“City Scenes” and Musical Comedy in ’30s Shanghai: Thin slate

Page 7

The second published (printed) 版本 script (were there two films made?) is somewhat shorter, but makes no major changes, except possibly for the last moments of the film. Once again, the would-be Shanghai immigrants on the “not-Shanghai” station platform and the “city scenes” diorama return, but in reverse: the “city scenes” picture sequence (recast into the film) has now ended and the bumpkins (actually the main story actors in downmarket dress) have been awoken (!) from their camera obscura fantasy by the shrill blast of a trainwhistle. But their cluelessness (hence vulnerability to the false lures of Cosmopolis) is not vanquished. In fact it is magnified: for 20 seconds the small band runs back and forth between in- and -outbound (“to” Shanghai, “from Shanghai) 3rd class coaches, seemingly unable to decide which to ride (=”what to do next”), and presumably missing both. The trainwhistle blast (but which?) may have jolted them from the dioramic fantasy, but the filmscript(ors), still bound by a commitment to absurdity, have no way to project the moralizing reconsideration proposed at the end of Script 1.

***

“Reading” the Film – Foibles vs Stresses

For the non-academic or non-Sinoliterate viewer, this is a very very difficult film to watch start-to-end. (Give it a try? see Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de_LBs7w2oE
which is the best print I’ve seen).

For one thing, there are many too many soundtrack “gags” that simply repeat over and over. One in particular that Dir. Yuan is peculiarly fond of: go-nowhere arguments (exchanges) are over and over translated into sound-caricature: “La-la-la-la-la-la” then reply “La-la-la-la-la”. Something like yada-yada but because the social context is not necessarily obvious or funny (to the outsider) it becomes almost audience-insulting.

That so in particular since so many of the ya-da-ya-da ricochets occur at point of economic tension, quarrels over price or credit, which expose (or should expose) the logic or rhetoric that accounts for most of the unhappiness that the film is intent on re-rendering as droll.

Most of all the current (1935) credit squeeze (collapse) connected to chaos in the money supply and foreign exchange markets. The film is not of course concerned with banking or macro-economics, but it is surely preoccupied with the lower bourgeois end of trade and pricing, which (for Chinese merchants) means the sidewalk “bank” of the pawnshop. (alt, ya or dang).

As the film itself makes all too clear, the end of the financial year (traditionally in lunar “December”, more or less end-January) engaged the same ritual in Shanghai as in the countryside. Pawnbrokers had like other financial households to settle their books, meaning close their open tickets and monetize the (always overvalued) residual cache of pawned merchandise to realize the loss. (There were of course “second tier” pawnbrokers who specialized in lowball repurchasing of unclaimed items – we see one in action). So presumably pawnshop credit simply dried up as the end-year approached, and increasingly desperate borrowers still in the market had to settle for pennies on the pound even for steady demand items, symbolized of course by the pocket watch.

In a sense this end-year squeeze, made worse by failing currencies and devaluations, is the real “subject” of the story (just as the demonetization of silver coin is the “subject” of 1937’s New Years Coin), for the male lead literary “dandy”, Li Menghua, comes on stage having to pawn his wristwatch to buy movie tickets for his long sought date with the (equally) spendthrift Zhang Xaioyun. (Something which of course he cannot let his inamorata learn, for she has been encouraged to think that his literary talents keep him solvent). Eventually of course Li’s addiction to “deficit finance” gets him into social embarrassment: not only does he have to ask (at other pawnshops) for the time of day, but one of his (presumably) recent pawntickets is mistakenly offered the hat-check boy at the Christmas Soiree (he is there of course with Xiaoyun) where the embarrassment gives better-funded petit bourgeois rival Wang Junsan his opening to snatch control of spoiled flapper, pick up the tab, then bed the girl.

But, yadayas apart, the inquest into dis-credit doesn’t stop with the disgrace or humiliation of our litterateur and the ravishing of his paramour.

By chance (hardly that), Xiaoyun’s father is also in the pawnshop business, in spite of the relative fashionability of home. (We first see him lowballing a pocketwatch that the unaware Li Menghua wishes to pawn to pay for a movie ticket). And of course that means he is even more subject to the end-year crunch than his retail customers. Christmas again forces things: when a school girfriend Shuzhen invites her to be bridesmaid at her wedding, she flounces into her mother’s bedroom pleading the need for a new Christmas season gown, only to find that lady gloomily paging her way through her husband’s overdue bills dating from November which of course the illiquid broker cannot pay (too much un(re-) claimed merchandise is clogging his shelves, as we see earlier).
On so on.

Making this set of connections still less than exciting for the outside observer to ponder is another problem: the artifacts and venues have – in their names – second-reading or overlaid meanings that encourage their overuse as semaphore. Dang, the character for pawnshop, can mean substitute (even ersatz) identity, or of course a place where one is made a fool of. Less obviously, biao, the character for pocketwatch, means both “to show” and ” to (represent/display) – implying a discrepancy between appearance and reality, the subject of course that haunts the frequenter of the pawnshop. So the cameras is all too often tempted to poise – too long – inspecting the large-scripted character(s) that glower over patrons of pawnshop alley.

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