The story takes place in Shanghai at the end of 1948. Hou, an official of the Republican government takes possession of Mr Kong’s property, a residential house, driving the old man into a tiny corner room downstairs, while he and his concubine occupy the top level. Two other families, the Huas and the Xiaos, rent the other two rooms. However, the Republican army is soon defeated by the Communists, making Hou decide to sell this building and flee to Taiwan. He demands that all of the residents move out immediately. Unwilling to become homeless, Mr and Mrs Xiao propose to buy the house from Hou. They mortgage all their valuables with Hou to trade gold, but end up losing all the money. Meanwhile, Mr Hua is arrested for his unintended involvement in a strike. In order to rescue him, Mrs Hua asks Hou for help, yet is taken advantage by him. When the residents are finally outraged by Hou’s exploitation and get ready for a confrontation, the Republican government collapses and Hou hurries to escape. Mr Kong gets his house back. On New Year’s Eve, the three families gather happily, looking forward to the new world ahead of them.
Crows and Sparrows is a realistic film accented with satirical comic relief. It was made during the postSecond World War period when political power underwent intense redistribution worldwide and regional warfare continued to be waged from time to time. For Chinese nationals, the spring of 1949 saw the final battles between the republicans (KMT, aka, Kuomintang) and the communists (CCP, aka, Chinese Communist Party) over the future of the country. Such military competition inevitably affected the cultural arena. Life-on-a-thread dramas and dreadful guerrilla warfare were played out not only on battlefields but also on sound stages. The film project of Crows and Sparrows was initiated in Shanghai – the capital of cinema in China – among a group of filmmakers sympathising with the Communists. Both the film text and its production history witnessed and testified to the ongoing cultural war. The city was still under the control of the republican government; therefore, the filmmakers had to piece together fragments of resources and wrestle with the censors in order to push their shooting through. The film was finished and released in 1950, after socialist China declared its sovereignty. Having etched the time and its ethos onto celluloid, Crows and Sparrows became one of the classics of Chinese leftist cinema.
Once a popular film star in the 1930s, Zheng Junli turned to directing in the 1940s. In 1947, he was given the chance to be in charge of the shooting of A Spring River Flows East (another well-known Chinese leftist masterpiece) when the director Cai Chusheng was suffering from chronic illness.1 Crows and Sparrows is the first film Zheng directed independently. The film adopts a classical allegorical device, using architectural space as the metaphor for class difference and class struggle. The story is staged in a tenement house (shi ku men, the typical residential architecture of urban Shanghai), where four families from different social strata reside. A crane shot early in the film reveals the ‘vertical’ relationship among the residents. Mr Hou (the ‘crow’ figure), a high-ranking official of the KMT and head of a company, sets up his concubine, Xiaoying, on the top floor of a tenement house, after robbing this property from its original owner, Mr Kong. The dispossessed Kong is driven to a cramped and messy room connected to the back door on the ground floor. A street vendor couple, Mr Xiao (also known as Little Broadcaster) and his wife, also lives on the same level with their three boys. Their warehouse-like room (converted from the living room) matches the family’s low social status (it turns out later that the Xiao’s family is also to be economically exploited by Mr Hou). In the small bedroom located in between the master’s room and the ground floor (known as ting zi jian, a decent yet relatively cheap part of a tenement house) lives the Hua family. A middle school teacher, Mr Hua is representative of the kind of petty intellectuals who were awkwardly suspended in the mid-air either politically or economically – discontent with the status quo, yet too lofty to take sides or make an intervention. As the film unfolds, we see how economic power relationships can also translate into sexual exploitation. Mr Hou is always seeking opportunities to take advantage of Mrs Hua, which is foreshadowed (and made easy) by the spatial proximity between the two couples. Ownership of the house and its frequent inversion could be read as a metaphor of the corrupted and chaotic social order during the civil war.
The film adopts conventional dramaturgy to drive the plot. It opens with a crisis: the KMT has lost three key battles in a row; as the result, Mr Hou has to sell all his goods and properties (including the tenement house) before fleeing to Taiwan. He intends to drive out all the tenants on short notice. The unprepared tenants are thus turned into goal-oriented characters, each searching for his/her own solution before the deadline. What follows are naïve expectations, futile attempts, and frustrating incidents. The politics of the upstairs/downstairs become most obvious in a scene towards the end of the film, when accumulated contradictions between Hou and the renters finally explode. Three families gather at the bottom of the stairs, about to directly confront the greedy and abusive ‘crow’, who is standing on top and overlooking the ‘little sparrows’. This visual metaphor charged with tension has clearly left its mark in Chinese film history.
