Detective Chinatown 2 唐人街探案2 (2018)

Mainland

Director: Chen Sicheng 陳思誠

Language: Mandarin 普通話, English

Genre: Comedy/Mystery

Running Time: 120 minutes

3/5. A fun but confused sequel compared with 2015’s original entry, nonetheless sure to entertain plenty of people over the Chinese New Year holiday.


Qin Feng (Liu Haoran 劉昊然) once again finds himself caught up in a mystery with his over-the-top distant relative and sometime detective Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang 王寶強). This time they’re in New York, following a cash prize incentive to locate the missing grandson of the godfather of Chinatown.

However, they have competition from the world’s best private detectives and  they are being overseen by one of NYPD’s finest: Officer Chen (Natasha Liu Bordizzo 劉承羽).

And when the missing persons case turns into a murder, the mystery starts to deepen…


One of the traditional Chinese New Year slate of blockbustersDetective Chinatown 2 is a sequel to the terrifically entertaining original. The odd couple of Qin Feng and Tang Ren worked perfectly in the 2015 movie, operating in the classic mode of the buddy duo — one quiet and earnest, and the other a buffoon.

So it’s no surprise that they have been reunited again for another round. The original ended with a teaser for a story set in New York, which is where Detective Chinatown 2 picks up.

If you have not seen the original, it’s likely that the opening moments will leave you in a daze, as the setup is rushed through at an incredible pace. There is a new gimmick in the form of a detective ranking called ‘crimaster’, which sees the pair in competition with other detectives to catch a murderer.

Like its predecessor, Detective Chinatown 2 is full of fun action scenes — a chase scene through the streets of New York in a horse drawn cart is hilarious — and the relationship between the Qin and Tang is once again on point. For much of the film they are also joined by another returning character Song Yi (Xiao Yang 肖央), and the trio’s chemistry is the glue that holds the film together. Whilst Wang’s portrayal of Tang Ren is sometimes abrasive to the point of irritation (which appears to have sadly become the kind of role he’s best known for), there’s rarely an overdose of any one character.

Newcomer to the series is Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who gives a confident performance as Officer Chen. With her mixed heritage and perfect Mandarin, she is likely to have a very successful career as the worlds of Chinese cinema and Hollywood merge ever closer.

Unfortunately, Detective Chinatown 2 doesn’t quite match the heights of its predecessor. Whereas the original maintained a strong cast around the central characters, the sequel is a bit of a mess. There are a huge array of supporting characters that range between very good (Kiko, played by Shang Yuxian 尚語賢) and awful (Dr. Springfield, played by Michael Pitt). Likewise a few too many jokes fall flat this time around.

Some Western audiences may struggle to adjust to the liberal abuse of American stereotypes; however, such stereotyping of foreign cultures is prevalent throughout Western comedies of the same type. It’s the nature of the genre for good or ill, but viewers should certainly be prepared going in.

Luckily, Detective Chinatown 2 still delivers on action and has plenty of laughs to make up for its missteps. The central mystery is clever, and when the film focuses on this and the central characters it remains great fun that is sure to bring in crowds looking to celebrate the Year of the Dog.

UK readers can catch Detective Chinatown 2 in select cinemas this Friday in a synchronised global release.

Angels Wear White 嘉年華 (2017)

Mainland

Director: Vivian Qu 文晏

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 107 minutes

Recommended


Mi works at a small coastal hotel. She does everything she’s told; as an illegal resident (a 黑戶, someone without a household registration), she has little choice but to do as her boss says. One evening, a man arrives with two young girls and they check into two rooms. Mi watches the doors to their rooms, waiting. Eventually, the man knocks on the girl’s door, and forces his way inside. Mi records the events on her phone.

Xiao Wen and Xinxin go to school the next day. They’re late, and feeling sick, but say nothing of the night before to their teacher. It’s only when they get home that Xinxin reveals what happened to her mother. The man was her godfather and one of her father’s superiors.

However, the evidence is their word against his. The police search the hotel, but the room has been cleaned and the CCTV recorded over. Now only Mi can prove what happened, but without a legal identity she dare not speak out. And evidence alone may not be enough…


Cinema has the ability to leave us feeling the full range of emotions. Art is so powerful precisely because of its ability to so aptly reflect the human spirit. It is still rare, however, to feel truly uncomfortable in a theatre.

