Street Angel (Malu Tianshi), 1937 III: Giving Credits, I

The “modern” feature-length movie in its B and W days (say, before 1960) differed from its current day offspring in one telling regard: the credits are all compressed into an opening montage. You had nothing to learn as a screen buff by waiting for the end sequence. (How different nowadays when most information — too much– other than the names of the director(s) and lead actors – reels out at the end, in ever shrinking fonts.)

In that regard, our currently featured film (Malu Tianshi, 1937) is thoroughly BW and pre-War in its placement of credits: directorial, technical, and of course actorial. As indeed are its best surviving Chinese cogenerationals (Crossroads, Dushi fengguang etc.). With the art of the “credits” montage in such high esteem, one finds a great deal of interpretive “information” about the film to come is already percolating in the subconscious before the action sequence(s) begin.

Even by those high standards, though, the credits sequence (start to 2:45) as expanded seamlessly into the famous downward pan of an art deco highrise (2:45-3:06) thence again into the equally famous wedding procession is extraordinarily full of what might be called editorial message.

Perhaps because the wooden skyscraper so dominates what we recall as we move into the story proper, it is easy to overlook or under-appreciate the internal messaging that precedes, in the titles proper. (The skyscraper by the way is not just symbolic of social altitude: it fuses elements from the Metropole Hotel (1930), left, and the Rockefeller Center International Building (also 1930), which establish that ’30s Shanghai was exactly synchronic in its architectural modernity with New York).

But a patient review of the acting credits reveals something essential about the Neo-Realist aesthetic that is these days back-attributed to director Yuan Muzhi: that is, the deliberate anonymity of his presentation of actors, from leads down to almost unnoticed cameos.

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