Street Angels, the most celebrated Chinese musical of the 1930s, was released in Shanghai in July 1937 just as full-scale war broke out with Japan in northern China. Its themes—sexual and economic exploitation offset by fun and camaraderie—were at once shocking and entertaining. Set in the slums of Shanghai in 1935, the film presents the precarious lives of the urban lower classes in a tragicomic mode. War looms in the background of this story of a refugee singer. The Japanese army was soon to invade Shanghai, but, to accommodate China’s censors, the film never mentions the enemy by name.
Synopsis: Teenaged songstress Zhou Xuan sings two hit songs in director Yuan Muzhi’s masterpiece. At the center of these “street angels” is a young woman who has fled fighting in the Northeast only to find herself threatened again in Shanghai. She seeks refuge from her abusers with her lover across the alley, played by heartthrob Zhao Dan, and other downtrodden friends. But will Xiao Hong and her sister, who has been forced into prostitution, be able to escape?
The film showcases the popularity of film musicals, the charm and charisma of its “golden voice” star, the multiple influences of Hollywood on the Chinese talkies, and the violent realities of 1930s China. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.
Street Angels, 馬路天使, 1937
Director: Yuan Muzhi
Mandarin, with English subtitles.
To view Street Angels click here: Street Angels
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Christopher Rea is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. His latest book, Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949, was published on June 1, 2021. In addition to the book, Rea created a series of online film resources, including chinesefilmclassics.org and a YouTube playlist of 20+ subtitled films and 22 video lectures. Rea is also the author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (2015) and co-translator of The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection (Columbia, 2017). At UBC, Rea previously served as Associate Head of the Department of Asian Studies and Director of the Centre for Chinese Research.