This melodrama by the great Chinese director Xie Jin was a big popular success in its home market in 1981 – but also a film criticised by younger critics and filmmakers as being old-fashioned. Xie was one of the major artists to attract the wrath of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution but this film goes further back in Chinese political history and tells the story of the wrong done to a ‘good man’ in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. (Xie himself in this interview says that he got a lot of positive feedback from audiences and the film didn’t cause any problems.)
The central character in the story is Song Wei, who as a young woman is part of a team sent to the remote Tianyun Mountain region in the mid-1950s to explore the development possibilities of the region. She works hard and gradually falls in love with a geologist, Luo Qun. Wei is then sent to a school for political officers in the Chinese Communist Party. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958 Luo is falsely accused along with another member of the team – both had tried to prevent mistakes being made in local projects. The local political chief Wu forces Wei to give up contact with Luo and she ends up marrying Wu and leaving the district. Twenty years later, Song is Wu’s deputy in the administration of the region, having recovered from persecution herself during the Cultural Revolution. A young woman approaches her with a story about Luo who eventually married Song’s close friend Feng Qinglan from the original team – one of the few people who stood up for him. Wei has lost touch with them but she reads a long letter from Qinglan and determines that the administration should finally bring Luo back from exile (in which he works as a cart driver). Her actions inevitably cause conflict with her husband but when she learns that Qinglan is ill she is determined to find her.
In some ways it is difficult to believe that this is a film made in 1980. It feels more like a 1930s or 1940s melodrama. Modern audiences might find it difficult to take but I love 1940s melodrama and I revelled in the expressionist moments in the film. Xie uses all kinds of devices associated with classic melodramas from a rich musical score to violent weather, mirrors and smashed objects, ‘excessive’ editing transitions and so on. The narrative proceeds in long flashbacks as Wei learns about what has happened to Qinglan and Luo Qun. At one point they seem to speak to each other as Qinglan asks a question in the letter that Wei is reading and Wei answers out loud.
Although the story is ‘political’ in its attempt to show how important it is to re-instate those who have been falsely accused, Xie’s presentation of the story manages to weave the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ together, so Wu’s reluctance to reinstate Luo is to a significant extent fuelled by his fear about losing Song Wei to her former lover.
Everything I’ve seen by Xie suggests a director happiest telling women’s stories in a style he has made his own which marries classical Hollywood, socialist realism and Chinese melodrama traditions. You can view the whole film (the resolution isn’t great but it’s watchable) on this Chinese cultural agency website: http://video.chinese.cn/en/article/2009-10/09/content_72253.htm
I’ve been foraging in the bargain bins at YesAsia.com again and I was pleased to find a couple of films that I have been looking out for. The first is this film from Xie Jin – his first high profile success and a key Chinese film in what scholars refer to as the Seventeen Year period (i.e. from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 up to the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966).
Xie Jin is the single most important Chinese director of this period – and he continued to direct films after the end of the Cultural Revolution and into his late 70s. He died in 2008 and his last film in 2001, Woman Football Player No. 9 was a virtual remake of Woman Basketball Player No. 5. None of Xie Jin’s films are available in the UK on DVD, but his best-known film in the West, Two Stage Sisters, is available from the British Film Institute on 35 mm.
The DVD that arrived was published in China by Beauty Media (www.gzbeauty.com). These DVDs also seem to be available via Amazon.com, but YesAsia is considerably cheaper. I wasn’t expecting much and in that sense I wasn’t disappointed. The disc is Region 0 (NTSC) and played fine on my sometimes temperamental player. But although the sound was OK, the image was bleached out (this was one of the first Chinese colour films, I think) and very scratched – it must have come from a damaged 35 mm print source. As the running time matches IMDB’s 86 mins (84 for DVD), I can’t be sure if it has been cut, but it certainly felt like it – see below.
