White Haired Girl: From Adolescent Psycho-Traumatic to Revolutionary Icon

China’s first musically linear modern opera, Baimaonv (first staging, 1945, film, 1950), was epoch-making not just for its integrated sound structure but even more for its ambitious black-and-white cinematography and chorus-backed lyric arias. It may well also be the most successful attempt in Chinese film to harness the atmospherics of the horror film to the cause of revolutionary messaging. In one regard the last gasp of black and white lenswork, it harnesses that medium in a way as eerily unsettling as Song at Midnight. But by the early 1960s, color diction was so well established – largely as a demonstration of state resources and competitive prowess – that a reversal back to nocolor would itself have painted the message with the tincture of anachronism. The peculiar mix of seeming documentary, non-specific retrospection, and nocturnal shading- all reminiscent of silent film – seem to peak, thereafter fade from depictions of pre-1949 revolutionary punctuations. (nb: liuhaomen…???)

But it is the handling of the music that is perhaps the most powerfully original aspect of the experiment: its structure is no longer that of intermittent/punctuative, stand-alone interludes (chaqu) – akin to the way song and dance numbers were handled in Hollywood in the age of Busby Berkeley – , but rewritten leitmotivic reworkings of a cycle of melodies, best known (and almost always in the musical background) of course being The North Wind Howls (beifeng chui). To which it must be added that “solo” delivery that the singing is always multi-modal: female solo, male-female duet, and male-female grand chorus, which by gradual reinforcement (crescendo) achieve an emotional, affirmative depth not before (and rarely after) matched. Its breakthrough stature is such that I have enlisted an Expressionist quick-sketch of the heroine’s revenge-enfuried countenance as header for this site as a whole. (NB, we now know that the original mandate, to expand the repertory of yanggeju, was gradually then aggressively abandoned after 1944-5 or so, though never with an admission, obviously because that mode of entertainment was itself in the nature of an interlude, and unable to carry an extended drama of any sort ..),
(note on the header graphic: the three “sisters” of the so-called “Grann(ies) Shrine) Nainaimiao), a Daoist Trinity whose cult in to be found across China: the three (Lingxhao, Bixiao, and Jing (last and youngest in the middle) are specialists in childbirthing and conception – which, as we shall see, is the very problem set (thence crisis) that pushes Xi’er into madness. “奶奶庙中神灵的来历得从封神演义说起,封神后,其中灵霄、碧霄、琼三姐妹以及她们的哥哥赵公明一家人被分到咱峨口做神灵,主要是掌管生子”. Her madness is sustained by their involuntary care…

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