Crows and Sparrows won its fame not only because it tells an allegorical drama that is timely and socially important, but also because its production history testifies to the clash among different cultural and ideological institutions.
As we know, Shanghai was a cosmopolitan centre for Chinese language film production and consumption since the early twentieth century. However, during the Japanese occupation between the end of 1941 and 1945, once privately owned film studios were turned into imperialist propaganda machines. After the Second World War, many resources were given back, not to their original owners, but to the republican government. Most sound stages, filming equipment, and talents were managed and supervised by two state-run mega studios. Suffering from scarcity of capital and resources as well as an ever more stringent wartime censorship, a few private and leftist film companies still managed to survive on the margin. The Kun Lun Company, which produced Crows and Sparrows, was among them. Kun Lun was a post-Second World War company founded and funded by entrepreneurs Xia Yunhu and Ren Zongde. Due to the lack of film talent, the company hardly made any films until it merged with the left-leaning Lianhua Film Association, whose filmmakers and actors had direct connections with the underground CCP organisation. In other words, Kun Lun’s films can be seen as de facto anti-KMT cultural statements. In order to make the film’s screenplay pass the KMT censors, the crew prepared two different versions of the script; however, the satirical trope of the crow and several well-known leftist artists’ involvement (especially the screenwriter Chen Baichen who was already named on the KMT’s blacklist and had to hide himself) would not go unnoticed.2 In early April, 1949, Kun Lun had to start shooting without a permit, while the producer, Meng Junmou, kept mediating between the company and the censor. Nevertheless, by the end of the month, the censor demanded termination of the film project and took away the finished footage for an investigation. The filmmakers shut down the studio in order to preserve the sound stage and settings, but, rather than giving up, they made use of this ‘interval’ to further revise the script. In order to cope with unexpected government inspections, the filmmakers adopted guerrilla tactics, for example pretending to play bridge and mahjong when actually having screenplay meetings, and hiding the script either in the ceiling above the sound stage, or in-between bags of straw (they used straw wall as a cheap soundproofing device). Crows and Sparrows (along with other unfinished Kun Lun films such as The Winter of Three Hairs (1949) and Life of Wu Xun (1950)) resumed production in September, 1949, after the CCP army took over Shanghai.
The kind of realistic concern and naturalism of Crows and Sparrows have been frequently invoked in film history books as comparable to that of Italian Neorealist works such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Rome, Open City (1945).3 Similarities are very easy to find, for example in the systematic and attentive representation of working-class urbanites and the overwhelming wartime/post-war social reality; or in the acute perception of class domination and resistance. In terms of aesthetics, though, most of the shooting of Crows and Sparrows occurred in the studio rather than on location, even though its naturalist mise-en-scène (low-key lighting, casually picking out costumes from the crew members’ own wardrobe and using everyday objects as props due to financial difficulty, encouraging improvisation and natural acting, etc.) delivers realistic texture and details of life.
However, in comparison to many Italian neorealist films which address the ambiguity of life with less dramatic narrative and more open endings, Crows and Sparrows appears to be a sonata dedicated more to victory than the poetry of everyday reality. According to Zhao Dan’s memoir, the revision made to the script by September 1949 was enormous. The filmmakers ‘passionately studied Mao’s works, learning to analyze the characters using Marxist theory, therefore were able to give [the film] a more adequately proportioned dose of sympathy and critique’. 4 As a result, for most of the film, we see these imperfect yet quite ‘real’ tenants struggling with many problems in life (power abuse, ridiculous inflation, sexual harassment, and many more); yet, all these troubles are suddenly dissolved by the victory of the CCP over the KMT. In the happy ending of the film, the New Year celebration coincides with the ‘rebirth’ of the house (and the country, of course). A brief self-criticising speech is given by Mr Hua, further elevating the symbolism to the spiritual level. As a critic points out, this ending is bold and incongruous with the rest of the film, an idealist or romantic finale attached to the previous realistic and satirical treatment.5 But ending with the victory of the CCP was common to many Chinese films finished after October 1949. To a large extent, we could see it as a natural response of the leftist filmmakers to the triumph they had been expecting, rather than just a mannered ideological gesture.
