Orphan sisters Xiao Yun and Xiao Hong from war-plagued northeast China live under the exploitation of their adoptive parents in Shanghai 1935. Xiao Hong, forced to work as a teahouse singer, falls in love with her neighbour Xiao Chen, whose room window faces hers. Her elder sister, the silent and gloomy Xiao Yun, has been subjugated to prostitution already and suppressed her desire for Xiao Chen. When Xiao Hong discovers that her adoptive parents plan to sell her off to the coveting local despot, Xiao Chen and his friends do all they can to stop it while dealing with their equivocating moral judgment on Xiao Yun, who, at the end, sacrifices herself to save her sister.
Produced by the Ming Xing Company1 with a strong cast2 and long-lasting melodies,3 Street Angel is one of the most beloved left-wing films made in 1930s semi-feudal, semi-colonial China.4 As the cultural milieu in Shanghai was informed by both Western entertainment forms and a nationalistic urge for survival, the imported medium of film quickly adapted to the local situation. Street Angel by director Yuan Muzhi is representative of such an effort: allegedly a remake of a Hollywood film of the same title, Yuan’s Street Angel has a new story, unique aesthetic and compelling social message.5
The film exemplifies the kind of Chinese leftwing filmmaking of the 1930s that is characterised by its active commitment to class contradiction, nation-building agenda and tremendous mass appeal in terms of entertainment and sentimentalism.6 Studies mostly take note of these films’ hybrid nature in narratological and stylistic terms, but their complex hybridity unsettles Western theoretical frameworks and calls for re-evaluations from cultural and historical perspectives (see Berry 2006: 77–82; Ma 2002: 107–8). In his cultural reading of 30s left-wing cinema, Ning Ma offers a set of useful parameters:
“Narration in leftist films … deviates from [the melodramatic narrative] norm in its construction of a social allegory that frames the melodramatic narrative of the text. The presence of a[n] … ethico-political scheme, made possible by blending different artistic modes through various extradiegetic intrusions and explicit social references, socializes the diegetic time and space of the melodramatic narrative.” (Ma 2002: 102)
Ma’s emphasis on the process of ‘socializing’ postulates the interactivity between the film text, the audience and the social milieu through (1) the construction of the social allegory and (2) the introduction of an extradiegetic social presence. Street Angel, in this sense, serves as an interesting case study, as the film poses questions on how ‘the social’ makes its presence felt under melodramatic and realist rubrics: it has dual female characters embodying two melodramatic plots showing a difference between social and personal moral legibility. The incoherencies, though, ultimately authenticate an individual perception of social victimhood.
While the female body is often the object of competition between patriarchal and imperialist forces, in Street Angel, it is more than evident that Xiao Hong and Xiao Yun, two sisters dislocated from the then Japanese-occupied Manchuria to the highly Westernised Shanghai, are metaphors for the then divided nation (see Berry 2006). The characters’ ‘retrieval and staging of innocence’, the core of melodrama, is applicable to the nation (Williams 1998: 42). However, the female body is dangling between the role as object of desire for the male and that as an allegorised collective. In Street Angel, the melodrama is not only personal, but also serves as a social allegory.
At first glance the two female bodies fit in what Linda Williams describes as ‘a dialectic of pathos and action’ (Williams 1998: 42). Xiao Hong, a naive sing-song girl, is fully dynamic and expressive. In contrast, her big sister Xiao Yun is a silent and jaded prostitute. The sisters have both undergone a melodramatic revelation of virtues: Xiao Hong is seen ‘dating’ a local despot, but later clears her name in a tearful fight with Chen, with whom she is in love. Xiao Yun dies because she helps her younger sister escape from the arranged marriage with the despot. In a tableau shot at the end – a convention symbolic of the public recognition of their virtues (Williams 1998: 52) – Xiao Yun is surrounded by her semi-family members, including her now brother-in-law Chen, who once despised her because she attempted to seduce him, but who finally apologises. Rejected, sacrificed and physically injured, Xiao Yun’s body is doubly victimised by the unjust class stratification and the patriarchal judgment within the lower class. It is on her deathbed that she finally ascends to a position of legible morality: ‘We are equally unfortunate. There’s nothing to forgive’.
