Unable to pay the local taxes imposed by the warlord, Lingling and her fiancé, Zhang Jin, leave their hometown, a fishing village, for the big city Shanghai, where their cousin and her husband live. The four of them work at the same factory. Unfortunately, Zhang is soon fired and has to start to work on the sea. Meanwhile, Lingling is raped at a dinner party hosted by her young boss at the factory. When the girl pointlessly wanders around afterwards, she gets abducted and ends up being sold to a brothel. Two years later, having endured the painful life of prostitution, Lingling turns into a skillful and street-smart social flower. Zhang returns back to Shanghai as a revolutionary. The two meet at Lingling’s apartment, without knowing that a secret agent chasing Zhang has followed them there. In order to help Zhang escape, Lingling gets arrested and is sentenced to death. When they are about to execute her at daybreak, the girl keeps smiling at gunpoint.
The early 30s of the last century saw the ‘golden age’ of Shanghai cinema. Film companies financed and run by Chinese nationals had been developing for a decade in Shanghai and cultivated loyal moviegoers, who craved endlessly for new films in the two most popular locally grown genres – family melodrama and martial arts-magic spirit films. At this moment, on the one hand, imperial Japan invaded the northeastern region of China. Territorial crisis stirred up a surge of nationalism among Chinese elites as well as raised their desire to wake up people’s consciousness through cultural means. Cinema’s propaganda function thus loomed larger for certain left-leaning intellectuals. On the other hand, as a semi-colonial port city, Shanghai remained out of the reach of direct warfare; therefore, the film industry there was able to keep thriving as a profit-catering business and to continue offering entertainment. As one of the masterpieces representative of the aesthetics and ethos of Shanghai cinema’s Golden Age, Daybreak (1933) embodies the contradictory and competing thoughts and sentiments that were tiding at once in this cosmopolitan city, at a time of political chaos and military tension.
The film visualises a piece of Chinese folk wisdom through a sad urban tale: always the darkest before daybreak. The clearly demarcated two parts of the film constitute a symmetric structure – echoing the female protagonist Lingling’s fall and redemption. It also corresponds to a binarism between the industrialised, evil-inducing city and the natural, romantic countryside that is central to the narrative. Repetition and contrast are heavily used to highlight the film’s thematic concern – the recurrence of young migrant women’s ill fate in the city. The film opens with a montage depicting a busy body of migrant peasant-workers at a local dock, lining up and waiting to board their ferry to Shanghai. It then cuts to an old man staring at them, whining with angst, ‘To the city! … Same thing every day! … Every year! …’. A point of view shot follows, where Lingling smiles innocently, consoling a bunch of little kids. Another sequence almost identical to this one appears at the beginning of part two, whereas this time Lingling is dressed rather flamboyantly and flirts freely with several men. One of the film’s most important symbolic props is a water chestnut necklace Zhang makes for Lingling, whose name literally means ‘water chestnut’ in Chinese (the fruit is a signifier of purity, because it has a dark and hard shell yet white pulp underneath). The necklace serves the girl as a medium of certain sympathetic magic which ‘transports’ her back to the genuine happy moments in the village. Whenever she touches the necklace, the film cuts to a high-key lighted and romanticised sequence where she and Zhang, wearing shorts and bare-footed, run, jump along the river bank or boat on the lake. When she falls into the murky den of the red light district, she also loses hold of her necklace and appears instead with either an oversized flower or some lavish jewellery on her chest. In addition, the film sets Lingling’s apartment in Shanghai on the top of a residential building, so that when she stands there at night against the city’s skyline, which is decorated with myriads of neon lights, it is as if her tiny body is overwhelmed by a giant, glittering yet suffocating diamond necklace.