Yet child abuse remains one of the few subjects that is sure to leave any viewer feeling deeply uneasy, which is no surprise given the unambiguous violation of innocence which it entails.

Angels Wear White plays on that imagery throughout. The two young girls, Xiao Wen (Zhou Meijun 周美君) and Xinxin (Zhang Xinyue 張欣悅), do typical things that girls entering adolescence do, they excitedly dress up, play with their phones, and drink (one) beer; however, director Vivian Qu makes sure to remind us of just how young they truly are. In one memorable scene, the two girls wonder down a giant tube in a fairground and slide around. Against the giant backdrop they are tiny; toddlers playing in a park.

Qu won Best Director at the 2017 Golden Horse Awards for Angels Wear White, a justified reward for one of China’s best up-and-coming filmmakers (she also worked on Black Coal, Thin Ice).  Having a female director does not guarantee a nuanced understanding of such subjects, but there are moments that seem to speak straight to the female experience.

At one point as Xiao Wen and Xinxin are examined by doctors to determine whether sexual assault has taken place, we see a procession of doctors come and examine their privates. That moment, as these young girls are made to lie in a strange room, utterly vulnerable, as strangers judge whether they have or have not been raped, truly underlines the absurdity of how crimes such as sexual assault are often judged. To girls so young, the experience seems almost akin to a second assault.

Sexual crimes are, of course, sadly prevalent worldwide. But it is interesting that last year produced two films focusing on the rape of young girls in China, both from female directors (the other being The Foolish Bird). Following a number of high profile cases, the subject is certainly on the agenda in China. Although it would be wrong to draw conclusions on its prevalence from a few films, it seems that there at least artists and others now willing to speak out.

As Angels Wear White shows, however, speaking out and finding justice are far from the same. The girls’ rapist is a man in a position of power who ultimately never faces trial. His ability to operate above the law stands in stark contrast to the situation faced by Mi (Wen Qi 文淇), who operates below the law. With no legal identity, she earns 600RMB (USD90) per month.

At first, Mi is difficult to like, as she obstructs the police and withholds evidence. However, slowly it’s revealed how she fears being found out and longs for an identity of her own. Wen Qi gives a fantastic performance that reaffirms her status as the best young actress in Chinese-language cinema at the moment.

This is modern Chinese cinema at its most impactful and relevant.

Old Beast 老獸 (2017)

Mainland

Director: Zhou Ziyang 周子陽

Studio: Dongchun 北京東春, Beijing Daqiao 北京大橋, Fangjin 方金, Having Me 有我, Beijing Huiren 北京惠人

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Mongolian 內蒙古方言

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 112 minutes

Recommended.


Lao Yang spends his days gambling, fooling around with his mistress, and, occasionally, looking after his paralysed wife. Having lost all his wealth investing in Inner Mongolia’s property boom, he now spends his days wondering the streets of Ordos.

Along with an old friend he goes for a night drinking and then to a massage parlour, ignoring his wife’s phone calls. The next day, he agrees to look after his friends camel for a few days — before selling it for some cash and a bag of meat.

While he’s away, the rest of his family struggle to get together 30,000 RMB to pay for surgery for his wife, who is desperately ill haven fallen whilst Lao Yang was out.

Eventually, they get the money together, and Lao Yang makes his way to the hospital after spending the day with his mistress. To the rest of the family’s horror, the surgery money disappears from the hospital room; Lao Yang has taken it to buy a cow to repay his friend for selling the camel.

Furious the family decide that they cannot stand Lao Yang’s behaviour any longer and band together to force him to sign a contract. But Lao Yang is not willing to admit any fault, and the family’s already strained ties are about to be broken…


It’s always a pleasure to be able to review new talent, and this was a real treat. Produced by Sixth Generation luminary Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帥, there is plenty in here which recalls the style of filmmakers such as Wang, but newcomer Zhou Ziyang does puts his own mark on this film.

The first thing to say about Old Beast is its choice of location. Ordos in Inner Mongolia is known outside of China mostly for being the site of a notorious “ghost city”, and the failed property market is occasionally referenced as the cause of Lao Yang’s poverty. Empty skyscrapers make occasional backdrops; they are dark, imposing outlines against the flatness of the Mongolian landscape.