The protagonist is Tian, a 40 year-old retired athlete who has become a coach and at the start of the film he arrives in Shanghai to coach the local women’s team. The team is in some ways more like a ‘girls’ or young women’s team since all the players, as far as I could see, are students of 17-18. They are all giggly and the man who welcomes Tian describes them as ‘naughty’ in the English subtitles (which are somewhat unreliable). One of the team is a particularly tall young woman named Lin Xiaojie, ‘Player No. 5’ who arrives at the training camp after the other girls. She has a boyfriend who is pressurising her to go to university to study engineering and she later tells the coach that her mother doesn’t really approve of her basketball either. Tian proves to be a strict coach who requires discipline from his team members and there are some frictions between him and the team, some jokes about a single man coaching a team of young women and some petty jealousies within the team – in fact, many of the conventions of the Hollywood team sports drama. However, the film shifts gear when in a series of flashbacks we realise that Tian himself was a star basketball player as a young man in Shanghai in the late 1930s, when he loved a young woman (Lin Jie) whose father owned the team that Tian played for. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure at this point, but most readers will have guessed that Tian’s girlfriend eventually became the mother of Lin Xiaojie and inevitably she must meet Tian again.
This plot outline suggests that the film will be a mix of the sports film with traditional Chinese film melodrama. But in fact it is more than that since any film made in China in the 1950s also had to have a directly political/ideological function – to promote the PRC, national pride in Chinese identity and the benefits of the communist system. Chinese films in the 1950s, produced by the state-run studios, were expected to follow the approved aesthetic of ‘socialist realism’ – that strange version of Hollywood realism developed in the Soviet Union under Stalinism to emphasise the heroic nature of workers and collectivism in a socialist society being built with revolutionary zeal. Most films would include a strong element of didacticism, often related to current Chinese Communist Party policies. Xie Jin includes one such speech (which is actually delivered twice) in which Tian tells a story about being humiliated as an athlete from the ‘sick man’ state of East Asia when he visited the West and how it is the duty of the young women on the basketball team to become strong athletes and to work together as a team in order to project their pride in the nation through victory on the basketball court.
This speech stands out in what is in other ways a conventional Hollywood-style sports film. Xie Jin does not display the socialist realist visual aesthetic – he is able, somehow, to combine Hollywood with the traditional Chinese melodrama and escape official disapproval. Xie’s Hollywood influences are primarily John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy – he also refers in interviews to being influenced by Bicycle Thieves. Though not as accomplished – or as beautiful – as the later Two Stage Sisters, Woman Basketball Player No. 5 is recognisably the work of the same director. By all accounts the film was very popular in China and even represented the PRC abroad, but I’m still suspicious about the version on this DVD (and on VCD). There are some odd inserts of train shots (almost Ozu moments!) that don’t make narrative sense as they are rural scenes when all the main characters are in Shanghai. Later, when the team travel to Beijing, there is a train sequence with a group song (dubbed by opera singers). The final scenes of the film are very rushed and I do wonder if anything else was there in the first cut – but again there are similarities with Two Stage Sisters. Instead of the Hollywood ending that often celebrates the moment of triumph, the ‘now’, Xie’s two films finish by suggesting that the major work is just beginning (i.e. as the team fly off to represent China overseas).
I enjoyed the film, but felt a little disappointed that the budget didn’t run to more than a few glimpses of Shanghai and Beijing in the 1950s. The representation of Shanghai in the late 1930s is reminiscent of Two Stage Sisters with villainous businessmen and Tian forced to play against a team of American sailors as part of a crooked deal. The melodrama works well and there is an interesting use of a symbolic pot of orchids which Lin Jie (herself a No 5 player in the women’s team in the 1930s) gives to Tian. A similar potted orchid then turns up in the later scenes. The actors are generally good and there is some interesting action on court, but I did feel that the actress who played Lin Xiaojie was rather ungainly in her movements for someone playing a top athlete. I think I may now buy some more Xie Jin films via YesAsia. (Two Stage Sisters is available.)
