A silent film in 1934 in China, when the rest of the world had moved to talkies in 1930, that's surprising. But this film is probably a masterpiece. And yet the subject is simple. A prostitute wants to provide her son with an education. The film is about the difficulties she meets on the way to this objective.
First of all her pimp is stealing her money all the time. Then the slandering rumors and then protest letters of other parents in the name of the reputation of their children. The headmaster of the school is ready to concentrate on his mission, which is to educate the child and not consider the mother. But he has to resign and the others get rid of the kid.
Then the mother wants to leave the city where they are known but she finds out her pimp has stolen her money one more time. She confronts him and finally attacks him with a bottle. The court of justice to which she is brought will not look for extenuating circumstances and will send her to prison for twelve years and the child to some special education school.
But then the headmaster who had resigned for the child decides to visit her and get her authorization to take care of the child and provide him with the education he deserves. She agrees and the end is an angelic dream of the mother about the happy future of her son.
This scenario is very typical of its period but it has little in common with what the west was doing at the time or even before. There is no excessive expressiveness, no images overloaded with symbolic meaning. The actors play as if they were able to speak, in the most natural way. This acting gives to the argument a believable power that makes it just plain real. It is pure and true truth and nothing else.
The second argument is that the situation and the discourse is possible, believable and serious. No artificial body language, no excessive posturing and contortions, no overdone facial expressiveness. That increases the power of the story and we just accept it as being what may happen everyday around us, if we opened our eyes enough to see it. The film then becomes extremely significant.
But the divine, angelic or idyllic end is surprising in 1934 when the whole world is sinking in the worst crisis ever and when military aggressiveness is growing in all countries or nearly. But the great advantage is that it makes it possible to avoid any kind of easy ideological discourse, like the republican reformism of the Kuomintang or that of the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. And that enables the film to become universal.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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