Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two from Zhou Xuan

Cinema Epoch has released nearly 20 pre-1949 Mainland Chinese films onto DVD over the past few years. Not being particularly knowledgeable about this period in film, I can’t really access whether most of these films are considered classics or not – though even I have heard of a few of these such as Song at Midnight, Spring in a Small Town, The Spring River Flows East and Street Angel. A list of their available films can be found here. A number of the DVD releases contain two films which isn’t a bad deal at all. From the two films I have watched so far, it seems evident that the print sources were not cleaned up and so there are plenty of scratches, occasional poor contrast and missing frames as one might expect from old films like this. It does appear that a few of the DVDs have essays within, but that wasn’t the case with the two I looked at which is a shame because knowing so little about the films, the directors, the actors and the industry it would have been nice having some context given. It especially would have been great if they had translated the credits so I could name the actors, but no such luck. Still it is obviously a terrific opportunity to see many films that have never been available and to get a small peek into the dream machine that was once Shanghai. If anyone has seen and enjoyed some of the other films on the label, feel free to recommend them to me.

Both films that I looked at starred the legendary Zhou Xuan, who was born in 1918 and died at the age of 39 in 1957 in Shanghai. Her life was rather a sad one full of broken relationships, broken promises and mental breakdowns. But she is still cherished today though not so much for her acting as for her singing and is nicknamed “The Golden Throat”. Though she was not the first actress/singer to appear in Chinese film, Xuan is credited by many for popularizing Mandarin pop music in films. Her acting ability seems in dispute – Stephen Teo refers to her as a “rather poor actress” but I thought she had great presence in a film I saw at the HKIFF two years ago, Secrets of the Forbidden City (1948), which was one of her final films and I think she is charming in Street Angel. I admit though that in Dream of the Red Chamber, her character nearly disappears in a state of ennui. The best write-up I found on her was on the Chinese Mirror site.

Here are two quickie reviews on these last two films that have been released by Cinema Epoch.

Dream of the Red Chamber a.k.a. Dream of the Red Mansion
Director: Bu Wancang

Previously, I had already seen two film versions of the classic 18th century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin about the lives and eventual downfall of a privileged Beijing family. It is a book that is near and dear to the Chinese soul and even has a term for the study of it, Redology. There have been many other film versions of the novel as well as TV series and Chinese Operas about the subject. From what I have read about the book, it contains numerous plot lines about a large number of family members, but the three film versions I have seen – this one and the two from the Shaw Brothers (1961, 1977) – focus primarily on the tragic romantic triangle between Jia Baoyu, the young heir of the family, and two of his female cousins – Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. These three films for the most part ignore the rest of the family except as to how they impact this trio.

The story is I am sure familiar to most of you in one form or another so I will be very brief. Baoyu is a very immature young man who very much prefers the company of the women and female servants in his family (“woman is made of water, man is made of mud”). A cousin, Daiyu, comes to stay with the family after her mother dies and she and Baoyu are attracted to one another though in a teasing flirtatious manner. Later the other cousin Baochai shows up as well and a mild pouty competition breaks out between the two women for Baoyu’s attention, but he clearly has been won over by Daiyu. But Baochai’s mother connives to set up a marriage between her daughter and Baoyu and the inevitable tragedy ensues for one and all.

This version unlike the two Shaw films is a straight on drama – not a Huangmei Opera as were those two films (though Zhou Xuan who portrays Daiyu does sing two snippets of songs) and thus it has more time to explore a little around the periphery of the story – in particular showing and strongly hinting at Baoyu’s sexual relations with his female servants and the trouble this causes. Interestingly though, as in the Huangmei versions Baoyu is played by a female. The world shown in the film is completely feminine – other than Baoyu, men rarely intrude and their presence is clearly not wanted. So in that respect it is a rather fascinating glimpse into what goes on behind the private walls, but overall unfortunately the film is much too slowly paced and generates little passion at all. The actors all look too old for this adolescent love story and Baoyu is such a spoiled petulant brat that it is hard to take his love seriously – or that of the women for him. He tragically is unable to grow up until it is too late leading to an ending which is actually the strongest part of the film. Zhou Xuan appears to basically sleepwalk through her role and her fate brings out little emotion from the viewer. I’d recommend either of the Shaw versions over this one. One other version that I would love to see is the 1952 Modern Red Chamber Dream directed by Yue Feng and starring Li Lihua as Daiyu , Ouyang Shafei as Baochai and Yan Jun as Baoyu and is according to Teo a modern day Marxist interpretation of the classic story.

As you may have noted, the film was made in 1944, well after Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese in 1937. Many actors and directors fled Shanghai for other parts of China/Hong Kong or simply refused to work for the Japanese who attempted to continue the film industry. The Japanese set up a coalition of film companies that was called Huaying and the company produced over 100 films during the war years. After the war ended there were many charges of collaboration thrown at many actors and directors who had continued to work under the Japanese, but many of them such as Zhou Xuan, Li Lihua, Ouyang Shafei, Nancy Chan and Bai Guang seemed to have escaped unscathed for the most part – but often wisely moved to Hong Kong.

