Reviving films and preserving their history

Lightbox Film Center and the importance of film preservation

2 minute read
Two dance in a dim room, neon lights outside the window. The man is in loungewear, the woman wears a leopard print dress
Docufiction film 'Life is Cheap' is an energetic, experimental portrait of pre-handover Hong Kong. (Image courtesy of Lightbox Film Center.)

UArts’ Lightbox Film Center will premiere a never-before-seen director’s cut of Wayne Wang’s Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive on Friday, March 4, to kick off its new film preservation program. Lightbox, originally an independent theater operating out of West Philadelphia, found a home at UArts in early 2020. The film center’s director and curator Jesse Pires says that film preservation and archiving is a “logical next step” in expanding both its exhibition capabilities and its mission to highlight diverse, cutting-edge cinema from underrepresented filmmakers.

Preservation ain’t cheap

Film preservation’s importance lies in its revival of access to cultural artifacts that are rare or are at risk of being lost to the world, either due to physical deterioration of the film itself or due to the movie falling out of distribution. Lightbox is not officially a film archive “yet,” says Pires, but the organization plans to build an archive here in Philly over time, with a vested interest in preserving the history and legacy of filmmaking in this city.

Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive is a docufiction film following a Chinese-American courier who arrives in Hong Kong to deliver a suitcase to one of the city’s criminal bosses. An action-packed crime film dotted with tableau vivant-style interludes, Life Is Cheap… is an energetic, experimental portrait of pre-handover Hong Kong.

The seminal Wang film was first released in 1989. However, Wang, a heavyweight director with credits like The Joy Luck Club, Eat A Bowl of Tea, and Maid in Manhattan, never felt fully satisfied with the final cut. Lightbox oversaw the restoration of the original film to a digital, 4K format, and Wang then re-edited the restored film to create a separate director’s cut that better fits his vision. These restored cuts of Life Is Cheap… are the result of a collaboration between Lightbox, Berkley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, and distributor Arbelos Films.

Lightbox is currently in talks to partner with major film archives both in the US and internationally, says Pires of the preservation program’s future. The film center is next slated to work with director and actor Richard Beymer (best known for his roles in Twin Peaks and 1961’s West Side Story) in restoring and re-cutting his 1973 experimental documentary The Innerview.

What, When, Where

Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive (Director’s Cut). $8-$10. Written by Spencer Nakasako, Amir Mokri, and Wayne Wang. Directed by Wayne Wang. World premiere on Friday, March 4, 2022 at 7pm; restored original cut shows on Saturday, March 5, at 2pm. (215) 717-6477 or

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