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.