Street Angel (Malu Tianshi), 1937, I: Entrapment in the Neopolis of Back Alley Shanghai

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The iconic music+sound-film of Shanghai in the pre-War years is – I think all will agree – Mu Yuanzhi’s Street Angel (malutianshi), Mingxing Studios, 1937, semi-sound. Studies of pre-1949 Chinese film rarely appear with full filmscript and dialogue/lyrics in translation, but this one does. (By Andrew F. Jones, 2000, available at OSU’s MCLC Resource center ( That is no coincidence: It is that widely studied, and deservedly for the director’s skill in montaging or otherwise signalling double meanings is sans pareil.

Its subject or rather topos? The film’s opening titles – highlighted by a very slow pan down the side of a luxury art-deco highrise (for rich foreigners) and then a splendid montage of bar/hotel/dancehall neon lights (for dandified Chinese, taxi-dancers and whores)- prefigure what we shall see: a grim story of life in the Lower(st) Depths of the Shanghai Neopolis, what life is “like” for an admixture of street “professionals” chained to the entertainment + “leisure” industries (“food and fun”), and that is what we are shown. For-hire “Western-style” bugler, newspaper vendor, barber, saloon songstress, fruitseller, unemployed semi-mute, and prostitute. All under the hoof of downmarket victimizers: landlords/ladies, tavernkeepers, showbosses, brothel madams, and of course petty gangsters dealing in human souls and opium etc.

The Story.
This is how the Baike “encyclopedia” – probably the best source for Chinese film summaries – abbreviates the tale. (

“The story takes place in Shanghai in 1935.

(The [male lead etc characters are:
Chen (little Chen) a player (bugler) in a “fife and drum” (chuigu) corps
Wang (“old Wang”) a newspaper vendor
A (nameless) barber
A (stutterer who is) unemployed
A (fruit) hawker

It is the end of yet another day of scrambling for a livelihood along the paradeway/boulevard (malu) for these 5 gallant street-brothers who (are engaged to) “share in both hardship and blessing”, and they have returned to their cramped second-story digs in the Taiping (“Peaceful”) Quarter.


Or: Huang Doudou (“Yellow Bean”) rediscovers his metier.

The players:

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This little-heralded dance-drama (wuju) is a backstage musical presenting jingju (Peking Opera) from the inside and as seen through a kind of broadway musical production in the making.

But presenting and trahsforming one subcategory in particular: the wuxi 武戏. (“Military plays”. heroic in nature, full of loyal generals, glorious emperors, wise ministers, all of whom struggle against traitorous opposing forces – Farewell My Concubine and Hua Mulan, to name 2 we have studied). This was thought of as a lower art form than wenxi (civil plays) because so much of the action was imitation combat, acrobatics and the like. It is played mainy by wusheng 武生, which is the class of apprenctices, who must fist train as acrobat-athletes for the combat scenes (a means of testing their stamina).

But forms of Opera both hard as hell to “modernize” or render as hybrid Western/modern. Meaning rescore and rechoreograph such that a Broadway or Soho audience could “get it”, be glued to their seats by (just) watching or listening, without having to endure garbled tutelage from the producer. And without having to recruit audiences by “star”-studding, something that ended with Mei Lanfang’s tours.

The musical is also (or even mainly) about the revival of the career of Huang Doudou, quondam star of the Shanghai Ballet, who has staggered from hit to non-hit as a star player in the world of wushu – tumbling, gynmnastics. appurtenances of the Wuxi. (His Hua Mulan was a flop). The drama of this very short piece rests in whether or not his troupe can rescue the form from its relegation as bottom-level pure show, disappearance on hand. And even more on whether, as tghe junior of the “three musketeers” among the apprentices, and loser in love, he can somehow find the way back to or even create dr nobo something even better.

Well, while we weren’t looking.

November, 2011, 2 Beijing performances only, the rest in Taiyuan (?), the Shanxi Provincial “Opera” Company, not even recorded for CCTV (that I know of)

A 1-hr plus Broadway style adaptation of the “show” that actually works.
The “libretto” by Lilian Lee, who 18 years earlier had made it to the silver screen with the same subject, in Bawang bieji (Farewell my Concubine, see my earlier posts and the “sword dance”), but managed to keep audiences coming only by studiously AVOIDING anything but the shortest take of genuine or even derivative performance. In fact, hardly any “opera” at all, just backstage stuff and back-back-stage political hackery about the Cultural Revolution.

The trick (isn’t it obvious from Maurice Bejart’s In the Mood for Love (2008), a take on Shanghai stage art in the 30s via Zhou Xuan) that scoring it as a musical, with dance featured, was the solution?

Well it is. Or rather was: no invite came from abroad. Not exotic or esoteric enough?

Mulan (2010) as “Music/Dance/Drama”: a not-Musical

Poster for 2010 Version

An oddly named performance. 音乐舞剧 Yinyuewuju. MUSICAL WITH DANCE? Or (more baffling still) 大型原创歌舞剧 Daxing yuanchuang gewuju. ORIGINAL GRAND-SHOW CABARET DRAMA? More cerebral language than one usually sees on tickets. Only “East is Red” seems to have had need of this sort of lego set nomenclature: “Grand Scale” + “in-Music” + “Historical Epic”. And anyway don’t musicals (yinyueju) by definition come WITH DANCE – a legacy of the cabaret from which they sprang? (as opposed to operetta, which comes without…).

