Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili was a true diva of silent Chinese cinema. If you think former diva status would not be
particularly convenient during the Cultural Revolution, your suspicions are
correct. Having upstaged Madame Mao in the 1930’s hardly helped either. Yet, there should have been no complaints
with the ideological content of Sun Yu’s Daybreak,
which screens this Tuesday as part of the Asia Society’s current film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.
Ling is a fresh faced country girl, who comes to Shanghai with her man in
search of employment. Briefly, things
look promising when they find work at a yarn factory. Unfortunately, trouble with the law forces
him to ship out as a merchant seaman, leaving her vulnerable to the city’s
Ling Ling is drugged and raped by the playboy factory owner. Later, when wondering lost through the city,
she is sold into a brothel by an ostensive protector. It might be a bad business, but Ling Ling
adapts to it, reasserting command of her illicit destiny as a high-priced
prostitute, but with both a heart of gold and a raised political
consciousness. Dispensing aid to her
struggling neighbors while conspiring with subversive elements, Ling Ling truly
becomes a new woman.
course, it ends tragically. All the best
propaganda does. Although Daybreak is not as stylishly realized as
Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, the
revolutionary hooker is certainly a much more attractive radicalizing agent
than the clenched-fist factory worker. The
camera absolutely loves her, and just like Ruan, she knew how to milk a death
scene for all its worth.
is not hard to see why Li was such a Diva of the silent era (in fact, she was
once part of a theatrical tandem known as the Four Divas). Her Ling Ling is cute, innocent, and eventually
saucy, but nobody’s dummy. Despite all
the wrongs done to Ling Ling, she is never a mere victim in Daybreak, which is a major reason why it
remains such a notable work.
A product of its time, Daybreak is an interesting but imperfect film, whereas Li’s story
is absolutely fascinating. China’s last
living silent film star, she led an epic life ways both great and terrifying. Indeed, it raises a great historical “what if”
question. In the way we wonder about
Hitler’s artistic frustrations, perhaps if Lan Ping (a.k.a. Jiang Qing) had
been a better actress, the suffering of millions might have been avoided. Recommended in its own right mostly for Li
Lili’s luminous presence, Daybreak screens
this Tuesday night (11/20) at the Asia Society, as their can’t miss Goddess series continues.
Labels: Asia Society, Chinese Cinema, Goddess Chinese Women on Screen, Li Lili, Silent Films