Unmasking Childsong’s Dark Side in Shanghai Noir

The darkness of Shanghai Urban Neo-Realism is in very large part articulated by its inverting or sabotaging the cliches of utopian modernism in its depiction of non-elite life.

This has already been called attention to in the portrait of Xiaohong, the “innocent” (tianzhen) younger sister of a long lost prostitute whose off-and-on relationship with the happy-go-lucky bugler-cum-erhu playing headboy of the Goodfellows quintet (Chen Shaoping, Little Chen) in Malu Tianshi creates one of the two story lines (the other being the troubled relationship between Newsvendor Wang and elder sister Xiaoyun). As a still largely childlike recent (thus little corrupted) immigrant from the open spaces of the Northeast, Xiaohong’s rescue from the Bluebeard Gu Chenglong and the enslaver “Fiddle Master” is clearly a surface story of innocence preserved, which is why the film’s de factor themesong is the Huangmei Operetta’s “Songstress of the Ends of the Earth”, which promises the redemption, through unsullied cross-gender affection, of her purity in a Happy Ending (“marriage” to Chen).

As a second reading of that film’s storying of/about the Zhou Xuan enacted Xiaohong (something like “Little Rosebud”) shows, innocence, sexual and otherwise, or (better) childlike absence of cynicism, is no secure or unqualified virtue, but rather a kind of blinder that makes her susceptible to Material Blandishment, allegorized in her (almost) ruinous infatuation with a piece of cotton print fabric. (In fact the problem of the ingenue’s dangerous proneness to Big City material luxury is not credibly resolved, with the problematic gift somehow losing its tarnish when magically relayed via boyfriend Chen and Big Sister to become in effect her marriage costume – the unpersuasiveness of which is highlighted by its association with trompe l’oeil magic-show).

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