Some parsing is easy. There already had been mounted (2008?) a Mulan show categorized as yinyueju (lit. Musical); and of course the Mulan story whether on stage or in film/animation, had become almost too often “told”, becoming a kind of same old same old after the Disney corruption. So that
“original” is perhaps they key word: this is NOT just a redo. The odd insertion (redundancy?) of “dance” alerts us to the feature role of Huang Doudou, known (by now somewhat incorrectly) as a choreographer. And the “grand-scale” alerts us to a jammed jammed stage and overpowering lighting.

Yet it is still a coy self-descriptive: to exploit that hoary paradox universal in Chinese poetics: “It is music and not yet (what we know as) music”; it is dance but not yet dance; it is drama but not at the same time drama”.

Meaning in more concrete terms it is a SPECTACULAR, in the manner of a Las Vegas or Lido “show”: a meager array of solo songs (souvenirs, almost orphans, and only 2 singers); weak instrumental back up (a drum and synthesizer “continuo”); much too much background ambient sound; mind-shattering non-stop freeform martial dance overlit in primary color, disco-like, but not choreography; and storyline trajectory yet one without dialogue. Why all so self-undercut? Why so much excess? So overdone and sustained, unrelieved, unmitigated, that one loses interest even before midway? (If that far).

Masculine costume in “Doudou”‘s Modern Dance: From terracotta warrior to onnagata


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(1) The Qin Warrior comes back to life after 2200 years…. **** Gloomy prognosis aside a new formula for male SOLO dance did however emerge in the later 1990s. As one might expect it was centered in (around) gymnastic agility … Continue reading

Affirmative Action for (male) “Heroes” on the Stage

65703553 音乐舞剧木兰-4

Happy coincidence. Just as I was (yesterday, Jan 5) reviewing the obviously awkward male combat moves from the Feb. 2010 CCTV New Year’s Gala, billed as a face-off with “dancers” (meaning of course women gyrating their long sleeves) who of course fared much better, I stumbled upon an unattributed newspaper op-ed piece rueing the failure of “classical” dance to give play to the “knight-errant” (xiayi, solo- heroic) spirit once upon a time at the core of that art form. (Though when historically this was the case, and in what great works this might have been so, is not specified). (

Male Dancers Facing Neutering…
Had the Chinese film-going (or TV watching) public not been taken in by the prevailing notion that such dance must favor skills of pliability, of stretching (contortion in my language —-) – as the anonymous writer calls it: 古典舞的肢体柔韧度 软开度 – a feature of feminine dance? When more regard should be given to the spirit of wuxia (lone-hero fighter) which alone provides a counter to “pliability” = dance? 侠义精神的古典舞作品阴柔之舞形成了强烈的对比. Without rebalancing, seeding more of the spirit of the lone-swordsman hero in these productions, men dancers will be (already are?) neutered, become desexed, adrogynous (中性). Unable therefore to take on lead roles, condemned to be followers (my interpretation)

No, I’m not inventing these phrases, or diminishing the seriousness of the threat felt by the editorialist, who obviously is writing from a Party (official culture) point of view sensed as unpopular, but needing to be stated (anonymous contributors very often mask themselves – testing the waters.

With the ultimate target surely the Beijing Dance Academy, whose female grads seem always to walk away with the top prizes. (It is their star danceuse, Wang Yabin (see …), who we see dancing an unenthusiastic pas de deux in our frontispiece). While none of its male soloists have gotten beyond Class 2 awards.

A Modern Classicist Dance Queen goes to the Big Media

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Illustrations: (1) header collage; (2) cursive brush inscription (uninterrupted line); (3-5) Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers Long-sleeve Dance; (6-11) Wang Yabin in Fan Dance over brush landscape and model choreography for Zhang Ziyi ) (no film credits!);

from Contest Awards to MTV to 2010 New Years Gala. and next?

The Journey of Wang Yabin, 1999-2004,
from BDA star to ghost dancer for Zhang Ziyi 章子怡in House of Flying Daggers

From solo and mod-classical and inkbrush in MTV
To ensemble-covered big stage in cinematic sets
To 2010 CCTV NY Spectacle – with fallen kunqu dan star Li Yugang

A bigger stage….

How the Commies Invented a “Classicist” Dance 古典舞


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PICTURE SET:  THE BUILDING BLOCKS ….. Fig.  1    Han Mural of Dancer with Sword (possibly a shaman making/finishing a blood sacrifice) Fig.  2    Li Shengsuo 李胜素 as Concubine Yu, Sword Dance from (Opera) “Farewell My Concubine (1998): “Backflex” Fig.  … Continue reading

The King of Chu bids Farewell – and Moves to Hong Kong (Bawang Bieji, 1993)


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Note to readers: the essay extends an earlier of Oct 12 essay “Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?”. But it is a second go: spurred by the of the ever renewing interest in the suicide of 张国荣 … Continue reading

“Losing Breath/Losing Voice” – Women’s Dying in Gen. 5 Film


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Pagetop collage: teenage girl pulled from well nr Tianjin fall 2012 (attemped suicide); Cuiqiao’s father predicting her death by drowning; Raise High: “Coral” singing her operatic swansong as she faces death-by-enchainment in the rooftop jail on the Chen mansion: Shanghai … Continue reading