There is an interesting debate about Xie Jin on The Auteurs website discussion forums and two of his films are included in Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, ed. Chris Berry, BFI 2003.
The best direct commentary on Woman Basketball Player No. 5 that I have found is from Timothy Tung in ‘The Work of Xie Jin: A Personal Letter to the Editor’ in John Downing (ed) Film & Politics in the Third World, NY: Autonomedia, 1987. Tung stresses that Xie Jin was a celebrated ‘director of women’ and that he tended to find a new female star for each of his major films. He also argues that the group of young women seen in the film display an “uninhibited vitality” that was rare and fleeting in Chinese Cinema in the Seventeen Years period. The film was released at a time when Mao had announced the ‘Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign, urging intellectuals to speak out and the girls could be seen to represent a bright future of liberation. But the Anti-Rightist campaign stifled such voices only a few years later.
The best online resources on Xie Jin are available from Jump Cut No 34.
A translation of the full film script by two American students is available here.
Stage Sisters is a well made and enjoyable film that also has great significance in the history of Chinese Cinema. Director Xie Jin was one of the few figures to have continued working in China since the 1950s, making his first feature in 1957 at the age of 34 and his sixteenth in 1997 (The Opium War).
Plot outline: Chunhua and Yuehong are the ‘stage sisters’ of the title. They meet in the late 1930s when Yuehong’s father’s popular opera troupe visits a town where Chunhua is all too willing to join the troupe. Eventually, they land up in Shanghai under Japanese occupation with Chunhua now a skilled performer. But the two young women gradually move apart before the plot brings them together again and the film ends with the triumph of the of the People’s Liberation Army.
The timing of the film’s production is one reason for its importance. Although it was completed well before the usually accepted date for the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Kwok and Quiquemelle (1987) have argued that the beginnings of the clampdown were in 1963 and that Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong and a former Shanghai actress, was instrumental in the ban received by Stage Sisters. She saw both cinema and theatre in the early 1960s as failing to adhere to policies designed to promote the conception of the People’s Republic of China as a revolutionary society. (There is also the suggestion that she was settling old scores in Shanghai.) In the first instance pressure was put on Xie Jin during production to change the latter part of his film. Then before its release in 1965 a campaign was mounted against the film – because it did not paint a sufficiently negative view of the ‘bad’ characters. During the Cultural Revolution, filmmaking was first suspended altogether and then allowed only in the form of austere revolutionary model operas. With the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, films like Stage Sisters emerged from their cocoons to charm and please audiences.
What is surprising about the ban for audiences in the West is that the vision of a Marxist future appears so palatable in the film. Two young women are shown taking different decisions about their future and it is clear which is the ‘correct’ decision. This comes across in a satisfying story that has plenty of human interest and moral ambiguity.
Traditions and metaphors
For a film like Stage Sisters to work with a mass Chinese audience, it must draw upon traditional storytelling with familiar characters and settings. This the film does by basing its story on the meeting of two young women from different backgrounds who then work together in a Shaoxing folk opera troupe.
The best known form of Chinese opera in the West is Beijing opera – the metropolitan opera with elegant choreography and movement. But there are regional ‘typical’ opera forms across the country. Shaoxing is a rural district south of Shanghai. It is famous for producing opera singers – singers in a more populist mode than in Beijing opera – and for an opera style with more dialogue and audience engagement. Touring troupes from Shaoxing would perform in the market place of towns and villages. Eventually these performances moved into the larger towns and cities, occupying permanent theatres. The tradition includes women playing men’s parts in traditional stories. Although the elaborate costumes, complex plots and sophisticated performance styles might seem to suggest an elite activity, Shaoxing opera was largely performed by actors of peasant stock for audiences of mainly poor people. Xie Jin was also from the Shaoxing region and he draws on his own background in the film.
