Little Toys” (1933) is an uneven film buoyed by a typically remarkable performance by Ruan Lingyu and an challenging ending that is ahead of its time.
Typically with films of that period, it expresses skepticism about a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing China. However, a closer inspection reveals a more subtle view.
The movie begins with an introduction to a small town that bases its livelihood on the creation of the handmade toys in the movie’s title. Ruan stars as women with a penchant for inventing creative new toys, and this makes her an important part of her modest community.
Ruan’s beauty and industry are recognized by urbane suitors, despite her ties to her hometown and a family of her own.
Tragedy strikes when her town is invaded by warlords spurred by the Japanese invasion.
Although Ruan still takes nationalistic pride in their wares, she faces a new phenomenon: “Kids in Shanghai all play with foreign toys.”
Ruan struggles with the desire to see an industrialized China, symbolized by our city of Shanghai, but fears it will make her country lose its soul. By positing the foreign invasion as in some ways spurring the change she is considering, it provides a deeply fascinating conflict.
Throughout, Ruan is stunning. Her character evolves throughout this movie, moving from lighthearted and young to cynical and old. At each step, her beauty shines through. Ruan has the tragic quality of a Judy Garland, with the unique ability to smile through her tears.
Although this is best seen in her classic film “The Goddess,” “Little Toys” gives her another role with the depth to really shine.
We watch her struggle through the eye of director Sun Yu, who uses a plethora of innovative techniques like placing a screen over the camera lens, using extreme close-ups of his characters, and most effectively, breaking the fourth wall in a way that would also be exploited in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
In “Body Snatchers,” it was considered an innovative and impressive move; “Little Toys” was released 20 years earlier.
Despite the film’s effective look, the very active style of Sun seems to hurt the film in other ways. Many plot elements, particularly concerning Ruan’s daughter, seem superfluous, to the main story at the end. The film is 114 minutes, but would’ve made a brilliant 100.
Still, that makes “Little Toys” worthy of consideration.
‘Little Toys’ (小玩意) (1933)
• Where to see it: Video aggregators like www.youku.com
• What to see: This classic silent film stars legendary actress Ruan Lingyu and concerns a small town and what happens when factory culture and war move from an abstraction to a reality. “Little Toys” was voted one of the 100 greatest Chinese films by the Hong Kong Film Awards.
• Brian’s score: 7/10