Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Song of the Fishermen

Song of the Fisherman (漁光曲) is an icon of Chinese cinema. Released in 1934, it was a huge box-office success screened all over China. It was a good movie, but also captured the spirit of the times. Although it's a silent, at its heart lies a song. It sounds like folk song but was in fact written for the film by a classically trained composer who made it simple enough that audiences could sing along. During the years of war and turmoil, people would sing it to themselves, identifying with the plight of the fisherfolk, resolute against all odds.  HERE is a link to the recording by the star of the film, Wang Ren Mei (王人美).

"Cloud float across  the sky, fish are swimming in the water.  The sun dries the fishing nets in the morning. Wind blows against my face. The tides are turning, the waves are rising, fishing boats setting sail in all directions. cast the net, cast the net. It's hard to catch fish when the weather is bad. Fishing is difficult and rents need to be paid. Fishermen are poor from generation to generation. The old fishing net my grandfather gave me, it gives us a living through the winter" (song starts at 36' into the movie.) . Schubert fans will recognize the gentle rocking lines, like the movement of a boat being rowed along the water. The Ave Maria soundtrack was added later.

Beautiful shots of of fishing junks, on  a wide river.... "The East Sea was beautiful: poets praised it, fishermen scraped a living". Cut to a shot of a bucket breaking ice to draw water to heat on a fire. In this hard winter, a woman gives birth to twins. The family are so poor that it's not a time for rejoicing. But notice how lovingly the humble hovel is filmed: details like the grain on boards of wood are shot in clear focus. The father gets killed at sea, the mother is forced to work as a wet nurse for rich people, while her own babies starve. The boy she nurses loves her though, and later sneaks off to play on the beach with the twins, Little Cat (Wang Ren Mei) and Little Monkey (Han Lan Gen 韩兰根), a wonderful character actor with a distinctive "crying face" that lent itself to comedy while heartbreakingly sad, In this film, Little Monkey is retarded, as so many were in days before good health care, Han grimaces and jerks his limbs like he's spastic: perhaps observed from real life. His sister can sing the Song of the Fishermen better than anyone else, so she sings it to comfort him.

When the kids grow up the rich man's son gets sent overseas to learn the maritime business. His family move to Shanghai and invest. Little Cat and Little Monkey can't make a living at sea so they, too drift to Shanghai in search of work. The Director, Cai Chusheng (1906-1968, 蔡楚生), shows a long sequence outside factory gates where the unemployed queue desperately for a chance at a job, as well shot as any European film of the time. (qv Kuhle Wampe). The previous year Cai had directed New Women (with Ruan Lingyu with whom he's supposedly had an affair). Cai came from ShunTak, upriver from Macau, a Cantonese like Ruan, both migrants to Shanghai like millions of others. Cai was an enlightened liberal, so Song of The Fisherman, New Women and The Spring River flows East (1947) depict strong women.

In Shanghai, Little Cat and Little Monkey scavenge on the streets, but there are always urchins poorer and more desperate than they are. By luck, Little Monkey's strange features land him a job with street performers: nice scene showing traditional outdoor theatre. They meet up with the rich man's son who gives them money, because he hears their mother is ill: he still loves her and feels guilty that his good fortune might have given Little Monkey his affliction. However, the police think Little Cat and Little Monkey have stolen the money and they stand trial. They're released and use the money to buy fat pork and treats for their mother, but when the arrive at the village, she's dead. Then the rich family lose everything in a banking swindle. The son gets a job on a small trawler and takes Little Cat and Little Monkey with him.But Little Monkey is worn out, collapses and dies. Little Cat comforts him by singing the Song of the Fisherman. Han Lan Gen might look like an idiot. and play idiots, but he's a very fine actor. Watch his features change as he faces death and hears the familiar melody "Fishermen are poor from generation to generation. The old fishing net my grandfather gave me, it gives us a living through the winter".

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