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'Street Angel' depicts a dark Shanghai
By Brian Offenther

AN attempt to find beauty in dire circumstances, "Street Angel" serves as an Eastern "sister" film to "The Wizard of Oz," their similarities highlighting why both are classics. Their differences are equally enlightening.

Both films are through the eyes of their ostensibly plucky leads, Zhou Xuan in "Street Angel" (1937) and Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Ostensibly because both then-young actresses have a deep well of darkness underneath their surface, and it's most revealed when they break into song.

There's something to the fact that both of them struggled with repeated drug addiction and other mental difficulties, and died tragically young.

Zhou plays a young woman forced to sing on demand for rude customers to please her adoptive mother. Her sister works in a brothel, and much of the action involves her being sold to a rich patron. The hopelessness of the situation is reflected in Zhou's performance, but she's an angel with a smudged face, never losing her precious, child-like innocence.

These are difficult times in the country's history, with "Street Angel" reflecting rapid urbanization, industrialization, and urban squalor of Shanghai in the 1930s. Meanwhile, providing a parallel of a wilting rural life, "The Wizard of Oz" shows the Dust Bowl that left many farmers destitute or worse, not to mention the many metaphorical references representative of the age.

It's no coincidence that in both of these films, the young woman at the center of the action is left without biological parents.

Zhou has bits of slapstick comedy so prevalent in silent films, but overall is told in melodramatic sweeps. Director Yuan Muzhi loves to pan the camera across the sooty skyline from afar or close up, showing the blackening effects of a city closing in on itself.

They differ, though, in their prospects for the future, as America and China in the 1930s had very different views of the future. There's a certain synergy to the fact that "The Wizard of Oz" reflects a Technicolor future, while "Street Angel" settles for more time without the tragedy of a family being torn apart.

It's easy to imagine a remake of "Street Angel" with a much more upbeat ending.

'Street Angel (马路天使)(1937)

When to see it:

Anytime, on video sites Youku and Archive.org.

 What to see: A classic of Chinese cinema portraying the stark life of peasant sisters in Japan-occupied Shanghai, lit up by enigmatic and vulnerable Zhou Xuan.

Brian's rating: 6/10


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