Zhou mostly sticks to the stark realism of most of his contemporaries, but, like Jia Zhangke before, occasionally throws in surreal moments. A bird trapped in a wall; a strange skittering ghostly figure; an emaciated horse. All serve to tell a small part of Lao Yang’s character, the old beast himself.

From the synopsis, I’m sure readers think he is a despicable character. And, in many ways, he is. He is flawed and seemingly selfish to the very core. When he refuses to negotiate with his son and son-in-law, condemning them to six months in prison, it comes as no surprise.

Yet throughout, there are moments that we as an audience can see why he is as he is. All his wealth taken by lies. A wife who cannot move. He sells his friend’s camel after promising to look after it … but only to buy him a cow which he can use to make a living. He steals his wife’s surgery money to buy his friend the cow … but his friend had lent him the money for his son’s bride price. He turns up unannounced at his daughter’s asking for money … but the money is for his wife’s surgery.

None of the above is an excuse for the action Lao Yang takes, and yet all of them help us to understand why he did it. That’s the wonder of the character that Zhou has constructed.

No good character can exist without a good actor to bring them to life. In Old Beast, Tu Men 涂們 gives a performance which truly portrays the pride and inability to express emotions that is inherent in men everywhere, but especially of a certain generation. In China, this is often compounded by concepts of filial piety, in which the older male generations must be completely respected but also completely in control. What happens when their pride and respect is taken away is at the heart of Old Beast.

The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (2017)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  劉偉強

Studio: China Film Group 中國電影集團, Bona Film Group 保利博納, August First 八一 et al.

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: War/History

Running Time: 133 minutes

Not Recommended.


Shanghai, 1926. The First United Front between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) comes to a crushing end. With the aid of Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 orders many of the leaders of the CPC to be killed or arrested, solidifying his position as China’s most powerful leader, and weakening rival factions within the KMT.

However, Chiang’s purge did not include all of the CPC’s leaders, and has angered many within his own party.

Inspired by the words of a little known representative from Hunan, Mao Zedong 毛澤東, several recent KMT defectors and CPC veterans unite under the charismatic leadership of Shanghai survivor Zhou Enlai 周恩來 and veteran Zhu De 朱德 to stage an uprising in Nanchang.

But the the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek are not going to let them go without a fight….


We were not eager to watch The Founding of an Army. The couple of friends who had watched it in Chinese cinemas had given less than stellar reviews; something that is backed up by critic reviews you will find online. And, they were right. This is a bad movie. However, it does make for an interesting discussion piece on Chinese cinema, and particularly state-led projects.

The third and final part of the trilogy of The Founding of films (alongside 2009’s The Founding of a Republic and 2011’s The Founding of a Party), this year’s effort brings a conclusion to this cinematic celebration of the foundations of modern China: the state, the party and, finally, the army.

This reviewer was living in China for the release of the first instalment, and can recall it creating a fair amount of buzz (and not just in government-led media). It had an all-star cast, a literal who’s who of Chinese cinema, even if stars such as Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi only had the briefest of cameos. The film itself was forgettable and unsurprisingly hardly an accurate retelling of events; however, it spoke to the wealth of talent available when the best from throughout the Chinese-speaking world came together.

Fast forward two instalments and it’s fair to say the hype has died down. The Founding of an Army is bereft of the star power the first two instalments had, instead mixing a few old faces with a number of up-and-coming idols.  While I can understand the logic behind such a decision, trying to lure in the younger crowd who make up the majority of cinema goers, it’s fair to say it did not have the desired effect.

Audience reaction to the film was so bad, that comments on China’s main film website (think IMDB), Douban, were shut down. That’s for those who actually went to see the film, which, despite only competing with other domestic films performed abysmally at the box office, losing out to the patriotic action of Wolf Warrior 2. It even had official complaints made against it by relatives of the revolutionary heroes it aims to depict, who took umbrage at the use of pretty boy idols and total disregard of facts.

To be fair to The Founding of an Army, it’s hardly unusual for cinema to do away with facts in the name of a good story. Unfortunately it never really seems to find one.

