by Allan Fish
(China 1931 152m) not on DVD
Aka. Lian’ai Yu Yiwu
Gossip is a fearful thing
p Lay Min Wei d Bu Wancang w Chu Shek Lin, Jeffrey Huang novel “Symphony of Shadows” by S.Rosen Hoa ph Huang Shaofen art William Kolland, Chao Fuh
Ruan Lingyu (Yang Nei Fan/her daughter), Jin Yan (Li Tsu Yi), Chen Yanyan (Pin Ger), Li Ying (Daren Huang), C.E.Cze (Chang Shun, servant), Lily Chow (Chan Ying),
It was only a few days ago when I was prowling through the BBC website and found an article of great interest to anyone with a fascination about ancient Egypt. A prominent scientist had used infra-red satellite technology to scan a massive area of Egypt and revealed massive unknown, lost treasures, from the entire street plan of the lost city of Tanis to seventeen lost pyramids. An archaeologist’s wet dream, it savoured for a miracle, and was perhaps enough to make all cineastes dream of a technology that would so locate missing cans of film reel that may contain some of the lost or butchered masterpieces of film. Let it suffice to say that, if such a technology did exist, I would suggest the team begin their search inSouth America.
Only a few years ago the full Metropolis was found there amid great fanfare, and it’s also the only place where there could possibly be a print of the uncut Ambersons, as that’s where Orson Welles was when it was being butchered by Robert Wise back at RKO. In the mid 1990s, there was also found a film equally thought lost in the sand dunes of cinematic memory, Bu Wancang’s Love and Duty. From Uruguay emerged a diamond, and the feeling film historians must have felt opening those cans to find it inside must have been like finding an unrecognisable old coin, leaving it in HP sauce overnight and waking up to find it’s stamped with the words Arturus Rex.
Starring the suitably legendary Ruan Lingyu, she plays Yang Nei Fan, who we first see as a senior schoolgirl being followed to school by a lovesick boy, Li Tsu Yi. She likes him, especially when he saves her after she receives minor injuries in a collision with a car, but her family has arranged a marriage to a writer, Huang. Split up, she marries Huang and has two children, but one day fate decrees that Li Tsu will save her son’s life and she will take him home to meet her husband. One night, Huang makes excuses to go and see his mistress Chan Ying, and the old lovers are left alone. Their love awakened once again, she is forced to choose between Li Tsu and her family and goes away with him to stop him committing suicide. Leaving her children they start a new life and have a daughter of their own, but gossip follows them, he loses his job and literally works himself to death when he eventually finds one. She’s left to raise their daughter alone, and does so, working tirelessly as a seamstress, but when her daughter grows up she falls in love herself, and to her unwitting half-brother.
It’s a plot to make even Douglas Sirk take pause, and taken on face value it’s a load of old hogwash, but it’s the detail, the handling and the performances that keep one riveted. Love may not quite be the masterpiece of the Shanghai school, but nor is Gone With the Wind the masterpiece of old Hollywood. Both, however, are without question their banner films, their essence. Wancang and Ruan had worked together earlier that year in The Peach Girl, and their trust in each other is visible in every frame, while through the tragedy there is a steady undercurrent of humour and heart, not least in the dream sequences where firstly Li Tsu imagines swashing a buckle like Doug Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, and later when Yang imagines her frosty reception at her ex-husband and father’s abodes by her husband’s grave. The whole cast are fine, with special mention to Yanyan as her beloved daughter, but it’s Ruan’s show, playing her from teenage-hood to middle-aged, ageing uncannily merely by use of her body language, her hair, the blackening of a front tooth and a pair of spectacles, and even getting to play her other daughter herself in a split screen reunion. Yet the abiding image is the dark irony of the gossips hounding her, for so they would in real life, leaving a suicide note containing the tagline and leave millions of fans mourning.
Those with keen memories will also remember this was one of the films I listed in the disclaimer at the beginning of my top 3,000 films countdown. Suffice to say that it would not only have been in the 3,000, it would have been comfortably in the top 500. If I ever do reissue an amended top 3,000 (or perhaps more) in a few years time, it will certainly feature. It’s probably the best film no-one associated with WitD has seen.