Friday, November 23, 2012

Goddess: Two Stage Sisters

Only a handful of films were produced in China during the Cultural Revolution.  While cinema was generally considered another manifestation of western decadence, it is not like people had the time for them anyway while they toiled in re-education camps.  At least, one of the final films leading up to the Gang of Four’s ascendency was an ideologically charged crowd pleaser, featuring a memorable star turn from era survivor Xie Fang. Fittingly, Xie Jin’s Two Stage Sisters screens this coming Tuesday as part of the Asia Society’s continuing film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.

Life on the road with an itinerant opera company was a hard proposition in 1930’s provincial China, but it still beat the alternate for a young indentured tongyangxi widow.  Desperate to escape her in-laws, Chunhua signs on with the Yue Opera, thanks to the support of Yuehong and her father, the company’s artistic director.  Unfortunately, illness exacerbated by stress cuts short the master thespian’s life, leaving the two sworn sisters vulnerable to the schemes of the company’s oily business manager, A’Xin.

Pretending it is a great opportunity for the two stage sisters, A’Xin sells their contract to Tang, a Shanghai theater owner, who recognizes exploitable talent when he sees it.  In due course, the duo becomes a popular attraction, but they eventually grow apart.  Yuehong tries to make the best of the situation by marrying Tang, while Chunhua falls in with a revolutionary leftist clique.  While her politics cause Chunhua no end of grief in the short term, being intimately associated with Tang and his cronies turns out to be more dangerous over the long run.

Stage is a strange film, starting off much like a traditional Hollywood backstage melodrama about competing ingénues.  However, it segues into some decidedly unsubtle political propaganda.  The exploiters and the exploited are presented in no uncertain terms and we are told by Chunhua’s Marxist mentor the only remedy is revolution.  Yet, Xie Jin still found himself facing criticism for implying reconciliation can be possible between the classes.  How scandalous—and perilous.

Without question, Stage is a reflection of the times and turbulent conditions during which it was produced.  Still, it has a spark of something typical propaganda grind-em-outs lack.  Dare we call it a soul?  Indeed, the evolving relationship between Xie’s Chunhua and Cao Yindi’s Yuehong is genuinely complex and ultimately rather touching.  As Sang Shuihua, the fading diva Tang spurns, Shangguan Yunzhu also defies stereotypes, getting some of the film’s juiciest moments of tragedy.

Surprisingly for a film produced under extreme artistic restraints, Stage is rather visually stylish, boasting some impressive period sets and strikingly colored skies.  Granted, it is hard not to scoff when Chunhua pledges only to perform revolutionary operas, because let’s face it, she will not have any choice in the matter.  Yet, there is an unlikely gentleness to Two Stage Sisters that could make it a compatible pairing with Ozu’s Floating Weeds.  Recommended for China watchers and those with a fondness for sweeping morality plays, Two Stage Sisters screens this coming Wednesday (11/28) as part of the Asia Society’s wonderfully rich Goddess series.