The story begins in the mid 1930s when the Nationalists (KMT) were attempting to subdue local warlords and to suppress the growth of the Communists. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, a temporary truce between Nationalists and Communists lasted only a few years before a three-cornered struggle ensued. After 1945 the Communists began to win the war against the Nationalists and the film ends in 1949 when the victorious Communists enter Shanghai and the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is established. In between, the struggles of the opera troupe to find ways to struggle through the war act as a metaphor for Chinese society as a whole.
The personal dramas of the stage sisters parallel the fictional worlds of the plays they perform, which in turn, parallel the political changes occurring in Chinese society. (Marchetti 1989: 100)
Gina Marchetti suggests that Chunhua is a modern recreation of a female warrior character from traditional opera – aggressive, physically powerful, morally upright and inevitably victorious. This use of traditional types is common to many of the films of the PRC and works for both the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters, so that ‘counter-revolutionary’ figures may embody characteristics of wicked demons or monks or rogue generals.
But there are also parallels with more contemporary figures. Marchetti points to the character of Jiang Bo in Stage Sisters. She is the representative of the progressive forces in Shanghai and she acts as a major influence on Chunhua. In particular, she takes her to an exhibition in 1946 commemorating the death of Lu Xun, a literary and theatrical figure associated with the ‘May the Fourth’ Movement (the May protests of 1919 against the Versailles settlement), also known as the ‘New Cultural Movement’.
Lu Xun was another Shaoxing native who championed the rights of women, especially those of the poor and Chunhua goes on to perform in an opera based on Lu Xun’s novella, The New Year’s Sacrifice. Here the narrative of Stage Sisters points to the struggle for a socially committed theatre. It is significant that it is the Shanghai theatre world in which these events unfold. Shanghai was the Chinese city most open to the West and outside influences – both the revolutionary politics which informed the Communists and the entrepreneurial drive of capitalism.
In the final part of the Stage Sisters narrative, Chunhua is back on tour, this time performing in an opera version of The White-Haired Girl, a revolutionary play written in Yenan in 1943 at the time of Mao’s lectures on Art and Literature in which he laid out the importance of a ‘cultural army’ to fight the Chinese people’s enemies at home and abroad. Stage Sisters cleverly combines the references to traditional, ‘socially committed’ and ‘revolutionary’ operas in the performances of Chunhua. But this also requires a very careful approach to cinema aesthetics.
Combining cinema aesthetics
Xie Jin constructs the film’s narrative using three different, but interconnected approaches. First he draws on traditional Chinese literary sources (and to a certain extent, earlier forms of Chinese cinema such as the Shanghai melodramas of the 1930s). He was himself strongly influenced by Hollywood films from the 1940s studio period, especially what he termed the ‘literary’ or ‘lyric’ films such as Grapes of Wrath (John Ford 1940), Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy 1940), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942) or the 1930s Warner Brothers’ bio-pics of figures such as Emile Zola or Marie Curie.
These two sources are referenced alongside Soviet Cinema, which was perhaps the dominant cinematic mode in China in the 1950s and early 1960s. Soviet Cinema since the early 1930s had been forced by Stalin to develop what became known as ‘socialist realism‘.
Not to be confused with ‘social realism’ (a term used generally to describe films that attempt to create an authentic environment of social reality and to engage with ‘real social issues’), the Soviet variant dates from Stalin’s attempts in the early 1930s to purge Soviet cinema of its experimental and authorial features, especially those of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko. Stalin decreed that cinema must be ‘accessible’ to the masses. Accessibility did not allow for ‘art’. The socialist realist model drew on Hollywood methods to present the worker as hero in romanticised scenarios with simple linear narratives. The heroic figures were privileged in the frame through the use of lighting, camera angles and composition.
In many ways ‘Hollywood realism’ and ‘socialist realism’ used a similar aesthetic and offered audiences an easily digestible form of entertainment with the ideological work of the film disguised by ‘invisible editing’ and clear identification with characters and narrative coherence. They differed of course in terms of the individualist v. collectivist ethos of American and Soviet culture.