We here at The Chinese Cinema Blog obviously have a great interest in China’s history, it’s politics etc. But even for us, the whirlwind of characters that are introduced is disorientating. From Zhou Enlai, to Mao, to Chiang, to He Long, back to Zhou, to Zhu De, this film jumps around constantly and without mercy, but in doing so it takes many compelling stories and makes each one utterly limp. This leaves little room for actors or director to work with, resulting in cut and paste stereotypes of everyone involved. Even the action scenes, presumably the strength of a war film, suffer from a lack of focus.

As such, we cannot recommend this film to anyone who wants to be entertained, or to watch a good piece of cinema.

All is not lost, however. If you are interested in how the CPC wants to project its own history, and in turn, China’s history, The Founding of an Army is an interesting study. The events upon which it is based were mostly a series of ever worsening defeats for the party’s fledgling armed forces, but watching this film gives you an idea of how such events have been transformed into a victory in the national narrative. So, despite its seeming lack of cinematic value, there’s still might be something to learn amongst the wreckage.

Wolf Warrior 2 戰狼2 (2017)

China

Director: Wu Jing 吳京

Studio: Beijing Dengfeng 北京登峰 etc.

Language: Mandarin 普通話, English

Genre: Action

Running Time: 123 minutes

Not Recommended. If you really love action, there’s something here for you despite the aggressive nationalism. If you like a story, or a plot, or acting, please look elsewhere.


Former member of the Chinese special forces, Leng Feng 冷鋒, has moved to Africa following his dismissal from the armed forces. He lives a directionless life, hoping to somehow track down the kidnappers of his lover, Long Xiaoyun 龍小雲. Suddenly, he is caught up in an armed uprising, which threatens the lives of many Chinese nationals who are trapped and unable to be evacuated. With the Chinese military unable to intervene due to UN regulations, Feng sets off on a daring solo rescue mission.

Along the way, he runs into new friends — including the beautiful Dr. Rachel Prescott Smith — and adversaries. The rebels have hired a western mercenary group who are hell bent on destruction, and have a connection with Feng’s past.

Having contracted a deadly virus during the rescue of Dr. Smith, Feng faces a race against time to try and evacuate the remaining Chinese citizens from a Chinese-owned factory. But, facing overwhelming firepower, and an incurable disease, all looks lost. Luckily, Dr. Smith trials an untested vaccine on Feng, allowing them to face the oncoming assault together with their few remaining allies.

Will they be able to hold on? Will the Chinese military intervene? And, what is this mysterious connection between Feng and the mercenary group which hounds them?


Few films this year have got the Western media talking more than Wu Jing’s sequel to 2015’s relatively anonymous Wolf Warrior 戰狼. Once again Wu Jing both directs and stars, and what’s on offer remains the standard action film fair of the first effort. So, what is it that has suddenly sparked a flurry of interest in the film outside of China? Well, there’s the fact that it’s smashed box office records for a Chinese-made film; it continues to climb the all-time lists as well. However, most of the column inches in English-language media have focused on the film’s decidedly nationalist tone.

A lot of coverage has particularly focused on one of the film’s taglines: “If you offend my Chinese people, no matter the distance, you must be killed” 犯我中華者,雖遠必誅. This is certainly an alarming sounding line, although one that has been adapted from a famous historical saying (Traditional Chinese), but equally it’s a tagline to a ridiculous action movie, and was used for the previous movie as well. Truthfully, this movie is merely another part of a long narrative of increasing nationalism in the PRC, though it has gained pace under the leadership of current President Xi Jinping 習近平.

In our view, the film’s nationalism is perhaps a little more brazen than the majority of modern Hollywood’s output. In one (unintentionally amusing) scene, Dr. Smith says they should seek aid from the American embassy, only to find they are closed and thus her only way to contact them is through Twitter, a not-so-subtle dig at the banned-in-China platform. There are constant references to China’s great relationship with Africa, and of course China’s military is on full display.

With that said, despite its lack of subtlety, it is not really any worse than generations of action films that have come out of the USA. It reminded me of last year’s London Has Fallen (a terrible film). So, it is somewhat disingenuous for anyone who tries to sell this film as being fundamentally more nationalistic in content than things that have come before. It is often a trapping of the genre, with its focus on military might.

In fact, it’s refreshing on some level to see a high budget action film like this produced outside of Hollywood. Though Chinese action films are not unusual, with a long history of martial arts films, this kind of solo military hero is rarely anything but an American on the big screen. And, Wu makes a good hero. He’s clearly got the physique and the moves for the role, which has no doubt helped sell the movie at home.

