This challenge to storybook romance is not peripheral but central to the development of an atmosphere of urban dystopia, perhaps the central variable in the dialogue between Noir neo-realism and Leftist or New Culture Movement idealism.
The challenge implicit in this Noir reframing of urban underclass life is perhaps of greater ideological significance than the (mere) complication of Zhou Xuan’s role, though clearly her acting amplitude is greatly widened by the questioning of Xiaohong as a moral anchor. For it calls to question that most essential of New Culture Movement dogmas: the faith in the Rousseauian tabula rasa of childhood and thus of the potency of education to effect social change.
To put it most extremely, where are we left if the innocence thus redemptibility of “youth” loses plausibility? With a gaping hole, obviously, in the religion of the schoolroom as the stage for renewal, for re-instatement of social probity, thus ultimately for National Salvation? A faith shared all across the political spectrum in pre-1949 China – but finally and resoundingly challenged by both of the directorial Geniuses of the 90s, Chen Kaige (in Farewell My Concubine), and of course Zhang Yimou (Judou and Shanghai Triad), where childhood and/or adolescence is rephrased as a potential monster whose very immaturity opens the door to its agency of disorder or cruelty cloaked as naive impatience. Which is of course the saga of the Cultural Revolution.
That neo-realist reevaluation of innocence and youth is nowhere better framed than in the portrayal of the child(-ish) musical talent as yet unframed or uncorrupted.
I have mentioned this already in connection with Zhou Xuan’s portrait of Xiaohong in Malu Tianshi. But the problem (questioning) is put before us in three other neo-realist (noir) films where a childish heroine falls victim to the temptation of musical modernity, an important sub-arena of urban life where the young (even pre-pubic) female talent is, as it were, granted automatic star power in a context of sudden openness to “Western” style performance, leading unintentionally to harmful outcome.