Sunday, April 22, 2007

Scenes of City Life: Shanghai in the Movies

I bought the movie "Scenes of City Life" (Dushi Fengguang) mostly because I thought it an interesting title for a movie, and because I saw from the box that it was a 1935 movie set in Shanghai. Beyond that I knew little and so my expectations weren't particularly high, but perhaps luck is going my way! This movie turned out to be a classic. I'll wait a while and re-watch it later, but right now I have to say this is both one of the best Chinese movies ever made, and also one of the best movies from the 30s worldwide.

I'll concentrate on what the movie has to say about Shanghai, but those interested and located in Shanghai may want to pick up the DVD from, say, one of the Fuzhou Lu bookstores (bootleg shops and piracy sites won't have a copy). Additionally, the movie is in the public domain, I put up a very low-quality rip on tuduo, part 1 part 2. The movie unfortunately does not have English subtitles available! But for those who follow the lingo, I recommend watching the movie before reading this.

The movie starts with an interesting dialogue-free sequence that even if it resembles stock footage (although I'm guessing it wasn't), still gives interesting quick looks at historic scenic spots of Shanghai. There's scenes from Nanjing Lu, Fuxing Park, and the Bund.

It's a whimsical way to start the movie, and the movie initially feels something like Charlie Chaplin - a poor boy who loves a girl, trying to make it in the big city of Shanghai. This plays off as a series of gags, some deriving from silly sight and sound jokes, for instance the male romantic lead is so poor, his shoe has a gaping hole in the sole.

The lead character is mostly concerned with going on dates. Here he's shown going out to the Nanking Theater, now known as the Shanghai Concert Hall, near People's Square. It's most famous as the building Shanghai moved down the block, because the nearby freeway and subway of Yan'an Lu were too loud.

Interestingly enough, the movie they go out to see is something like Steamboat Willy-era Mickey Mouse! The characters are quick to identify themselves with the cartoon characters, and the girlfriend's caddish other boyfriend in particular is later shown to have purchased a cigarette lighter with the villian's picture on it.

As the movie progresses, it increasingly turns into a mad-house version of the familiar conventions. There's no dignity to the poverty, as there is to movies of the American Depression. Characters are obsessed with money, but purely as a means to prolong their empty lives for as long as possible. It's frequently pathetic, and the main character's prized pocket-watch is pawned without a moment's hesitation:

Which is about enough money to go on a date with the girl in an upscale club, where she immediately ignores him for her other boyfriend's rich manservant. Here's a four minute sequence:

The characters are intentionally shallow, but not one-dimensional - the characters who seem noblest are quick to compromise their ideals, and even the most unlikable characters are themselves victimized and exploited. The one character who seems to have a chance of happiness obtains it through a sudden, cruel act of theft, and with a man who flippantly tosses her pet dog away, for no other reason than a mild annoyance:

The movie is clearly a critique of the shallow values and basic moral failures of 30s-era Shanghai - a popular sub-genre of the time, which "The Goddess" also falls into. It was directed by Yuan Muzhi, most famous as an actor who frequently showed intelligentsia abandoning Western influences to fight for Nationalistic causes. That's another popular sub-genre of the time, one that resulted in some seriously boring films. He had very strong Communist ties, and was one of the two singers for the soundtrack song "March of the Volunteers," that went on to become the National Anthem of the PRC.

Also, I should probably fit in here that this movie was China's first "talkie," and frequently made visual miscue-ing jokes, had actors act in a definite silent-movie acting style, had hilariously bad background noise effects, and had two characters who talked to each other like the adults from Peanuts!


DiscoDan! said...

Did you pick up the DVD in Shanghai?
If so, where?

Thanks mate, excellent blog post!

Jeff Rutsch said...

Yeah, it can be found on DVD in Shanghai. I got it at the book mall in Fuzhou Lu, on the 6th floor.

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