Two sisters having fled from the war in northeast China come to Shanghai looking for a better life. Xiao Yun (Zhao Huishen) is forced into prostitution while her younger sister Xiao Hong (Zhou Xuan) becomes a singer and dancer at a local brothel. Though enslaved to the musician Wang, they are aided by the friendship of a young street musician Xiao Chen (Zhao Dan) and his friend Xiao Wang (Wei Heling) who help the sisters fend off the brothel owner and local thugs. Considered an early Chinese classic, Yuan Muzhi's lyrical Street Angel depicts the daily struggles of those who made up Shanghai's underclasses in 1935 at the time of the Japanese occupation: the street walkers, news vendors, fruit sellers, musicians, barbers, and the like. The film blends comedy with social realism and shows Chinese women as victims of a ruthlessly commercial society.
Unlike Flowers of Shanghai by Hou Hsiao-hsien which depicted the world of the courtesan behind closed doors, Street Angel shows the open world of Shanghai's street prostitutes, girls that have no status, are bought and sold, and allowed little individuality. Like the prostitutes in Hou's film, however, they are equally entrapped and their only escape is by marrying or running away. In spite of its theme, the film is never heavy handed but comes alive through the superb acting of Chen and the magnificent singing of then 18-year old Zhou Xuan. Zhou's songs and Chen's trumpet playing and magic tricks give the film a warmth and playfulness that transcends the bleak conditions and makes it universal in its appeal.
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