Narratives about the hardship women have to encounter and endure in Chinese cinema were not simply meant to tell a cautionary tale for young urban women about the potential danger and punishment in heterosocial relationships. Binarisms of innocent and fallen women, evil city and genuine countryside, abound in early cinemas around the world (America, France, Germany, Russia and elsewhere). They served as the tropes of popular culture’s conscious critique of modernity: ‘the contradictions of modernity are enacted through the figure of the woman, very often, literally, across the body of the woman who tries to live them but more often than not fails …. [W]omen function as metonymies … of urban modernity, figuring the city in its allure, instability, anonymity, and illegibility’ (Hansen 2000: 15). Women are usually victimised in this narrative tradition and die in the end, since ‘rape, thwarted romantic love, rejection, sacrifice, prostitution function as metaphors of a civilization in crisis’ (Hansen 2000: 15). In addition, in the context of Chinese modernisation, many scholars point out that, repressed by colonial power and local political corruption, male intellectuals in the early twentieth century (including the filmmakers of early cinema in Shanghai) frequently betrayed a ‘masochist identification with (oppressed) women’ in their writings and artistic works (Zhang 2005: 29). Indeed, many Chinese filmmakers in the 1930s chose to represent women characters with a certain level of agency. As Miriam Hansen observes, the ‘social flower’ persona sometimes serves as a device of masquerade or performance for women characters that are potentially transformable and revolutionary, as shown in Daybreak. In the scene where Lingling undergoes interrogation by two secret agents in her apartment, in order to win some time for Zhang to escape, she brings her charm and ‘professional’ tactics into play, revealing her legs seductively. When she insists on posing optimistically in front of the guns as if she was in front of a camera (which she is indeed, extra-diegetically), her brave and sexy smile leads to the revolt of several soldiers, who end up dying with her at the foot of their ‘fellow citizens’. Read in this way, Lingling’s fall becomes a subliminal passage, culminating in her death – a sacrifice, through which she achieves certain transcendence. Though quoted from von Sternberg’s Dishonored, this last scene makes Lingling able to realise ‘the sacrificial-redemptive pathos that the Dietrich figure in Dishonored is denied’ (Hansen 2000: 19).
In general, the fallen women characters in Chinese cinema in the 1930s were sometimes coded with more complicated meanings, compared to their counterparts in Western traditions of the same period. They became embodiments of utopian and progressive ideals, amalgamating self-devoted spirit with unwitting physical sexiness. This kind of new treatment was owed to the rise of a cluster of intervolving modern thoughts in society that reshaped the body politics concerning women at that time. Most eminent among them was the change happening to some of the entrepreneurs and talents within the film industry, who gradually became left-leaning and started to cooperate with leftist writers and artists, therefore bringing modern girls and revolutionary boys onto screen to replace the previously dominant figures of romantic intellectuals, sentimental ladies, or action heroes/heroines. Appreciation of modern, athletic beauty was also encouraged by the Republican government, which in the late 1920s started to revitalise Confucianism and promote a healthy lifestyle. In the arena of literature and art, the female body had been made a legitimate aesthetic object, therefore films and fanzines also became filled with the so-called ‘soft elements’ – i.e. shots or illustrations of naked body parts and excessive sensual plots. On the one hand, nudity and Hollywood style athletic beauty became the metonymies of ‘modernity’; on the other, sports and fitness were realised as the means to save the country – by remoulding its citizens’ bodies. For example, Sun Yu, the left-leaning filmmaker who wrote and directed Daybreak, used to claim that, once ‘we all acquired well-built bodies, we ought to be able to change it [the social condition which was in mire]’ (Li and Hu 1996: 330). These new emerging discourses helped bring the athletic body and optimistic images of Li Lili and her kind of star persona into the focus of public attention and onto the silver screen.
It is not hard to observe that Daybreak is clearly marked with traces indicative of Sun Yu’s authorial control. Having studied film in the US in the 1920s, Sun Yu was one of the Shanghai filmmakers with a most unique personal style. Versed in both modern Western and traditional Chinese artistic languages, Sun was able to cook his work into a mixed stew of progressive messages as well as ‘softening’ elements – making up his own cinematic ‘chop-suey’ soup (Zhang 2005: 364–76). Moreover, Sun was known for his nuanced cinematic treatments. His works are usually touched up with realistic and symbolically charged details. The water chestnut necklace mentioned above is one instance; moreover, when Lingling’s cousin is introduced in the film, several small plots are constructed to lead our attention to her makeup, her pneumonic coughs, and the jewellery she wears, which are all excessive or abjective body extensions symbolising the vanity and morbidity of urban working girls. However, Sun’s realism frequently diverted from the kind of critical realism applauded by the leftist critics, betraying the director’s pursuit of a more utopian and poetic quality. Flashbacks of Lingling and Zhang’s country life are the most telling scenes of this kind, especially the one in which they pick up water chestnuts on a lake covered with lotus blossoms. The mise en scène delivers an outlandish beauty of the rural life, which Sun Yu’s critics deemed unreal and inappropriate for a proletarian aesthetics. Until recently, many of Sun Yu’s early works such as Daybreak, Wild Flowers (1930), and the Big Road (1934) were still defined by film history texts in China as defective leftist experimentations and were criticised for their idealistic treatments.1 However, it was indeed Sun’s insistence on poetic representations that made these films one of a kind.
