Street Angel 馬路天使 (1937)


Director: Yuan Muzhi 袁牧之

Studio: Mingxing 明星

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama / Comedy

Running Time: 91 minutes

Recommended. Perhaps the pinnacle of 1930s Shanghai’s leftist movement.


The leftist cinema of 1930s Shanghai is not for the faint of heart. Not for nothing did this cinema become termed as “hard cinema” — juxtaposed against the supposed “soft cinema” that focused more on the lifestyles of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan residents. Such films focused on the problems in society, and the great disparity between the haves and have-nots; inevitably these are not happy tales. Consequently, regardless of their individual merits, these movies can sometimes feel very similar.

And, on the surface, Street Angel is no different. The protagonists are impoverished and their lives are made miserable by those with money and power. One of them’s a prostitute, and the story does not have a happy ending. Additionally, it’s set in Shanghai.

Yet Street Angel manages to fulfil the tropes of the time without feeling stale. It comes as little surprise to us that it was very popular at the time of its release. By utilising classic melodrama with well-timed comedy, and even musical interludes (replete with sing-along lyrics), the film never drags, and uses all of these techniques to get its message across.

Two sisters, Xiao Hong 小紅 and Xiao Yun 小雲, are cruelly treated by their adopted parents, with Xiao Yun forced into prostitution to provide money for their gambling mother, and Xiao Hong singing for clients in their tea house. When a wealthy man offers to buy Xiao Hong, the sisters enlist a local street musician Xiao Chen 小陳 to help Xiao Hong run away. However, it’s soon clear that despite her escape, there is little that can be done to help improve her and her sister’s situation — ultimately ending in tragedy.

Director Yuan Muzhi does a fantastic job of showing the audience the contrast between the caring and colourful protagonists, especially Xiao Chen and his group of often-comical friends, and the coldness of Shanghai’s elite.

In one memorable scene, Xiao Chen and his friend go to a lawyer’s to try and resolve Xiao Hong’s situation. However, they do not get the chance to finish as the lawyer tells them his rates before telling them to reconsider.

The sister’s adoptive parents meanwhile, whilst not members of the elite, are shown to be members of callous middle-class, desperate for money — through gambling, or selling their daughters.

Yuan uses the city of Shanghai itself to great effect, bookending the film with shots of Shanghai’s grand colonial buildings, and using the opening montage to juxtapose the neon lights of 1930s Shanghai with the narrow streets and poverty of the city.

Street Angel was one of the final leftist films released in 1930s Shanghai. Full-scale war with Japan would break out later that year, and film production dropped dramatically. But, this remains one of the highlights of the era, and is highly recommended.


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