Before I begin the review, I should point out that this was a silent film despite being made in 1934. In fact, silents were made in China several years after this, as their film industry was way behind Hollywood and much of the rest of the world.
SHEN NU is a very simple story and it is told in a very forthright manner without a lot of unnecessary dialog or plot. It is about a poor prostitute who works very hard to feed her baby. She seems like a decent sort of woman--she just doesn't have a lot of choice in life. The film has two main subplots. First, despite being of the lowest class in society, she works hard to send her son to a nice school but there is still a lot of prejudice against her and her young son. There is a lot of pressure to expel the boy because of his mother's profession but it's also a strong testament to her that she works as hard as she does to give him a better life. The second plot involves a brutal pig who forces the lady to accept him as her "benefactor". In reality, he takes from her and gives little back other than violence. Towards the end of the film, he steals every bit of money she had saved up and spent it gambling--leading to a not terribly surprising but sad ending.
The film is without the overt sentimentality of similar later films. While the mother and her life are certainly not glamorized, neither is she condemned because of her circumstances. I'm sure back in 1934 this would have shocked many audiences, but it did make for a great example of social commentary. A very good film.
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