Saturday, 12 October 2019

Children of Troubled Times : not just history

Yuan Muzhi
Children of  Troubled Times (風雲兒女, 风云儿女) or more "children of the thunderstorm". It was a seminal film of its time,  galvanizing support for the war of resistance to the Japanese invasion.  The theme song, The March of the Volunteers, became so popular that it was heard everywhere, and eventually became the national anthem.  The composer Nie Er (聶耳) was a composer and musician, who died aged only 23 in a swimming accident while he was visiting his brother in Japan (war didn't stop Chinese intellectuals from learning about Japan).  When the film was released, in May 1935, Nie Er was still alive. He drowned in July that year. The film describes the awakening of social and political consciousness. It's not an entirely "historic" document, whatever your politics.  Nuts to the notion that Chinese people didn't need politics, which was an argument used to suppress democracy. 

It's also interesting because the star was Yuan Muzhi(袁牧之), matinee idol,actor, writer, director an intellectual. and director. He made Street Angel (馬路天使, 1937), perhaps the best known Chinese movie of the period in the west, which launched the career of singer Zhou Xuan. It's much more than a love story ! Please read my analysis of it here).  In Children of Troubled Times the opening credits roll with the March of the Volunteers playing, then a sudden discordant flashback to Shanghai, in darkness. Upper middle class domesticity : a rich man's daughter, Shi Yanshi, is playing the piano. Bored, she moves to the window where she looks into the next door apartment, where two men live : Xin Baihua (Yuan Muzhi) and Liang Zhifu (Gu Menghe). Both are refugees (though rich) from the North West, which the Japanese invaded in 1931. A folk song is heardfrom afar. The singer is Ah Fung, a poor girl, who lives with her elderly mother. They're refugees too.  Xin notates her song, but is attracted to Shi, whose portrait he sketches.Still, he looks after the welfare of Ah Feng, out of kindness. Xin goes to a glitzy nightclub, where he meets Shi, in evening dress, smoking. Her makeup's wild : drawn on eyebrows, high fashion then but on her like a caricature from Beijing operas. His friend Liang, however, is involved with the political underground, as is Ah Fung who gets an education and gets involved with student politics.  When she doesn't turn up at school, Xin goes out looking for her, but she's gone. Ah Fung sneaks back into Liang's apartment, which has been ransacked. He's gone - arrested by the police. As she leaves she steps on a painting of a phoenix which had been on the wall.
Meanwhile, Xin and Shi have married, enjoying a honeymoon on the coast in a fancy hotel.  Xin, though, is restless, following news of the civil unrest around them. They go to the theatre. In the first act dancers enact a strange tale where a man beats a woman down, but she rises back up and stabs him. Then a woman dressed in Lederhosen sings in front of an alpine landscape. Xin recognizes her - it's Ah Fung!  She visits his home in Shangahi, to learn that he's chosen a very different life. Xin gets a message that his friend Liang has fled abroad. At the port, the ship has already left.  Shi finds Xin, sitting on the shore, looking out to sea, looking desolate. A primitive goatcart wends its way up a steep hill. Ah Fung has returned to the North East, and sees her grandfather once more.  Images of the Great Wall and marching armies : self explanatory.  Back in Shanghai, Xin's increasingly restless. A letter arrives, a last farewell from Liang, now so far away. More images of war, bombardments, fleeing refugees. But where is Liang ? In the North East, partisans are building a fire.  Liang spots the picture of the phoenix and knows that Ah Fung must be near. Sure enough, there she is, with her grandad.  The Japanese mount an attack, but the partisans fight back, and the film ends as it began with The March of the Volunteers.  "Rise up! Rise up! Rise up!...march on! march on!" I'm sorry I don't get all of the levels, eg word plays, because I don't speak Mandarin and none of the prints I've seen have any kind of subtitles.

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