Street Angel (Malu Tianshi), 1937, I: Entrapment in the Neopolis of Back Alley Shanghai

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The iconic music+sound-film of Shanghai in the pre-War years is – I think all will agree – Mu Yuanzhi’s Street Angel (malutianshi), Mingxing Studios, 1937, semi-sound. Studies of pre-1949 Chinese film rarely appear with full filmscript and dialogue/lyrics in translation, but this one does. (By Andrew F. Jones, 2000, available at OSU’s MCLC Resource center (http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/angel/). That is no coincidence: It is that widely studied, and deservedly for the director’s skill in montaging or otherwise signalling double meanings is sans pareil.

Its subject or rather topos? The film’s opening titles – highlighted by a very slow pan down the side of a luxury art-deco highrise (for rich foreigners) and then a splendid montage of bar/hotel/dancehall neon lights (for dandified Chinese, taxi-dancers and whores)- prefigure what we shall see: a grim story of life in the Lower(st) Depths of the Shanghai Neopolis, what life is “like” for an admixture of street “professionals” chained to the entertainment + “leisure” industries (“food and fun”), and that is what we are shown. For-hire “Western-style” bugler, newspaper vendor, barber, saloon songstress, fruitseller, unemployed semi-mute, and prostitute. All under the hoof of downmarket victimizers: landlords/ladies, tavernkeepers, showbosses, brothel madams, and of course petty gangsters dealing in human souls and opium etc.

The Story.
This is how the Baike “encyclopedia” – probably the best source for Chinese film summaries – abbreviates the tale. (http://baike.soso.com/v221927.htm)

“The story takes place in Shanghai in 1935.

(The [male lead etc characters are:
Chen (little Chen) a player (bugler) in a “fife and drum” (chuigu) corps
Wang (“old Wang”) a newspaper vendor
A (nameless) barber
A (stutterer who is) unemployed
A (fruit) hawker

It is the end of yet another day of scrambling for a livelihood along the paradeway/boulevard (malu) for these 5 gallant street-brothers who (are engaged to) “share in both hardship and blessing”, and they have returned to their cramped second-story digs in the Taiping (“Peaceful”) Quarter.

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