Sunday, August 10, 2008

Xiao Wanyi (Yo Sun, 1933)

A silent epic, starting with traditional China in the 1920s, where a gifted woman, Ye (Lingyu Ruan) invents and makes toys. She has a circle of people in her village, her pudgy, slow husband who sells the toys, as does the scarecrow sidekick Mantis. In the opening scene her husband, daughter, and infant son tiptoe, and even the little dog wears felt booties, so she can sleep. Clearly Sister Ye is treasured—and she’s also admired by a rich, handsome man, Yuan Pu (Congmei Yuan), but she sends him away to learn how to manufacture things so China won’t keep buying imports. Over the years, things degenerate even though Sister Ye keeps making brilliant toys. Her husband falls down and dies in the market, and in the stir that ensues, somebody steals her young son and sells him to a woman in Shanghai. War comes and Sister Ye’s circle leave the village. They settle in Shanghai and continue to make toys, but their standard of living keeps falling. Sister Ye’s daughter Pearl (Li Li-li) grows up to be another toy-making genius, as well as an inspiring leader of children’s calisthenics. Yuan returns but can’t find Sister Ye; he builds the toy factory he’d promised her, and meets the woman who adopted Ye’s son—though nobody ever knows the connection. War gets far worse—the Japanese invade Manchuria, and there is much brutal destruction. Japanese planes bomb the hospital where Sister Ye and Pearl are helping, and Pearl dies in her mother’s arms. Finally Sister Ye is reduced to rags, selling a pole of toys outside a fancy night-club. Out of a limousine comes her son, dressed in the uniform of a boy scout, and she refuses to take money from him because he says he intends to grow up to save his country. Sister Ye smiles with tears in her eyes—and then the fireworks start going off and she cracks with the strain, running about screaming that war has come again. Yuan finds her and calms her a little, and she gradually works around to a profoundly patriotic speech, calling on everybody to serve, pointing at them, and pointing at the camera at the very end. The war-time propaganda starts about half-way through the movie, and escalates through Pearl’s cheerfully rousing patriotism to this final speech—from which (in the print I saw) both the Chinese intertitles and the English subtitles were missing, though plentiful earlier. I seem to have become a big fan of Lingyu Ruan, whose face I admire prodigiously—she’s really very beautiful, with a dazzling smile that transforms her face and her eyes into something very fine to behold. And she’s a very good actor as well, especially expressive. The movie harnesses tragedy to serve national interests: propaganda, perhaps, but still a warm human story.

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