Rightly regarded as one of the masterpieces of China’s “Golden Age” of cinema, writer-director Yuan Muzhi’s Malu tianshi is exuberant and trenchant. In 1935, war with Japan has driven the Xiao sisters, Yun and Hong, from Northeast China to Shanghai, where they are impressed into a cathouse; Yun thus becomes a prostitute, while her younger sister becomes a chanteuse. Yun devotes herself to Hong’s protection, but in the end it is Yun herself who proves fatally vulnerable.
It is remarkable that a narrative launched by Japanese invasion—a stunning montage of war punctuates Hong’s opening song—turns its critical eye inward, addressing patriarchal Chinese society, poverty and class, especially regarding the exploitation of women. At the movies, usually the force of such an external threat puts social problems at home on hold; but Yuan’s dazzling film runs vast and deep. Moreover, its style is even more radical. Consumed by the slapstick comical romance between Hong and the ceremonial band trumpeteer who lives across the street from the brothel, Malu tianshi brandishes a zany, almost anarchic air that Yuan has poignantly populated with the hopefulness and tenderness of youth. We see much more of Hong than we do of Yun, and along with this we frequently hear Hong’s enchanted singing, and we may be forgiven for momentarily forgetting what a disastrous fate threatens, in fact, both sisters. Yun eventually helps Hong to escape the brothel; she, herself, joins Hong. But reality ferrets out the sisters and lethally strikes, savaging the comedy in anticipation of the nouvelle vague in France twenty years later.
Zhou Xuan is charming and spirited as Hong, and Zhao Dan is even better as the equally adolescent boy, Chen. But best of all is Zhao Huishen, who makes a searing tragic impression as Yun, who is as strikingly dark as Zhou is strikingly bright. Yuan extends to Yun, in addition to dark clothes, an aura of shadow that disrupts the tenor of the frames in which she appears; there is also a unique formality to Yun’s appearance. I kept feeling that Zhao’s Yun is somehow constantly envisioning her own life slipping away.
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