In the HKIFF book, “Cinema of Two Cities: Hong Kong – Shanghai” there is a fascinating article on the Shanghai film industry during this period. Though the Japanese (with one intriguing exception) tried to force the film industry to focus on films with a pro-Japanese view, for the most part the films made were basic genre entertainment films. One Japanese critic disdainfully wrote “70-80% of the films were about triangular love and family affairs” – Red Chamber fitting this description fairly well. The director Bu Wancang did not fare quite as well. He had been a very popular director for years. One of his hits was Mulan Joins the Army in 1939 starring Nancy Chan. It was a patriotic film about repelling foreign invaders but it was made in the foreign concessions of Shanghai – films that were termed “Orphan Island” films. But once the Japanese took over those areas in 1941, Bu made two propaganda films for the Japanese and after the war his career never got back on track because of the dark cloud he was under. Interestingly, the Japanese attempted to do the same thing once they occupied Hong Kong but everyone refused to co-operate and no films were made.

Street Angel
Director: Yuan Muzhi

Street Angel was a real hook to the cranium from right field as I wasn’t prepared for what an amazing film this is. Not so much for the story which likely falls very neatly into the leftist social realism films of the period, but for the marvelously inventive technique and cinematic eye of the director Yuan Muzhi. This is particularly impressive in that he was only 28 years old at the time and that Street Angel was only his second film – the first by the way sounding more than a little compelling – a dark urban musical called Cityscape (1935). Yuan came from a theatrical background as an actor and this clearly influences his use of the actors in this film. Cinematic influences pile up as well – primarily from the silent era – from the Russian directors to the German expressionists to the sly comedy of Chaplin are all mashed together in this visually delicious potluck. It almost seems as if Yuan is making a silent film with sound – many scenes play out in wordless pantomime and the strongest moments are those of dramatic gestures or stark expressions caught in the amber of the lens. He neatly uses sliding frames sometimes to transition from one scene to another or in one wonderful instance the camera zooms up the opening of a trombone to come out in another location. After the Japanese invaded, Yuan left for Yanan where he joined the Communist Party and after the Civil War, he became quite a big honcho in the film bureaucracy in China. I am not sure if he directed any other films before he died in 1978.

The film begins in a chaotic montage of neon signs, street scenes and nightclub carousing until it settles first on a tall grandiose building only to slowly pan down to the slums of Shanghai where a festive wedding parade is making its way through a narrow crowded street with a marching band leading the way. One of the trumpet players is Chen (Zhao Dan) who is having trouble with the water in his instrument and having his friend Wang (Wei Heling) accidentally stepping on his feet. The shots careen around some more in a montage of onlookers sticking their faces out of windows and doors until the camera settles on a young woman waving to Chen. This is Xiao Hong (Zhou Xuan) who soon has to quickly rejoin her accompanist Wen inside a tea house where she is a singsong girl looking for customer requests. She is clearly not thrilled to be doing this or being with Wen as she plays constantly with her hair and seems totally uninterested in her song. Nevertheless, the songs became giant hits and Zhou Xuan was on her way to being a legend. The lyrics of the songs are shown on screen and were apparently done karaoke style back then so that the audience could sing along and we can happily watch the bouncing ball!

Whether it is not clear from the subtitles on the DVD or whether scenes are missing I can’t say, but from reading other sources it seems that Xiao Hong and her older sister Xiao Yun (Zhao Huishen) have escaped from the Japanese in Manchuria and have settled in Shanghai – but in a circumstance where they are clearly very subservient to a married couple who put them up. This couple makes Hong sing and makes Yun do even worse – she is a street walker always in the dark and on guard from police arrest. How this all came to be I am not sure. Yun’s profession has made her extremely bitter and something of a pariah to her neighbors – but Hong still loves her deeply and Yun is very protective of her little sister.

Gu, a gangster, shows an interest in Hong and her “guardians” set out to sell her to him. Chen though takes her away to another part of town along with his friend Wang and they try and plan their future. Yun later joins them as well and Wang begins to fall for her, but Gu and Wen track them down and tragedy occurs in a strangely abrupt and somewhat inconclusive ending. The final shot is another pan of the statuesque building where the film began as if to say the little lives down below on the street just don't matter.

The story is not really clich├ęd but certainly basic, but everything else makes it the classic it is considered to be. Yuan keeps the film from being too oppressively dark with numerous comic scenes and moments of bonhomie between friends – but clearly his leftist politics are showing. The use of lighting and shadows and the acting is very silent film stylized with broad expressions and dark eye shadow, but very effective – Zhou Xuan is utterly beguiling as the innocent impudent singsong girl with multiple impish expressions crossing her face faster than cars on a freeway, Zhao Huishen as the older sister plays the role almost as a wilting melancholy flower and some of the static shots of her are decimating, Zhao Dan is by turns comic and moving. Zhao Dan had quite the interesting life – during the war he was arrested by a warlord and kept in prison for a number of years, after being released he returned to Shanghai and stayed on in China after the Civil War. He became a well-regarded actor through the 1950’s in some important roles but he was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and jailed for five years. He died in 1980.