We are less convinced by his ability as a director. The action scenes are sometimes well done, but often hampered by a directorial style that leans heavily on fast cuts. The result is far too confusing, with it often being unclear who is doing what, or even what exactly they are doing. Of course action films are meant to be fast paced, but when the scenes have a bit more room to breath, the results are much more effective; there’s stuff in here for action aficionados to enjoy.

We could ignore the nationalism and enjoy the film for its action scenes if it had a plot to bring us in. Unfortunately, Wolf Warrior 2 has one of the worst plots ever. Almost nothing is explained, and characters are as shallow as could be. No doubt those who’ve watched the first instalment will get more out of it, though given their relative success it’s highly likely most of the audience have not seen the first film.

It’s impossible to give a fair judgement on anyone’s acting ability because the script is a joke, full of terrible one liners and plot exposition. The numerous Caucasian actors give hilariously hammy performances, presumably on the basis of the script. This makes it very hard to understand why they are so murderous; something which is never explained.

The positives that the film puts forward in portraying an Asian action hero are completely undone by the stereotypical and dismissive portrayal of Africa. Although the film clearly tries to talk up China’s relationship with the continent, it manages to fall into every single stereotype in the book. War torn and ravaged by rebellion? Check. In need of saving by a benevolent foreign power? Check. Dancing round a fire? Check. Living in camps and infected by an unknown deadly virus? Check check check. All of these sins have been committed by others many times before, but it’s sad to see a film that is clearly trying to say that China does things differently in Africa demonstrate it does nothing differently.

Wolf Warrior 2 is a film which doesn’t deserve to be as popular as it is. Its record breaking success may make many wonder if Chinese cinema goers are completely devoid of taste. But, most media outlets have failed to mention some important facts. Firstly, the Chinese authorities have delayed a number of big Hollywood films to allow Wolf Warrior 2 and The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (made to celebrate the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary) a free run at the summer box office. These include Spiderman: Home Coming and Dunkirk. The Founding of an Army is a CCP-sponsored history film, and has been utterly rejected by cinema goers. Thus, the choice for the millions of audience looking to escape the summer heat is actually not much of a choice at all. Secondly, clearly the film’s themes and positive portrayal of China are going to play well to a domestic audience. Finally, stupid action films are almost always solid performers at the box office. See: Transformers.

For us though, Wu Jing should stick to playing the hero. His work as a director is much less appealing than his action man credentials.

The Foolish Bird 笨鳥 (2017)

China

Director: Huang Ji 黃驥, Otsuka Ryuji 大塚龍治

Studio: Coolie Film Corporation 庫里  Yellow-Green Pi 龍驥映畫

Language: Hunanese 湘語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 118 minutes

Recommended. This style of film isn’t for everyone, and is not the rarity of 15 years ago. That said, this kind of story from a female perspective by a woman director sadly still is. Just remember it’s raw and it’s grim.


This is part one of our Taipei Film Festival 2017 coverage! Over the next 2 weeks, we’ll be reviewing the best in Chinese-language cinema from the festival.


Lin Sen 林森, played by non-professional actress Yao Honggui 姚紅貴, lives in an unremarkable town in Hunan Province. Her mother is frequently away trying to deal with her faltering businesses, and Lin remains in her hometown with her grandparents. She faces the same mundane challenges as many in her position: the pressure to do well at school, bullying and a lack of privacy at home. The only person she seems to enjoy spending time with is her friend Mei Zi 梅子, and the two of them spend hours hanging around in internet cafes like most of their peers. Yao has secretly been stealing confiscated phones from school, and her and Mei decide to sell them to boys, replete with nude selfies discovered on some of the phones.

Having sold a phone to one boy, the two go to get their hair done to celebrate. Afterwards, the owner of the hairdressers invites the girls for drinks, promising to take some photos of the girls to hang in his new store. The two drink until they are passed out, and Yao awakes the next morning to find she is alone, and she cannot get in contact with Mei.

Some time passes, and there is still no word from Mei. Yao’s mother comes home, needing to borrow some money for the business. She spends some time with Lin, who is suffering from stomach pains. After examining her daughter, she realises she has an STD, but does not talk to her about it. Suddenly one day, Lin receives a message from Mei, asking for some money. However, Lin has started dating the local police chief’s son, and tells her she’ll deal with it later.

