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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Heroine of Our Time
by Donald Levit

For the first time since the 1980s flowering of its filmic “fifth generation,” the People’s Republic is flexing its potential box-office billion-and-a-half, getting Red Dawn invaders re-nationalized to North Koreans and is primed to re-emerge as a cinema culture beyond chopsocky. The nation’s late-blooming but long tradition is, however, not well known abroad, a situation Asia Society’s “Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen” will help remedy with films like Daybreak/Tianming.

Director-writer Yu Sun’s 1933 effort is one of three silents among the nine, in wonderful 35 mm, running from ‘thirties social issues through Cultural Revolution model operas, Nobel Prize adaptations, biopics and twenty-first century martial arts, united in celebrating “the strength, resilience, beauty, love and desire of Chinese women, . . . the most significant screen divas in the industry’s over 100 years.”

From his own screenplays, Sun was prolific during the country’s convoluted 1930s, was among those many not making films from the second Japanese invasion until years after the war, and only did four more films thereafter although he lived to be ninety. His six-time leading lady Lili Li also lived as long and was a professor at the reopened Beijing Film Academy, but her acting career ended with the war, partly amid sour-grapes animosity from Mao’s ex-actress (as Lan Ping) wife Jiang Qing.

Done outside government auspices and therefore not official agitprop, Daybreak is concerned more with social than political themes, the final quarter of its ninety-six minutes descending to hokey non-dramatic rah-rah about the inevitable triumph of the suffering masses.

Of a progressive left slant, Sun had studied literature, focused on drama, at the University of Wisconsin and then philosophy in New York before returning home. There is a poetic flow in some of his scenes, for example flashbacks to the Romantic convention of noble rustic life (as against neon cityscape and urban corruption). Foreign influence is also noticeable in Expressionistic street and stairwell shots, in iris-in/-out transition variations, and in balanced symmetrical compositions such as in the factory.

If the stagey acting here has not weathered well and characters are melodramatic pawns in the first place, such blemishes are no more than what is found in many American and other films of that period, nor are the populist-nationalistic sentiments all that different, either, from other nations’ wartime outputs.

An elderly basket-maker laments the mass exodus from fishing village and traditional values, young people fleeing war and poverty for opportunity in Shanghai. Among them, in the company of chaste boyfriend Zhan and carrying caged birds, belle Ling Ling (Li) is met in the city by her cousin and “chubby cousin-in-law” husband Peng Luo, who have arranged separate rooftop lodgings and jobs for the newcomers.

Under the thumb of warlords and privilege, workers are downtrodden, show up even when sick unto death, are transferred at whim and, like Zhan, dismissed for any protest. He now out of the way as a sailor, she is plied with alcohol, date raped by playboy capitalist Boss Junior, and avoids being violated immediately again by bonking the fat foreman with a skillet, only to be tricked by an old man and sold to a brothel.

Fleeing the madam during political-military turmoil, Ling Ling remakes herself in the twinkling of an eye, into a prostitute-socialite wise enough, in a scene of satiric humor, to juggle three decadent suitors at the same table. Beneath it all, she is the same sweet country girl, giving money and love to the oppressed poor, dandling their fatherless children, and donning an apron to prepare their meals.

Zhan returns, now an advance organizer for the revolutionary armies that are to free the peasants from age-old suffering. With no thought for self or romance, Ling Ling throws herself behind the cause, embracing even her persecutors (and converting them).

Disparate moods tied together through repeated catchphrases and different composition-vignettes that blend into others, Daybreak is yet very much of its early time. Nevertheless, had it been made in the West, it would be valued as a minor but telling classic.

(Released by Cinema Epoch; not rated by MPAA.)

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