realistic, responds to the conventions of melodrama, adding several possibly fictitious characters and events which further dramatise a life lived with passion but also with great pain. The role of Pan Yuliang is played by Gong Li, who was already a star after starring in several films by Zhang Yimou – who is credited as co-director and executive producer of the film – and her charismatic presence added an element of sensuality and passion. Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Yee – who was mainly working as an actor at the time – played the role of Pan Zanhua. The film contains several nude scenes which initially caused the film to be banned by the authorities, but the debate about the film this triggered only increased its notoriety. The film was partially shot in France and therefore considered a French-Chinese co-production. Although some aspects of A Soul Haunted by Painting make it a more commercial and perhaps less interesting product than Huang Shuqin’s other films on the theme of the female condition, in the director’s words the film is an “examination of the despicable national mindset that refuses to recognise the full personhood of women,” and therefore a necessary and timely work.


Huang Shuqin

The daughter of famed playwright and director Huang Zuolin and actress Jin Yunzhi, Huang Shuqin (1939-2022) graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1964. Her career was interrupted for a decade by the Cultural Revolution. She started working again in the late 1970s. Considered one of China’s foremost filmmakers, starting with her 1981 debut film Contemporary People, Huang Shuqin explored a variety of themes, but especially the status of women. Many of her films deal with themes relating to female psychology, and her Woman, Demon, Human (1987) is considered the first Chinese feminist film. 


1981 – Contemporary People 
1983 – Forever Young  
1984 – Childhood Friends 
1986 – A Border-Crossing Operation 
1987 – Woman, Demon, Human 
1994 – A Soul Haunted by Painting 
1996 – I Have My Daddy, Too 
2000 – The Village Whore 
2001 – Hey, Frank 

Maria Barbieri
Film Director: HUANG Shuqin
Year: 2018
Running time: 131'
Country: China