N.B. This post is a reconstruction and simplification of the preceding train-of-thought meditations on the “Shanghai Noir” classic named in the title.
This film is a remarkable one, a linguistically orphaned work of film art ahead of its time not just in China but in the (post-WWII) Big Studio worlds of Italy, France, and even the US. Its uncanny anticipation of Italian “neo”-realism (La Roma, città aperta 1944 and De Sica’s La Strada, 1957) has been recognized since the 1980s and accounts for the film’s rediscovery and involvement in the “Shanghai Modern” boom in the academic world. But it somehow gets ahead of the trends even inside Chinese cinema itself: as in its 10 year headstart in seeing how Gorky’s view of life entrapped in a homeless shelter (“Lower Depths”, Shanghai 1947 film production) might be transmuted to convey the psychological strains of the Chinese underclasses in 1930s Shanghai’s burgeoning “Chinatowns”, into which they had come for shelter (escape) from Depression era chaos and military displacement only to find that they had been re-trapped, or self-trapped, in the claws of a strangely archaic array of old-style enforcers, white slavers, procuresses, and tavern/cum-teahouse-keepers.
I have chosen instead to call it “Shanghai demi-noir” (perhaps Shanghai “gris”) because its sensibility bears several of the hallmarks of the “noir” atmosphere that peaked in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s (in China eventually crystallizing in Zhang Yimou’s heavily “noir” inspired Shanghai Triad, 1995: see MKP’s excellent review at http://www.filmsufi.com/2008/08/film-noir.html). Most notably and most powerfully, a kind of editorial fatalism – the players are victims of a sense of entrapment in an impersonal and criminal-oppressed (mainly) urban underworld where deception overpowers goodness, and “heroes” know better than to try, the good they might do being accidental and without moral significance. (Another take: “Fatalism”, as filmsufi points out: Most of the characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters. This leads to the narrative quest for an escape..
But “demi”-fatalist because the enmeshed – the trapped seeking escape, the films “heroes” (principals) – are vested with a certain improbable but actually quite life-like veneer of cheerful innocence, even playfulness. The love interest pair (Zhou Xuan and Zhao Dan) behave as impulsive children or perhaps spoiled kids: teasing, pouting, spatting but then quickly making up, allowing themselves to be charmed through silly vanity or as victims of dreaming, and ever bumbling (through ignorance) into real world mischief from which they yet somehow swiftly retreat and start anew never disheartened.
The subgeneric qualifier – that there is a kind of silly good-humor and innocence within the “noir” fatalalism – is both believable and appropriate for a very specifically “Shanghai” reason. As confronts us at the very head of the film, the underclass innocents whom populate the action are epitomized as showfolk-for-hire – performers of a believably marginal, modest sort who (because new to the “city” or without guild-masters to actually teach them their art) act their parts as if in uncensored “play”, or private game, rather than as professional performance. Bugler Chen’s contortions, miscues and grimaces as well as songstress Xiaohong’s endless little-girl moues are both escapes: by playing at cut-ups they forget their plight as ticket-punching entertainers of the lowest station, and because they thereby mock themselves, they make the show “fun”-ny, as then so also the film. True, they are dancing at the mouth of the wolf’s lair, but their showboat insouciance or unworldliness seems a kind of charm – at least until the very end when over-acting and childish exuberance in fact does them in.