However, although both Xiao Hong and Xiao Yun’s wronged virtues are recouped in the end, Xiao Yun’s moral legibility is only recognised when it is aligned with the victimhood of the lower class. Chen reluctantly begins to accept Xiao Yun when she becomes his family member – a patriarchal alliance indeed. On the level of audience engagement, the narrative does not allow the audience to take an omniscient vantage point to survey the moral situation (Williams 1998: 49); Xiao Yun gets less screen time, fewer shots and fewer lines, so that her passivity – her passive subjectivity – goes underexplored. In front of the camera, Xiao Yun’s observation, persuasion and protection of Xiao Hong all take on an enigmatic veneer: after a shot of her figure or face to indicate her presence, there are usually few reverse shots to allot her an equal portion of attention, and even fewer eyeline match reverse shots to suture the audience into her point of view. There are shots that reveal Xiao Yun’s secret feelings towards Chen. But without any consistent focalisation on Xiao Yun and her motivation, Xiao Yun’s action is not adequately explained. And her personal moral conflict is not so much resolved as relinquished to the social conflict. It is reasonable to ask: do the affects for the character strictly correspond to those for the social issues? In other words, is the latter predicated on the former? Are there possibly other emotional sources?
In purely cinematic terms, Linda Williams has discussed the relation of realism to melodrama, suggesting that melodrama is an operative mode and realist effects are make-believe functions in the service of affect (Williams 1998: 42). Laikwan Pang coins the term ‘engaging realism’ to foreground the functional aspect of realism in Chinese leftist films (see Chapter 8 in Pang, 2002). She notes that realism was introduced to China as a political/philosophical notion for a purportedly objective and challenging representation of the status quo. In practice it effectively conveys the social message and engages the audience. As we can see in Street Angel, the cinematic style forms a signification process that seeks to activate the viewer’s association of the narrative with their social experience off-screen. The realist registers here are not ambience-building effects (Williams 1998: 74), but a direct address reaching beyond the diegetic space and time to speak to the culturally informed viewer.
In Street Angel, as in many other Chinese leftist films, social references are often inserted via newspaper headlines. Ning Ma thoroughly analyses how such ‘journalist discourse’ contradicts or agrees with ‘populist discourse’, such as wordplay, mime and singing. In terms of cinematic technique, the ‘open POV structure’ (i.e. an establishing shot plus a shot on the characters in the scene, who are rendered as ‘lookers without a vision’) used in the opening wedding procession, is a device that allows the viewer to experience changing looking positions in order to critically assess the grotesque social conditions (Ma 2002: 107). Moreover, the visual motif of the newspaper-walled room expressionistically frames the contradiction between headlines and the characters’ social experience; as a realist mise en scène per se, the walls covered with newspapers invite the audience to relive these contradictions.
A more sophisticated admixture of image, sound and discourse takes place in the sequence of Xiao Hong’s singing of the Song of the Four Seasons. While singing is usually regarded as an extradiegetic spectacle, it is more productive to recognise it here as a populist element lodged in Chinese print culture for its lack of bodily performance, which is very different from musicals full of dance (see Lee 1999: 91). When singing, Xiao Hong’s subjectivity recedes: within the diegetic space, the camera stays at an objective view point, showing only Xiao Hong’s and the local despot’s actions; but there are additional images placed in the sequence that directly correlate with the lyrics – among the more noticeable are war images alluding to the Japanese aggression on Chinese territory. These images thus bypass both the diegetic space and the literal meaning of the lyrics (‘lovers are parted by the ruthless violence’) and create ‘a new hermeneutic space’ (Pang 2002: 217). Given the rising patriotism among the audience and censorship of the images of Japanese aggression (Yeh 2002: 88), this montage is not so much to alienate or educate the audience as to unannouncedly evoke the viewer’s emotional response.
