Street Angel / Twin Sisters Review

Chinese filmmaking flourished in the 1930s, a period now considered the first golden age of Chinese cinema. The era produced a number of remarkable films, many of them progressive and leftist in their leanings such as Sun Yu’s The Big Road (1935) and Shen Xiling’s Crossroads (1937), films concerned with the lower and working classes, sympathetic to their plight, but also full of life and humour. The two films included on this DVD, released as part of Cinema Epoch’s Chinese Film Classics Collection span this rich period of filmmaking which ended with the progression of the Japanese invasion into Shanghai in 1937 – Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angel (1937) and Zheng Zhengqiu’s Twin Sisters (1933), both films highly regarded and considered among the best films in the history of Chinese cinema.

Street Angel - Yuan Muzhi, 1937

Street Angel opens with views of the glamorous life of people in the parks and main streets of Shanghai in 1935, seemingly unaffected by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. However in the city’s backstreets it’s a different story. Many poor people have fled from the country to live and work in the slums of Shanghai, among them Xiao Hong and her sister Xiao Yun. The elder sister has been forced into prostitution by her landlord and his wife as a way of paying for their keep, while Xiao Hong – too young to be sent out on the streets – makes a living singing in tea-rooms. However when the wealthy and influential gangster Mr. Gu shows an interest in the young singer, her unscrupulous landlord starts making arrangements to sell her.

Xiao Hong however is in love with Little Chen, a young man who lives across the street. A trumpet player in a marching band, Chen and his motley street-gang friends keep the young girl entertained from his window, amusing her with games, tricks and music. When he finds out what fate lies in store for Xiao Hong, they plan to make their escape – but with no money between them to pay for the rent, how long can they remain hidden?

Set among the lower classes, Street Angel might depict the difficulties and dangers the poor have to face on a daily basis, but it also shows their inner strength and capacity to deal with adversity. They do not have the same opportunities and recourse to the law as the rich people they read about in the papers, who are able to afford expensive lawyers when they wish to file a complaint against wrong-doers. Ingenuity, imagination and persistence however they have plenty of, Chen making inventive use of his band uniform, his friend making a suit out of a blanket, and even the workers in a hairdressers put all their efforts into drumming up clients when the economic problems threaten to put it out of business. Above all however, the people have resilience and make the most of the little they have, living life to the full - playing in marching bands on parade, singing songs of hope, love and longing.

The situations shown in Street Angel are certainly romanticised, showing the influence of the US films that were popular in China at the time (the film is loosely based on Frank Borzage’s silent classic Seventh Heaven) – but it is said that director Yuan Muzhi spent a lot of time with the kind of people filmed, observing their situation and finding a way of portraying it on the screen. He does so with a particular verve in Street Angel, capturing the richness of life in a film that is characterised by comedy and slapstick routines, romantic drama, music and ultimately, tragedy.

Twin Sisters - Zheng Zhengqiu, 1933

One of the founding-fathers of Chinese cinema – he made the first Chinese short film in 1913 – the films of Zheng Zhengqiu were also very much dedicated to the leftist filmmaking principles of highlighting the plight of the poor. His 1933 melodrama Twin Sisters, also considered one of the best films in the history of Chinese cinema, hammers home that point most effectively by showing the fate of two sisters, separated as children, one of whom grows up in an environment of poverty, the other marrying into a life of privilege and wealth.

Set in the “13th year of the Republic of China” (about 1923), a fisherman Tao is greeted with the news that his wife Da Bao is pregnant. As her grandfather warns them of the grave responsibilities for the bringing up of a child, Da Bao’s mother recalls how thirteen years previously her husband, fearing arrest for gunrunning, left them to move to Shanghai. Rather than leave both his twin daughters behind to die of starvation in the country, he takes the youngest, prettiest one, Er Bao with him. Having never heard from them since, the mother is unaware therefore that Er Bao is now a very rich woman known as Mistress Ying who is married to an important warlord general.