Filmmakers enjoyed a certain level of artistic freedom at the time. Although they were influenced greatly by the communist ideology, they did not opt to simply use some so-called ‘progressive figures’ to illustrate political ideals. The ending aside, within an allegorical narrative framework, all the characters have interesting and quite subtle personalities, which gives the audience a feeling of flesh and blood. This may have something to do with the filmmakers’ approaches in making the film. For example, the script was a collective endeavour of six contributors, including Chen Baichen, the director Zheng Junli, and the male lead Zhao Dan. It is said that they came up with the characters first, then added the filmmakers’ own observations and experiences of the status quo to form the storyline (Zhao Dan had a lot of input of this kind). The satirical tone was fleshed out by Chen Baichen, who had been consistently representing ‘the spiritual pursuit of freedom from repression and enslavement by human being’ through ‘laughter’. 6 Naturalism was also delivered through acting. Crows and Sparrows consciously challenged previous typecasting of its main actors and actresses, Zhao Dan, Huang Zongying, and Shangguan Yunzhu.7 Before Crows and Sparrows, Zhao had been almost always playing positive (if not perfect) and well-groomed parts, but he was cast as the sloppy and talkative Little Broadcaster this time. He ended up playing this role through the internalisation of life experience in a Stanislavskian way (Little Broadcaster is modelled after Zhao’s old neighbour). Some key performances in the film were the result of numerous rehearsals and reshootings (for instance, the scene in which Little Broadcaster fantasised about trading gold), even at a time of material scarcity. In Zhao’s own words, his performance ‘came from many feelings of life’, through which ‘the embodied life experiences infiltrated into the making of the film, as snow melts into earth’, so that ‘it was as if I had got real freedom; I and the character merged into one’. 8
To sum up, the historical context of Crows and Sparrows makes its realism one of a kind. It is a complex style charged with contradiction. In 1957, the film won the first prize of ‘best fiction made during 1949–1955’, however, it was soon accused as an opportunist work by the ‘Gang of Four’, since the new doctrine of the Cultural Revolution did not allow ambiguous characters with imperfections, in other words ‘real people’, to be at the centre of cinematic representation. Crows and Sparrows was not re-evaluated and restored back to the classics of Chinese cinema until the 1980s.
1. Cai Chusheng was one of the best-known film pioneers of China. He entered the film business in the 1920s, working as Zheng Zhengqiu’s assistant for a while. Cai joined the Lian Hua Film Co. in 1931. After several melodramatic and sentimental films, he made a ‘left turn’. His works include The Fisherman’s Ballad (1934), New Woman (1935) and A Spring River Flows East (1947).
2. Chen Baichen had been a member of ‘the LeftWing Dramatist’s League’ since 1930. While being an active revolutionist, he also worked in several progressive theatrical troupes and wrote a series of novels and screenplays.
3. See for example Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1972, p. 177.
4. Dan Zhao, ‘How did I play Little Broadcaster’, Searching for Artistic Gems in Hell and Heaven [Diyu Tiantang suo Yizhu], Nanjing, Jiangsu Literature and Arts Press, 2011, pp. 118–19.
5. See Yongyuan Cui, Crows and Sparrows: Updown the Stairs (documentary/in Chinese), 2006, in Film Legends (Dianying Chuanqi) series.
6. Baichen Chen, I’ve Come along like This (Wo Zheyang Zou Guolai), Nanjing, Jiangsu Fine Arts Press, 2008, p. 97.
7. Huang and Shangguan were popularly known by the audience as the lovely ‘sweetheart’ and ‘evil mistress’ respectively through their characters in previous films. To challenge typecasting, Huang played the concubine, Xiaoying, in Crows and Sparrows, while Shangguan played the meek and harassed young mother, Mrs Hua.
8. Zhao, pp. 119–23.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Kun Lun. Director: Zheng Junli. Producers: Xia Yunhu, Ren Zongde. Screenwriters: Chen Baichen, Zheng Junli, Zhao Dan, Shen Fu, Xu Tao, Wang Lingu. Cinematographers: Miao Zhenhua, Hu Zhenhua. Music: Wang Yunjie. Sound: Li Liehong. Art Design: Ding Chen, Niu Baorong, Xu Xing. Editor: Wu Yanfang. Cast: Zhao Dan (Little Broadcaster/Mr Xiao), Wu Yin (Mrs Xiao), Sun Daolin (Mr Hua), Shangguan Yunzhu (Mrs Hua), Huang Zongying (Yu Xiaoying), Li Tianji (Mr Hou), Wei Heling (Mr Kong), Wang Pei (A-mei).]
Paul Clark, ‘Film and Chinese Society before 1949’ and ‘Yan’an and Shanghai’, in Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Jay Leyda, ‘Between Victories: 1945–1949’, in Dianying: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1972.
Jihua Cheng, Shaobai, Li and Zuwen Xing, Zhongguo Dianying Fazhanshi, Vol. 2, Beijing, China Film Press, 1963.
Chaoguang Wang, ‘Film Cersorship of the Kuomingtang Nationalist Government after the War of Resistance against Japan’, Journal of Nanjing University, Vol. 38, No. 6, 2001, pp. 113–23.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.