Here are three songs from Zhou Xuan.

Wow, some good news for me. Yesterday I received $40 for Jury Duty! That’s my first paycheck in four years! How many DVDs will that buy I wonder?

And I just have to throw in how pleasant it was seeing Obama take the Republicans to school the other day and give them a spanking that should make them sore for weeks. What a bunch of pasty robots in that room with the personality of a lead pipe. I love the way they whined about all the great plans they had to solve everything that no one was paying attention to. Obama had to be polite of course to some degree but I kept hoping he would say – well you guys were in power for 8 years – where were those great plans then? As Ralph Kramden would go "Hummmana Hummmana Hummmana".


Anonymous said...

I absolutely adore Street Angel. It easily one of my all-time favorite films.

I was a little disappointed when I first started picking up the Cinema Epoch DVDs and realized that they were using the same crappy transfers that were used on for a series of VCDs that you used to be able to pick up in SF Chinatown for a couple of bucks. It's probably the best there is at this time, but a lot of these films totally deserve the Criterion treatment.

But big props nonetheless to Cinema Epoch for creating superb English subtitles and new scores for the silent films.

My favorites of the batch include, besides Street Angel: The Big Road / Queen Of Sports, both with Li Lili; and Crossroads / Daybreak, the first with Zhao Dan and the second with Li Lili.

Finally, here's a brief, good introduction to the classics of Shanghai cinema.

Glenn, kenixfan said...

Street Angel sounds awesome!

And I agree with you about the Republicans, though I still want results and not just political theater from Obama.

Brian said...

DD - thanks for all that. Often I approach "classic" films with some trepidation worried that it will not live up to its billing or that time will simply have made it a bit irrelevant but Street Angel blew me away.

GK - he will or it will be disaster time in November! Problem is Obama doesn't have a magic wand as people seem to think. Look at the House - they have passed a ton of legislation - but the Senate and their arcane rules is crazy. Literally the Republicans can stop everything with 41 votes and that is their intention clearly. And then once they are back in power the Dems will return the favor and nothing will ever get done in this country. The Republicans are setting a terrible precident here that could paralyze govt for years. And what pisses me off is that they are getting away with it with the American public.

Anonymous said...

I definitely second the recommendation of Queen of Sports, as well as the semi-remake by MP&GI, "Beauty Parade," featuring Kitty Ting Hao. (Though as far as classic Chinese sports go, I love MP&GI's "Spring Song" most.)

But yes, "Street Angel" is the absolute best. Zhou Xuan is intoxicating. And for a fascinating article about the uncanny life of Zhao Dan, see a recent article by Yingjin Zhang in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas.

And shameless plug: I wrote a "user's guide" to the Cinema Epoch films here:

Brian said...

Shameless plugs are always welcome here! Especially when they give me just what I was looking for! Thanks. Do you know if the upgrade for Spring in a Small Town took place? I didn't see anything about that on the their webpage.

Anonymous said...

Couple of things:

I'm preparing an article for the Chinese Mirror about Yuan Muzhi and his actress-wife Chen Bo'er, but to respond to your wondering whether he made any more movies: "Street Angel" was his second directing effort, and his last. The couple acted the leads in one more movie in 1938, "800 Heroes," one of China's last silents, which was based on a true historical incident, sort of a Chinese "Wake Island." The couple then learned that they, as were many Communist Party members, were targeted for assassination by both the Japanese and the Kuomindang government. They escaped to Yanan, where they joined the Communist forces there. Chen seems to have been the more political of the two, and in 1950 was given a high-ranking position in the new regime's movie bureaucracy, while Yuan prepared to resume filmmaking. One of her first actions was to set up the film school that later became the Beijing Film Academy. But in late 1951, while attending a film conference in Shanghai, she collapsed and died of a heart attack, age 41. After this, Yuan retired from filmmaking, officially for health reasons, but it was widely known that his problems were psychological: every time he set foot on a film set, memories of Chen would come back to him, and he would break down, unable to work. Because of the couple's past dedication to the revolution he was given a position in the bureaucracy and lived out his days without making another picture.

"Street Angel" was the only movie for Zhao Huishen, who played the older of the two sisters. She was a prominent stage actress, and after this one film she returned to the stage. After WW2 she became a university acting teacher, and later a major figure in the PRC Ministry of Culture's department that oversaw theater. She was a victim of the Cultural Revolution (it is believed that fully one-third of the Shanghai film community perished during that era), dying in 1967, age 53.