While Er Bao lives a privileged life in Shanghai, her twin Da Boa and her husband live a life of poverty, suffering from starvation, taking risks to survive and struggling to overcome illness, but doing their best to bring up their children in a loving environment. Er Bao meanwhile is able to employ a wet-nurse to look after her child, and when the daily struggle to earn enough money becomes too much for Da Bao, she applies for that very post, unaware that it is her sister’s child she will be looking after. When her husband Tao has an accident at work, Da Bao is forced into an action that is to have terrible consequences.

The circumstances of two sisters and the inequality of their respective positions inevitably gives rise to some rather heavy-handed social commentary in Twin Sisters, as well as quite a bit of tearful melodrama. Contrasted with the heartlessness of her sister towards her family, Da Bao’s poverty in particular is over-emphasised, being made up of long tedious scenes of child-rearing that are designed to show that, for all their misfortune, the poor at least have strong family values and understand the nature of decency and compassion - even when it drives them to normally unthinkable actions.

Heavy-handed it may be then, but Twin Sisters is also extremely powerful in a way that can only be achieved when melodrama is handled in an effective manner. The injustice of the situation is forcefully brought home when we realise that it is merely an accident of birth that has separated the twins, allowing one to be poor and the other rich, when in reality they are both identical. Moreover Zheng Zhengqiu brings this contrived situation to a masterful conclusion with one of the most bizarre family reunions imaginable that exposes the whole sordid state of affairs that allows such injustice to persist.

Street Angel and Twin Sisters are released in the USA by Cinema Epoch. The two films are presented on a single dual-layer disc in NTSC format. The disc is not region encoded.

Both Street Angel and Twin Sisters are of course very old films, and undoubtedly the original elements are in far from perfect condition. Even with expectations correspondingly lowered however, the quality of the prints used for this DVD release is still disappointingly poor.

Street Angel looks the best of the two films here, and is certainly an improvement over the Cinema Epoch release of Spring In A Small Town, both in terms of there being fewer problems with the print and fewer problems with the authoring of the transfer. There are however still plenty of issues with missing frames, washed-out whites, some curious flaring, numerous scratches and marks and some larger persistent signs of print deterioration. Interlacing also contributes to the lack of sharpness in an unavoidably soft image. Fortunately, the film is more or less intact and, once adjusted to, the many marks and scratches cause little distraction from the film.

Twin Sisters however is in very poor condition indeed. The scratches and damage are more persistent, with some scenes so overwhelmed by damage that it looks like heavy snow is falling. The same problems with interlacing in the transfer are apparent, though less troublesome. An additional problem here however is with the aspect ratio, which has been cropped to about 1.52:1, and this is quite noticeable in the compositions (see below). Adjusting to the problems takes time, but again the film is certainly watchable, but really nothing more than that.

These are early sound films, so inevitably the technology and age doesn’t allow for high quality sound recording, however Chinese films from this period appear to be technically quite strong and the soundtracks to both Street Angel and Twin Sisters are consequently not bad at all. There is certainly a fair degree of hiss and background noise, but never to a distracting level, and although the tone is somewhat dull and muffled, there is reasonable clarity here. There are one or two complete drop-outs of sound for a second or two on each film, so while the problems are certainly evident, they do not cause undue difficulties with following the films.

There are no problems at all with the English subtitles, which are in a white font, clearly readable at all times and optional.

There are no extra features on the DVD and sadly, no inserts or any kind of information that would put these important films into their historical context.

Judged by Asia Weekly to be two of the “100 Greatest Chinese films of the Century”, Street Angel and Twin Sisters are two superb examples of leftist filmmaking from the first golden age of Chinese cinema. Both films are certainly heavy on melodrama, but demonstrate many other qualities, both in their subject matter of their championing of the lower classes, but also in their technical achievements and the acting performances, producing some of the first home-grown Chinese film stars. Their importance in the history of filmmaking is certainly evident here in this Cinema Epoch double-feature edition, despite the poor quality of the materials available. Without knowing the condition of the original elements – and it’s doubtful that original negatives would have been preserved for these films – it’s possible that this Cinema Epoch DVD release presents these films about as well as can be expected without a prohibitively expensive restoration. If that’s the case, then it’s just miraculous that we are able to view these historically important films at all, and it’s certainly a pleasure to just have the opportunity to see them in an English language friendly edition.

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