Review of Street Angel (马路天使；China, 1937), A Star (Mingxing) Film Company production, distributed in the United States by Cinema Epoch (DVD).
Director: Yuan Muzhi
Screenwriter: Yuan Muzhi
Music: He Lüting
Cinematographer: Wu Yinxian
Cast: Zhou Xuan, Zhao Huishen, Zhao Dan
Running time: 87 MIN.
Reviewed by USC (Univ. of Southern California) Student Micah Worsham
Street Angel (1937), directed by YUAN Muzhi, a leftist classic.
Street Angel features the darker side of life in the slums of Shanghai, depicting the story of a small group of friends who have been brought together by their close proximity. As another leftist film, much like The Goddess (d. Wu Yonggang, 1934), various techniques were employed to convey messages criticizing the faults in society and forcing the audience to consider the problems themselves. At the very start of the film, the audience sees a montage of images varying from bustling city life to overlays of various monuments shot at different angles, giving an impression of destruction or chaos. After this, we see an image of a nice, western-looking establishment overlaid with a shot of falling money, as if accentuating the affluence of this capitalistic place before cutting to shots of the lions commonly seen in front of banks taken at ominous angles, almost warning the audience not to even dream of trying to gain that wealth.
After the moving shot down the length of a Shanghai skyscraper, bringing the audience’s focus onto the streets/slums of Shanghai, the film begins with various shots of a parade taking place in the city streets as onlookers gaze at the ceremony and its participants in admiration. The main character is introduced by a comical release of liquid as he tries to blow his trumpet, soon after which we see him falling into a palanquin as his friend, Master Wang, steps on his shoes. As he peeks through the curtain, he sees the palanquin’s occupant: a young lady with her eyes crossed, and his eyes become crossed as a result. This seems to be a criticism of wealth and high society, hinting through comedy that members of this tier of society are backwards and cannot see clearly.
The major difference between this film and The Goddess is the availability of sound as a medium with which to convey messages for the director and writers. Following their rather ironic stroll down “Peaceful Lane,” the audience watches as Xiao Chen and his group, including the newspaper salesman Wang, the street vendor Ah Bing, the barber, and the stutterer, rather satirically struggle to write the word “hardship,” which the Wang remedies by finding a newspaper clipping with a title describing the hardships of China, a clever allusion on the part of the leftists to the war with Japan. The director also utilizes song to convey messages as each song Xiaohong sings seems both to apply to the situation in the film while simultaneously hinting at the current crisis in China. The “Four Seasons Song” includes lines such as “suddenly a heartless blow splits the [mandarin] ducks in two” and “the maiden has been blown south of the river / the scenery’s lovely all over the land / but how can it compare to the green gauzy sorghum at home?” hinting at the attack by the Japanese in the north, where sorghum is known to grow, and forcing the girl to move south of the Yangtze River to Shanghai.
Perhaps the most important character is Xiaohong’s “elder sister,” Xiaoyun, for her role as the character that brings the audience back to reality and provides the main handle of criticism in the film with her death. For the first half of the film, Xiaoyun remains silent, though it becomes clear that she is a prostitute who is interested in Chen and is jealous of Xiaohong as a result. However, as it becomes clear that their current benefactors, the erhu players and the gambling mistress, plan to sell Xiaohong to Mr. Gu, Xiaoyun presents Xiaohong with a suitcase and says “You don’t belong here. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They hate me.” With this display of kindness as well as her apparent relationship with Wang, who seems very fond of her, Xiaoyun is brought closer to the audience. Xiaoyun is later forced to seek shelter with Chen, who is still disgusted with her despite her relationship to Xiaohong, because a policeman on the street caught her out at night. As she takes up residence with the group, she is soon compelled to protect Xiaohong as Mr. Gu and the erhu player find their residence and inquire about Xiaohong. Xiaoyun gives Xiaohong time to run away as she confronts the erhu player who heartlessly calls her a slut and throws her against the wall, to which she responds by throwing a knife at him. The knife misses and he picks it up and throws it at her instead, hitting her in the chest and dealing a fatal blow. The film ends following Xiaoyun’s death and shot from outside the window of their little apartment, later moving back up the skyscraper as if saying this was just a glimpse into the lives of one small group of people suffering in the slums of Shanghai. With her death, the satire and other comedic moments in the film are made clear and the audience is forced into a serious state of mind as they consider all that has transpired.
Street Angel utilizes clever satire as well as tragedy in its story along with various camera and sound techniques to convey a critical message to an audience that is both entertained and left wondering about what exactly they saw: I know I was.