Soon after, Mei is dead, having committed suicide by jumping from a local pagoda. At her funeral, Lin discovers photos relating to STDs in Mei’s phone’s memory card. Having previously thought she may be pregnant, she suddenly understands what has happened — they have been raped by the hairdresser’s owner, who has an STD.

However, her confrontation with him goes nowhere, as he brushes off her accusations, and chases her away. Lin has nowhere to go, and her relationship with the police chief’s son is too distant, filled with brief and worrying sexual encounters — he forces her to perform oral sex and she implores him to rape her, if he’s man enough.

There’s no happy endings, as she’s caught and punished for the stolen phones. The only resolution comes from the police — they have found a murderer and rapist who’s been on the loose throughout. It’s the boy they sold the first phone to.


This is a film which will not comes as much of a surprise to many who have kept up with the latest generation of independent Chinese film makers. This kind of hyper-realistic, slow-paced film has been something of a calling card for a generation that was inspired by the works of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke賈樟柯.

However, directors Huang Ji and Otsuka Ryuji (a husband and wife team) have certainly brought their own flourishes to this particular story. This is the second of what is planned to be a trilogy of films following life in smalltown Hunan Province, with both starring local girl Yao Honggui.

From the moment the film opens with a rather grotesque shot of Lin stuffing fish bladders, it is clear that this is a film which is not here to make you feel comfortable. Everything about the film feels not quite right, an eeriness that is present on the gloomy architecture, the incessant rain and mist and the ever present phones and internet cafes, which represent an escape for all these young people.

There is a lot to dissect, and for some, the film may not provide any answers at all.

But, in our view, it does much of what director Huang has stated she wanted to achieve. She successfully shines a spotlight on the real issue of sexual assault, and an inability to talk about sexual relationships openly in today’s China. Despite progress, and many years of stated equality, China remains a deeply patriarchal society.

It’s also refreshing to have that expressed via a female director, and it shows in the way that Huang chooses to shoot a number of scenes.

The film’s title refers to a Chinese proverb 笨鳥先飛,  which literally means the stupid bird’s fly first, and is traditionally used to mean that those with less ability need to start first. For this film, however, the director commented that she wanted to focus on how foolish decisions at that age can often lead to tragedy at that age. So it is likely to be a play on the phrase.

We will certainly be keeping an eye on her future work, and will try to secure a copy of the first part in this meant-to-be trilogy, Egg and Stone for review.

You can watch the trailer below:

Street Angel 馬路天使 (1937)

China

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.

 

Blood on Wolf Mountain 狼山喋血記 (1936)

China

Director: Fei Mu 費穆

Studio: Lianhua 聯華

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 70 minutes

Not Recommended. Although it’s worth a watch for those interested in its background.


 

For the second part of our look into the 1930s Golden Age, we have another Lianhua production, this time in glorious sound!

The 1930s were a time of upheaval in cinemas all over the globe, as sound was steadily introduced and film production switched to this method. By 1936, just two years after The Goddess was filmed, the majority of films produced were talkies.

The context of Blood on Wolf Mountain is perhaps more interesting than the content of the film, and it’s certainly hard to talk about as a stand alone film.

The plot is simple. A village is terrorised by regular incursions from a local pack of wolves — with the villagers torn between not provoking the wolves and taking action. The “don’t be hasty” line is peddled by the village leader (in what is a suitably cowardly performance by the actor who’s name I unfortunately have been unable to verify), whilst the urge to action is led by Xiao Yu 小魚 (played by star-of-the-era  Li Lili 黎莉莉). Xiao Yu ultimately succeeds in rousing the entire village to successfully defeat the wolves, after her father is killed by them.

As a film, Blood on Wolf Mountain does not hold up nearly as well as others from this era, when viewed from a modern perspective. The film contains numerous action scenes, including the climactic battle with the wolves, and there was simply no convincing way to film such scenes at the time. As such, it utilises a number of extremely fast cuts to gloss over the clearly fake action. Many of the actors would not have had much experience outside of silent films, and there are a number of slapstick performances that don’t really suit the tone of the film.

In context, however, the film gains a new life.

