a handful of films were produced in China during the Cultural Revolution. While cinema was generally considered another
manifestation of western decadence, it is not like people had the time for them
anyway while they toiled in re-education camps.
At least, one of the final films leading up to the Gang of Four’s
ascendency was an ideologically charged crowd pleaser, featuring a memorable
star turn from era survivor Xie Fang. Fittingly, Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters screens this coming Tuesday as part of the Asia
Society’s continuing film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.
on the road with an itinerant opera company was a hard proposition in 1930’s
provincial China, but it still beat the alternate for a young indentured
tongyangxi widow. Desperate to escape
her in-laws, Chunhua signs on with the Yue Opera, thanks to the support of
Yuehong and her father, the company’s artistic director. Unfortunately, illness exacerbated by stress
cuts short the master thespian’s life, leaving the two sworn sisters vulnerable
to the schemes of the company’s oily business manager, A’Xin.
it is a great opportunity for the two stage sisters, A’Xin sells their contract
to Tang, a Shanghai theater owner, who recognizes exploitable talent when he
sees it. In due course, the duo becomes
a popular attraction, but they eventually grow apart. Yuehong tries to make the best of the
situation by marrying Tang, while Chunhua falls in with a revolutionary leftist
clique. While her politics cause Chunhua
no end of grief in the short term, being intimately associated with Tang and
his cronies turns out to be more dangerous over the long run.
Stage is a strange film,
starting off much like a traditional Hollywood backstage melodrama about
competing ingénues. However, it segues
into some decidedly unsubtle political propaganda. The exploiters and the exploited are
presented in no uncertain terms and we are told by Chunhua’s Marxist mentor the
only remedy is revolution. Yet, Xie Jin
still found himself facing criticism for implying reconciliation can be
possible between the classes. How
question, Stage is a reflection of
the times and turbulent conditions during which it was produced. Still, it has a spark of something typical
propaganda grind-em-outs lack. Dare we
call it a soul? Indeed, the evolving
relationship between Xie’s Chunhua and Cao Yindi’s Yuehong is genuinely complex
and ultimately rather touching. As Sang
Shuihua, the fading diva Tang spurns, Shangguan Yunzhu also defies stereotypes,
getting some of the film’s juiciest moments of tragedy.
for a film produced under extreme artistic restraints, Stage is rather visually stylish, boasting some impressive period
sets and strikingly colored skies.
Granted, it is hard not to scoff when Chunhua pledges only to perform
revolutionary operas, because let’s face it, she will not have any choice in
the matter. Yet, there is an unlikely
gentleness to Two Stage Sisters that could
make it a compatible pairing with Ozu’s Floating Weeds. Recommended for China
watchers and those with a fondness for sweeping morality plays, Two Stage Sisters screens this coming
Wednesday (11/28) as part of the Asia Society’s wonderfully rich Goddess series.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Goddess Chinese Women on Screen, Xie Jin