By the same token, we may conclude that for the purpose of evoking authentic affects in response to social realities, the construction of the allegory modifies Xiao Yun’s personal, ‘significant and interpretable’ struggle to fit the social terms.7 When Chen disagrees with Lao Wang on whether Xiao Yun deserves to be saved, the close-up of a picture of Chen and Co is inserted to mark the change of Chen’s attitude. It shows the viewer the phrase written on the side of the picture: ‘To share the joy and shoulder the adversity together’, bestowing collectivity on the plot that follows. There are two flashbacks in the final scene that feed into the omniscient survey of the viewer: when Xiao Yun awakes she finds herself in the arms of Chen – in the reverse shot, Chen’s face is blurred to suggest Xiao Yun’s point of view. In the reaction close shot, Xiao Yun is given water to drink. A flashback shows Chen’s rejection of Xiao Yun in a previous scene, when he threw her glass of water to the ground. Xiao Yun closes her eyes in humiliation. What follows is a stationary, relatively long take (and also a long shot) that frames Xiao Yun, Chen and Xiao Hong and that shows Xiao Yun stroking Chen’s collar. Another flashback to a previous scene is inserted: in the dark alley Xiao Yun does the same thing, which causes Chen’s hostile reaction. Compared with the first flashback sutured in the close point-of-view shots, the second flashback shows less Xiao Yun or Chen’s subjectivity with regards to the love triangle that also involves Xiao Hong. Rather, it is an objective presentation of the two temporally juxtaposed spaces in order to arouse the pathos of the audience vis-à-vis the concept of misunderstanding. This transition transposes the audience’s expectation into something less personal and less focalised. Afterward, we hear Xiao Yun’s comments on Lao Wang’s kindness as a friend (rather than his love for her), on her fear of the police (i.e. the regulatory powers of a capitalist society) and on the ants-like meagre lives of the poor. Thus the moral struggle on the personal level is not so much solved as it is eclipsed by the emphasis on the irresolvable social conflict.8 Finally, pans from the dark alleys of underground Shanghai to the inaccessible, overpowering skyscrapers. The ant-like individuals, despite the intricate power relationship among themselves, are levelled and suppressed at last.
1. The Ming Xing Company was one of the first film production companies that recruited leftist filmmakers in response to the rising leftist sensibilities among the audience. For details see Pang 2002, Chapter 2.
2. Nicknamed ‘the Golden Voice’, Zhou Xuan (1918 or 1920–1957) was a popular singer and actress in the 1930s and 40s with about two hundred songs and 42 films under her belt. Zhao Dan (1915–1980) was one of the most popular and important leftist film stars in the history of Chinese cinema.
3. Song of Four Seasons (siji ge) and The Wandering Singsteress (tianya genu) were composed by He Luting and the lyrics were written by Tian Han. Both songs have enjoyed long-lasting popularity. Music is indeed crucial to the understanding of the film’s production and the filmmakers’ choice of drawing from cinematic languages in the sinification process. For an insightful analysis, see Yeh (2002).
4. In the official Communist historiography, the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1841 marked the reduction of China to a ‘semicolonial and semi-feudal’ status, referring to the state of the nation with residual local feudal economic and political relations and the Western encroachment on Chinese sovereignty.
5. Street Angel (1928), directed by Frank Borzage, is a silent film produced by the Fox Film Corporation.
6. As a corrective to the state-approved ideological reading of the film as critical realism with solely proletarian interests, scholars overseas have explored the melodramatic elements of these films for their mass appeal.
7. Peter Brooks states that everyday reality is made ‘significant and interpretable’ in melodrama. See Brooks (1976: 200).
8. In his reading of the finale, Chris Berry thinks the moral conflict is resolved while the social conflict is not. Although I agree with his method of separating the two realms, I think this statement needs a clearer distinction between a solution in the plot and the viewer’s satisfaction provided by storytelling. See Berry (2006: 87).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Ming Xing. Director: Yuan Muzhi. Screenwriter: Yuan Muzhi. Cinematographer: Wu Yinxian. Music: Tian Han. Cast: Zhou Xuan (Xiao Hong), Zhao Dan (Xiao Chen), Zhao Huishen (Xiao Yun), Wei Heling (Lao Wang).]
Chris Berry, ‘Chapter 4 Realist Modes: Melodrama, Modernity, and Home’, in Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar (eds), China on Screen: Cinema and Nation, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006, pp. 75–107.
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1976.
Leo Ou-fan Lee, ‘The Urban Milieu of Shanghai Cinema, 1930–40: Some Explorations of Film Audience, Film Culture, and Narrative Conventions’, in Yingjin Zhang (ed.), Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922–1943, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999, pp. 74–98.
Ning Ma, ‘The Textual and Critical Difference of Being Radical: Reconstructing Chinese Leftist Films of the 1930s’ in Harry H. Kuoshu (ed.), Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society, Carbondale and Edwardswille, Southern Illinois University Press, 2002, pp. 93–109.
Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-wing Cinema Movement, 1932–1937, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.
Linda Williams, ‘Melodrama Revised’, in Nick Browne (ed.), Refiguring American Film Genres, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1998, pp. 42–88.
Yueh-yu Yeh, ‘Historiography and sinification: Music in Chinese cinema of the 1930s’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3, Spring 2002, pp. 79–97.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.