Chinese cinema is one of the oldest film industries in the world, with the first Chinese film Dingjun Mountain being released in 1905. For the next decade, production companies were foreign-owned and the domestic industry was not active until the 1920s.
During the 1920s, American movie makers visited Shanghai in order to train Chinese film technicians, heavily influencing the early years of Chinese cinema. Throughout the 1920s and 30s Shanghai began to emerge as the center of pop culture and a symbol of modernity in the Middle Kingdom.
Shanghai’s newfound lively dynamic contributed to the “golden age” of Chinese cinema which took place in the 1930s. It is also known as a “leftist movement,” due to the production of socially and politically revolutionary films. That was a result of the dispute between the Kuomintang and Communist parties which was actively reflected in the films of that time.
While political films were popular, directors also depicted Shanghai as a corrupt but promising city.
Some memorable films from that time include Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angel (1937), Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934) and Cai Chusheng’s Song of the Fishermen (1934) .
These films are considered classics due to their influence and revolutionary approach, and here’s why:
Street Angel (1937)
Set in the slums of old Shanghai, two sisters (a prostitute and a singer) try to escape local scoundrels. They are aided by a trumpet player and a newspaper seller. The film depicts a group of outcasts exploring romance and overcoming social struggles.
The film became a masterpiece of Chinese left-wing cinema. In a time of economic and political tensions, films such as this one raised awareness on a whole manner of issues.
The depiction of the struggling lower class in the midst of a cosmopolitan city was relatable to the population of Shanghai. It showed how sudden modernization and colonialism can affect the life of an average citizen.
Song of the Fishermen (1934)
The film details the struggles of a family of fishermen who are forced to sing on the streets to make money to support themselves.
The filming process was complicated due to locations and props; many actors got motion sickness while filming on small fishing boats. The cast was also looked down upon by the town’s elite.The actors were invited to a reception held by local officials as entertainment.
The film itself has no dialogue and music is used to express the emotions and artistry of the film.
Song of the Fishermen was so successful that it played for 84 days straight in Shanghai, and it was the first Chinese film to win a prize in an international film festival (Moscow Film Festival in 1935).
The Goddess (1934)
This film tells a story of a prostitute who is a loving mother trying to support her son. The director’s intention was to focus on the life of a struggling woman in order to speak out about women’s oppression in China. The actress who played the protagonist, Ruan Lingyu was well known for her nuanced performances of “suffering women of China.” Her performance in this and many other films is seen as a vehicle to spread the message of the need for social change.
Struggling people attempting to survive and function in a modernized city was a common theme during this cinema period. It is largely a result of leftist directors dominating the industry at that time. Film was also a relatively new form of art in China, therefore many citizens wanted to experience it for themselves; directors utilized that in order to divide the message they wanted to spread into digestible bits to “teach” the audience. This dynamic gets largely subverted in the following eras of Chinese film, but more on that next month…