Cold Nights (寒夜) a novel from 1947 by Ba Chin (巴金) (1909-2005) describes the impact of the biggest mass migration in modern history, when tens of millions of refugees trekked across China, refusing to remain under Japanese occupation, a saga of human endurance that needs to be appreciated in the west. Ba Chin's famous trilogy Family, Spring and Autumn (1933-40) is a classic of modern Chinese literature, confronting the injustices of traditional feudal society. Given the background, Cold Nights is equally panoramic, though the family in this case is small. Wong Man Suen and Tsang Shu San are modern, progressive-thinking intellectuals who went to university and might have had careers ahead, had the war not intervened. Cold Nights is even bleaker than the Family Trilogy since it doesn't conclude with hope. Though Cold Nights is set in Chongqing, the seat of Free China, it was made into a Cantonese movie in 1955 by a cast and crew who were themselves refugees, who suffered similar traumas first hand. Not at all a typical "war movie". Tsang Shu San is played by Pak Yin, (1920-1987) while Wong is played by Ng Chor Fan (1910-1993) who in real life was the leader of the refugee film community exiled from Hong Kong.
The film begins with an air raid, sirens screaming, people running terrified through crowed streets, shells dropping all round. Chongqing was subject to the most severe aerial bombardment, not surpassed until Germany and Japan were flattened a few years later, and the targets were civilian. Wong Man Suen realizes that the bombs have hit his home, and rushes home to find the house empty. Hundreds have been killed, but luckily his mother and son have escaped. A flashback to the past : a much younger Wong wakes, alone in bed. A letter arrives. It's from his wife Shu San. After seven years of marriage, she's leaving him. He thinks back still earlier, when he, she and their friends Tang Pak Ching and Mok Man Ying were college students, both couples deeply in love. They graduated, but while Wong was buying a wedding ring for Shu San, the city of Hangzhou was bombed. In wartime conditions, it took them months to travel back to Wong's home. Their son was born en route. But Wong's mother was furious. Wong phones his wife at the bank where she works. They meet in a smart café, where the windows are taped up for safety in bomb blasts. "I'll have tea" he asks, "I'll have coffee" says she. The reason she's leaving is the way his mother has treated her. "And you", she adds "have been ground down by her, too". In the soundtrack we hear the song On the Songhua River, which refers to war, refugees and social disruption (Read more about the song here)
Wong meets up with his old university friend, Tang Pak Ching, also a refugee. Tang's wife had a miscarriage but couldn't get to hospital when the streets were blocked in an air raid. "She held my hand and cried my name", he sobs, And then she died. "This war, it's so cruel". The four college friends from former days are now three. Wong starts drinking. Shu Shan is disgusted that he's fallen so low. She carries him home, though, but his mother blames her. In his delirium, Wong cries "I love you, Shu San, don't leave me". He's becoming ill (tuberculosis). She loves him, too, so she stays but his mother is worse than ever. Shu Shan's still working at the bank - she's the breadwinner - and her boss wants her to move with him to Lanchow. She tells him no, but Wong, not realizing that the boss has ulterior motives, urges her to go. He goes back to his old office, but his colleagues treat him as a pariah because he's infectious. "But we've been friends five years" he cries. A friend arrives with some money his friends have raised as a gift. But he's been fired by the boss. "In wartime, that's how things are" explains the friend. But mother flies in a rage. Wong, in his grief, blames himself. He loves Shu San but has failed her. He's also failed his mum, who put him through school and looks after him and his child.
Wong gives Shu San a wedding ring - as he wanted to do years earlier, before things went wrong. Ironically, she's leaving in the morning. She's brought a huge sum of money for medical bills, which she's got from her boss . She's resolved to move, though her heart is not in it. She tells Wong it's only a short separation but he knows better. ""I will return, in a year, or two, or three, but I will return". "And I will wait", he adds. In the dawn, they part. They look at their child, sleeping beside grandma. "Tell her I don't hold a grudge". A tear rolls from the old mother's eyes.
Although it's cold and Wong is sick, he goes out, to the café where he and Shu San had been together. "I'll have tea" he tells the waiter "and a coffee, for her". But there's no-one there. The Songhua River song is heard again, quietly. Another air raid. We see fighter planes anti-aircraft guns, wardens and refugees. Wong sees his old friend Tang Pak Ching in the crowd, but his friend cries "Tang Pak Ching is dead". His mind has gone, maddened by grief. Bombs rain down and Tang is killed before Wong's eyes. Eventually, the newspapers announce, the war is over. A big parade in the streets, with lanterns, drums, firecrackers and a lion dance. The procession passes Wong's house but by now he is so sick he's almost delirious. He gasps "Shu San" and collapses.
A rickshaw arrives. Shu San has come home. But a neighbour tells her that Wong died, on 3rd September - the day Peace was declared. The neighbourhood buried him locally. Shu San sits at Wong's grave sobbing. She's worn his ring all the time she was away "Why didn't you wait for me ?". It's now the 100th day since Wong's death, so grandmother and child have returned to the grave for ceremonies. Forgiveness: all three will return to the native village.