In Daybreak, we can also perceive the amount of ‘authorial’ influence on the film text a rising female star like Li Lili was able to exert in the 1930s, by mediating her healthy, modern star persona into the tragic heroine in the story. Li started her performing career in her early teens, when she played a sidekick part in her father’s film and then entered the ‘Bright Moonlight Song and Dance Troupe’ established by Li Mingwei. When she cooperated with Sun Yu and became one of the new generation of film stars along with Wang Renmei and Jin Yan in the early 1930s, her previous experiences of singing and dancing soon helped shape her star persona into of a new type of ‘modern girl’ – who is at once young, energetic, healthy, and sporty. In a sense, Daybreak, Queen of Sport (1934), Blood of the Passion on the Volcano (1932), and the Big Road can be said to be the star vehicles Sun created for her. At that time, Li and others alike, ‘despite their on-screen images as oppressed peasants or workers, were marketed for their Hollywood-style physiques and athleticism’ (Zhang 2005: 279–80). Off screen, in all kinds of fanzines, newspapers and other media, Li was a spokesperson for toothpaste, swimming suits, and healthy life. She revealed her daily life to the readers in an issue of Film Life (1935, No.6): ‘every Wednesday and Saturday I practice the dancing routines I am unfamiliar with. Tuesday and Friday I practice singing; Thursday, I plan to watch a film; Monday, I was done with some private teaching already … then I would have time to go for a hike outside the city on Sunday with some friends’. Such an image of exuberantly optimistic and comedic quality cannot be removed from her on-screen characters, even in a sad story like Daybreak. There are always some shots of her wearing ‘hot pants’ or ‘mini skirts’, moving her trademark legs in her films. Close-ups of her shining teeth, bright smile, curvy lower body, short wavy hair, and muscular legs construct her image as a girl who would ‘go for it aggressively’, which transcends the limit of the particular diegesis of one film and travels intertextually. Attractive as this type of ‘new women’ was to the audiences of the 1930s, it soon faded out of Chinese cinema. For various reasons, Sun Yu and Li Lili stopped making films soon after the People’s Republic of China was established. Li turned to teaching at Beijing Film Academy in 1953, while Sun’s ambitious project The Life of Wu Xun (1950) unfortunately became the first target of a large-scale governmental interference into the arena of film, indeed, culture in general.
1. For an example of such recent critique of Daybreak, see Li and Hu, 1996: 332–3.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Lian Hua. Director: Sun Yu. Producer: Lu Hanzhang. Screenwriter: Sun Yu. Cinematographer: Zhou Ke. Art: Fang Peilin. Cast: Li Lili (Lingling), Gao Zhanfei (Zhang Jin), Ye Juanjuan (Lingling’s Cousin), Yuan Congmei (the Young Boss).]
Miriam B. Hansen, ‘Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film as Tianming/Daybreak (1933) 529 Vernacular Modernism’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2000, pp. 10–22. S
ean Macdonald, ‘Li Lili: Acting a Lively Jianmei Type’, in Mary Farquhar and Yingjin Zhang (eds), Chinese Film Stars, London and New York, Routledge, 2010, pp. 50–66.
Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema: the Chinese Left-wing Cinema Movement 1932–1937, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Suyuan Li and Jubin Hu, History of Chinese Silent Film, Beijing, China Film Press, 1996.
Zhen Zhang, ‘Fighting over the Modern Girl: Hard and Soft Films’, in An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937, Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.