Street Angel

I saw “Lincoln” yesterday, and hope to discuss it while it’s still in theaters. Today I’ll just say that it’s damn good, better then I thought it would be… Now, let’s talk about a movie from pre-communist China…

Street Angel (马路天使) is apparently famous in China, though this has not been confirmed by any of the Chinese people I mentioned it to… Probably it’s famous among the same kind of people who liked Dead End in the US.

Houses made from the finest cardboard

Those who live in cardboard houses… should start a revolution.

Like Dead End, the movie begins and ends in the slums, and has poverty as it’s central theme. Apparently it’s a ‘leftist’ movie, although I personally didn’t find it to be any more leftist then Dead End was. The fact that a revolution took place in China a decade later has nothing much to do with our heroes, who spend more time flirting and playing tricks then fighting to overthrow the bourgeois upper class. The characters are poor but optimistic, nothing like the ‘serious’ type of poor people we see in modern ‘important’ movies. In the 1930’s, poverty was more visible. Poor people on screen weren’t ‘tragic’ or ‘controversial’, they were just… well, poor. The male lead is laughable; a bad trumpet player, who also knows magic tricks.

...Got your attention?

…Got your attention?

And our trumpet player (named Xiao Chen) is in love with Xiao hong, a teenage girl who sings in a teahouse run by her evil stepfather. In the most indirect and entertaining way, she tells us her story. She sings a song for the teahouse guests about a woman who has fled south from a foreign army, lost her parents and is missing her home. We don’t need to be told that the woman in the song is her, and anyone who knows their history can tell that the foreign army is the Japanese (the movie was made in 1937 but set in 1935.)

Xiao hong’s song intercut with scenes from the war (sing along by following the bouncing ball!)

Xiao hong’s song intercut with scenes from the war (sing along by following the bouncing ball!)

Xiao Hong also has an older sister. She’s a mean-eyed prostitute who is jealous of her sister’s freedom. She’s a foil for the other characters; the only one who is always serious. I can’t say much about her without giving anything away, but she turns out to be the most complex and important character.

Not evil, just going through an 'all-black-clothing' phase.

Not evil, just going through an ‘all-black-clothing’ phase.

Despite the depressing subject matter, much of the movie focuses on the slapstick antics of Xiao Hong and her friends. Chen impresses Xiao Hong by performing magic tricks from his window. One character has a comical stutter. The humor is sometimes outdated, and it’s not as funny as the best Chaplin or Keaton. But the characters themselves feel warm and surprisingly modern, and the movie has a lot to offer besides comedy.

Soon, the plot kicks in; Xiao Hong’s stepfather sells her to a fat rich guy. Chen’s friend sees them at the arranged meeting, and before long their relationship is broken. It is quickly mended, however, when Xiao hong comes to his room, crying. Chen gives in and asks her to run away and live with him and his brothers. Xiao Hong smiles and all is forgiven.

Xiao Hong borrowing Chen's hat.

Xiao Hong borrowing Chen’s hat.

What a happy ending! Except the film’s not over… it’s not even half over. Actually, you could argue that that whole thing was just a lead-in to the real plot. The fat rich dude is still on the lookout for his lost purchase. Wang, Chen’s best friend, falls in love with Xiao Hong’s sister…  Turns out she was in love with Chen and… Well, a lot of stuff happens.

Xiao Hong gets a haircut... This picture is completely relevant to the review.

Xiao Hong getting a haircut… all these pictures of Xiao Hong are completely relevant to the review. absolutely.

So as you can see, the plot moves wherever it feels like. Many of the plot elements would be cliché material on their own, but they feel organic because we can’t predict how each scene will conclude. The story develops in a way that’s seems both random and completely logical. At first it seems the writer had A.D.D., and started writing one story only to get distracted by another. But watching it again, it’s actually held together quite deliberately. It’s just that the writer wants each new scene to be entertaining on its own. The plot progression comes second.

This is the oldest Asian movie I've seen in which the actors kiss. In Japan at this time, they barely even hug.

This is the oldest Asian movie I’ve seen in which the actors kiss. In Japan at this time, they don’t even hug.

Xiao hong was played by Zhou Xuan (周璇), a legendary Chinese singer, and she’s obviously the crown jewel of the production. She’s given more screentime and more closeups than anyone else. I think it pays off: she’s quite charming. Her acting uses a lot of pantomime, reminiscent of the silent era that she missed by just a few years. She’s not a great actress, but when she missteps it’s with the awkward sincerity of an amateur, and we can forgive her (she never fails because of overconfidence.) And her singing is another matter: she’s a perfect traditional singer. She sings three times in the movie, and all three of them are the best scenes.

Zhou Xuan looking sad... RELEVANT

Xiao Hong looking sad… Did I mention how relevant these pictures are?

It is among the first movies to mix comedy and tragedy successfully. The lightheartedness of one scene makes another one seem darker. The comedy and tragedy are balanced with one another; neither seems half-hearted. It’s one of the few movies where you honestly don’t know what the next scene will bring. It had to be this way for the story, since luck and chaos play such a big role in the character’s lives. One moment they’re happy, the next moment they’re sad. As Xiao Hongs sister says; “Everyone is alike… Prone to hard luck.”

Chen and Wang: Lovable gang of misfits

Chen and Wang: Lovable gang of misfits


Most of the action takes place in a studio set, and the plot is quite improbable. It would be ridiculous to call it ‘realist’, but something about Street Angel makes it lifelike. The lively way the characters enjoy themselves, and the uncertainty of how long their enjoyment will last, makes their situation a lot more ‘real’ to us then any of the humorless, neo-neorealist movies that the ‘intelligent’ public is forced to sit through at film festivals.

Also… The villainous stepfather, the couple who act like children and need each other… they’re all recognizeable characters of silent cinema. These innocent cliché’s were starting to die out in the late thirties (the age of the ‘femme fatale’ was beginning) so I’m quite glad to see my formerly mute friends, and the spirit of silent films, doing well here in China.


Episode Preview:

Will uses a time machine to travel to… the year 2012! What world is this? What sort of movies are being made?? Most importantly, where is the Soviet Union?! A modern, mainstream movie review next time, from the Blog that dares…



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