It is widely considered an allegory for the attitudes within China to the ever-growing spread of Japanese imperialism. Though the Second Sino-Japanese War would not break out until 1937, Japanese encroachment into China had been ongoing for many years, including the ceding of Taiwan following the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, and the annexation of Manchuria following the Mukden Incident in 1931.

It’s not hard to see. The ineffective leaders, urging restraint and to avoid provocation, easily draw comparisons with the Kuomintang-led government at the time, which intentionally tried to avoid war (albeit to give it time to modernise its armed forces). Meanwhile we have the passionate youth, who cannot stand living in fear, uniting to drive away the wolves.

This also placed the film firmly in the leftist cinema of the time, which focused on the struggles of the ordinary citizen against figures of authority in society. Of note, the film starred Jiang Qing 江青 in a supporting role (under her stage name Lan Ping 藍蘋). Jiang is none other than the infamous Madame Mao, Mao Zedong’s 毛澤東 fourth wife and one of the key members of the Gang of Four who helped orchestrate the Cultural Revolution. She is pictured in the picture at the top, on the right.

At the outbreak of war in 1937, she would flee Shanghai for the Yan’nan base of the Chinese Communist Party. During the Cultural Revolution, her co-star Li Lili was denounced and suffered horrific abuse on the orders of Jiang. Her husband died as a result. Jiang did not forget those who were more successful than her.

 

Although, in this blog’s opinion, this film cannot hold a candle to some of director Fei Mu’s other work, it nonetheless remains a fascinating piece of history, capturing the circumstances of the time.

There is a version of this on YouTube which is linked below for those interested. There are no subtitles, Chinese or English.

The upload is in no way affiliated to this blog, all copyright belongs to the rights holders.

The Goddess 神女 (1934)

China

Director: Wu Yonggang 吳永剛

Studio: Lianhua 聯華

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Silent / Drama

Running Time: 75 minutes

Recommended.  If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a great way to start.


 

Released during what can be considered the first boom in the Chinese cinema industry, the 1930s, The Goddess is perhaps the most famous film of the era, and certainly the most accessible, having had numerous Western releases.

The film is thematically typical of the so-called leftist cinema of the era — that of the struggle of ordinary citizens against an unjust and corrupt society. It’s a product of the Shanghai studio system, with all the major cinematic productions of that era emanating from the Lianhua 聯華, Mingxing 明星 and Tianyi 天一 film companies.

Familiar though its themes may be, The Goddess remains a powerful piece of cinema even today.

The film revolves around a woman working as a prostitute in order to provide for her son. Early on, she evades a police sweep by hiding in a man’s room, only for him to suggest she stays the night as payment. As it turns out, this man is a local gambler, who takes control of her life, despite her attempts to escape.

Throughout, her son is her solace, who she is determined to put through school so he does not suffer as she has. Unfortunately, word spreads around the school about her circumstances, and letters are sent to the school principal demanding he take action.

The principal, however, is moved when he goes to visit the woman to determine the truth of the matter. Seeing her devotion to improving her son’s life, he decides against expelling her son. His decision is not accepted by the rest of the school’s staff, however, and he resigns — unable to prevent the expulsion.

Realising that she cannot build a good life for her son where she is, she decides it’s best for them move. However, she discovers the money she’s been hiding away has been stolen by the gambler.

Furious, she confronts him at a gambling den, where he admits to having taken, and spent, the money. With his back turned, she strikes him over the head with a nearby bottle, killing him.

The film ends with her sentenced to jail for 12 years, and her son in an orphanage. The principal, who had been the one of the few in the film to treat her and her son with any humanity, comes by to let her know that he will look after her son. She tells him to tell her son she is dead, rather than let him know the shame of her life.

Although, like many of its contemporaries, the film leans heavily on the melodramatic mode, it is driven by the performance of actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉.

Ruan was one of the stars of 1930s Shanghai and her own life also ended in tragedy. Aged just 24, she committed suicide after a period of intense speculation regarding her private life. Though under different circumstances, perhaps she could relate all too well with the The Goddess in her inability to escape the judgement of those around her.

Despite its age, and mode, The Goddess remains an eminently watchable film — one who’s lessons are (sadly) just as relevant almost 100 years later — and an important piece of Chinese cinematic history.