As well as Chinese, American and Soviet aesthetics, Xie Jin in the early 1960s was influenced by a further realist aesthetic, this time from European and World Cinema. Xie Jin himself has referred to Italian neorealism and it is likely that he was also familiar with the work of other filmmakers who were influenced by neorealism, including Satyajit Ray in Bengal (e.g. in The Apu Trilogy 1955-9). The dominant form of World Cinema in the 1950s was referred to as a ‘humanist cinema’ (a term applied to both Ray and Kurosawa Akira at the time). The reference to humanism is generally taken to mean a text which deals with human interests rather than religious themes or the supernatural. In such films, the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in ‘ordinary situations’ are the focus. The neorealist influence meant that such stories would be filmed with less stylisation than the manufactured realism of what Jean-Luc Godard would later describe as ‘Hollywood-Mosfilm’.
Stage Sisters has many influences and it is held together by Xie Jin’s feeling for the human characters.
. . . the delicacy and skill with which Xie Jin has so often juxtaposed official messages approved by the political hierarchy of the time, with other more subversive scenes and comments. His films are often laced with scenes of sheer human pleasure in everyday social banalities, delight in which quietly melts the edges of hard Party truths and relentless social critiques. Not that Xie Jin is a ‘schizophrenic’ director: rather he has an overwhelming sense for the full texture of social interaction. (John Downing, responding to Timothy Tung, 1987: 207)
(The film is in Technicolor despite the still above.)
Kwok and M. C. Quiquemelle (1982 and 1987) ‘Chinese Cinema and Realism’ in John Downing (ed.) Film and Politics in the Third World, New York: Autonomedia
Gina Marchetti (1989) ‘Two Stage Sisters: The blossoming of a revolutionary aesthetic’ in Jump Cut No 34.
Timothy Tung (1987) ‘The Work of Xie Jin: A Personal Letter to the Editor’ in Downing (ed.) op cit.
(Many of Xie Jin’s films were seen in America in the mid-1980s and Jump Cut 34 has a major section on Xie Jin and Chinese Cinema. Gina Marchetti’s article has formed the basis for these notes.)
In 1988, following the successful release of Yellow Earth, a new Xie Jin film, Hibiscus Town was released in the UK. Xie Jin was a prolific filmmaker throughout his career (except for the period of the Cultural Revolution) but only two of his films have been widely seen in the UK.
Questions for discussion
1. Do we think that Stage Sisters manages to deliver a coherent story in a consistent style, given the many influences and pressures on its director?
2. What reading do we make of the resolution of the film’s narrative and in particular what happened to the ‘stage sisters’?
3. If the film’s narrative is indeed a metaphor for the social and political history of China in the period 1935-50, what do we understand about that history and what might we expect to see in later films?
Roy Stafford (based on notes compiled in 2003/4 for evening classes on Chinese Cinema)
Xie Jin, who died on 18 October, was perhaps the most distinguished and best-loved film director in China. He was not well-known outside China for the simple reason that most of his films were not widely exported during the 1950s and 1960s. In the UK, it was not until the 1980s, after the Cultural Revolution, that his best known film Two Stage Sisters (1964) was distributed by the BFI in the UK and this was followed by a release for one of his later melodramas, Hibiscus Town (1987) through ICA Projects. These two films did allow UK film scholars to recognise Xie Jin’s ability to work with the conventions of Chinese socialist realism and to adapt and subvert them. Nevertheless, like the Fifth Generation directors who followed him, he struggled to make the films as he would have wanted without the pressures from authorities.
Xie Jin was one of the leading directors in global film during the second half of the 20th century. Because of the disruption to production during the Cultural Revolution, he was unable to work intensively during what should have been the prime period of his career. As a consequence he worked on only 30 features in a career spanning 50 years. However, some of these were seen by very large audiences. Notes on Two Stage Sisters follow this entry.