The Dianying Diaries, part 3

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

颐和园 (yíhéyuán, Summer Palace)

Once again I’m visiting a Chinese film not widely known in China. Multiple theories exist as to why it’s been effectively banned (I believe it’s just been refused distribution, but the filmmakers were officially chastised, receiving five-year work bans), and I’ll avoid speculation. It was screened at Cannes in 2006 without the approval of Chinese authorities, a definite no-no, but there are several other “problems” with it, as you’ll see.

This was the fourth feature film for director Lou Ye (娄烨), and he had encountered problems with the authorities on two of his earlier works (Weekend Lover 周末情人 and Suzhou River 苏州河 ).
Summer Palace is the story of a young woman named Yu Hong (余红), played by Hao Lei (郝蕾). She comes from a provincial city to a university in Beijing in the fall of 1988, leaving behind a boyfriend and her father. After an initial period of remaining solitary (even in her four-person dorm room), she meets Li Ti (李缇, played by Hu Lingling 胡伶伶), whose boyfriend is studying in Berlin and whose roommate is often not around. The two girls develop a strong bond, and after Yu Hong meets Zhou Wei (周伟 ), played by Guo Xiaodong (郭晓东), and starts dating him, Li Ti volunteers her room for them to share, and it becomes the scene of relatively explicit sex scenes.
This inclusion of full frontal nudity (both male and female) and the appearance of sexual activity is quite unusual in a film from Mainland China, but it is integral to the plot. Yu Hong provides narration from time to time, explaining her feelings, which are confused and a little odd at times. Several of the couple’s dates take them to the Summer Palace, where we see them sitting on a bench and looking at the lake.
Yu Hong makes it clear that she believes Zhou Wei is the love of her life, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that she must break up with him – I won’t go into her twisted logic for this decision. She does so by convincing him that she has slept with her psychology tutor, which she may or may not have actually done. After the breakup, she drifts through some other boyfriends, but nothing serious.

In the meantime, the spring of 1989 has arrived, and with it massive student protests. None of the main characters are involved directly, but the chaos of marches, canceled classes, and the uncertainty of the government’s response to the situation forms a poignant backdrop to the emotional turmoil within Yu Hong.
Of course, the filmmakers weren’t able to re-enact these huge public scenes, so actual documentary footage from the time is used, and given the somewhat grainy appearance of the normal film, the combination is seamless.
At some point during all the confusion, Li Ti and Zhou Wei start having an affair.
Shortly after these events, Yu Hong decides to drop out of school and return to her home town. The friends scatter, with both Li Ti and Zhou Wei relocating to Berlin. We get a series of brief scenes during which Yu Hong has several affairs, including a married man. From her narration, it is clear that whenever she feels lonely (still pining for Zhou Wei), she finds a man to have sex with, and during the act is the only time she feels content. Various world events play out on the sidelines, including the handover of Hong Kong. We also get some scenes set in Berlin, where we see that Zhou Wei and Li Ti occasionally have sex but don’t really feel anything for each other.
The static situation ends when Li Ti suddenly jumps from the roof of a building, prompting Zhou Wei to return to China. Once there, he tracks down Yu Hong and arranges to meet her.

But when they finally meet, they hardly speak to each other, just drive around and walk on a chilly beach. In the end, they part without goodbyes.
This story of am emotionally unstable woman has some immensely appealing aspects. The first part of the film, up to when Yu Yong leaves Beijing, is really quite good. The scenes set during the Tienanmen student protests were quite moving given the knowledge of what was going on offscreen. But from there on, it just becomes fragmentary and disjointed. The inclusion of the scenes in Berlin further confuses the focus. In a film so centered on Yu Hong, even to the point of including her inner thoughts, it is jarring to suddenly be watching scenes that are completely outside her experience. The scattered second half of the film actually becomes a bit tedious as we wonder how many times this girl is going to screw up her life and those of others.
The portrait of student life in the late 80s was fascinating, showing China’s early encounters with Western music and more individual freedom. But just as those trends came to a crashing halt after June 4, 1989, so did the sense of enjoyment in the movie. At first I really enjoyed Yu Hong’s rebellious nature and sense of fun, but as the story proceeded her problems became more and more apparent, and eventually ended up being kind of tedious. Maybe this was intended as a subtle commentary on the changes in Chinese society, but if so, it’s too subtle to be sure of. And that doesn’t alter the fact that it became so uninteresting towards the end.
All in all, I would say that this is one half of a really good film edited together with one half of a not very good film. As you can tell from my description, there are several aspects of the film which might cause displeasure to the Chinese authorities, including the nudity, the inclusion of film of the student protests, and the lack of an uplifting ending. My problems with the film don’t involve any of these issues, but the lack of coherence and focus. The running time of 140 minutes would not seem excessive if the story justified it. As it is, I can’t really recommend it, though I commend Lou Ye for having the courage to make it.

Wikipedia entry
IMDB entry

It is available from Netflix.


The Yaogun Diaries, part 6

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".

Cold Fairyland (冷酷仙境 lěngkù xiānjìng)

When I moved to China, I had in mind the goal of trying to find good, interesting music that didn’t just imitate foreign styles. Quite soon, this band’s name started cropping up. Their live album was released in 2006, so the English language magazines were talking about it. I went to their website, which offered a number of tracks for free download from their various albums. I liked everything I heard, so I went out and found a copy of the live CD pretty easily. I loved it and set about trying to find their other releases, which turned out to be not so easy to find. I found a couple in a tent at the MIDI Festival, and bought them even though they were priced considerably higher than the average Chinese CD. Imported from Taiwan, not domestic releases.
This Shanghai band’s core is Lin Di (林笛), who has played the pipa since age 4. She met bass player Su Yong (苏勇 ), and they started working together recording. Their demos attracted the attention of an independent label and were released as Flying over the City (在城市上空飞翔 zài chéngshì shàngkōng fēixiáng). It’s long out of print (I’ve never seen a copy in a store), but it is available for download from CDBaby.
The name Cold Fairyland was invented for this album, though at the time it really wasn’t a band. The name comes from the Chinese title of a novel by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, which is known in English as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (I heartily recommend it, by the way).

Here’s a track to get an idea of what the “band” was about at their beginning. I don’t own it, so I’ll try embedding the player from the Chinese media site NeoCha.

(OK, it seems the embedding does not work, so I will just link to "Sea Rose".)

With this song, Lin takes a poem by American Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and sets it to simple music, as befits the directness of the words. There is a definite demo quality to the recording, and Lin’s awkward pronunciation is only partly covered up by the echo and reverb heaped upon her voice.

After this, the story starts getting a little confusing. Didn’t take long, did it? The next recording Lin Di was involved with was 2002’s Ten Days in Magic Land (魔境十日 mójìng shírì, literally Devil Land Ten Days). This collection of music was the result of a commission Lin Di received as a composer from producer Liu Xing (刘星). It was originally released on the Wind label from Taiwan, credited to “Lin Di – Cool Zone” (where “Cool Zone” is written in Chinese exactly the same as Cold Fairyland). So technically this is a Lin Di solo album which has Cold Fairyland as her backing band, but since she’s the main composer for the band anyway, there’s really little to distinguish this album from proper Cold Fairyland recordings. This album is often listed as being from later years, since it has been reissued more than once. My copy says 2003; I believe it was recorded in 2002.
Wind marketed this CD to the New Age audience, playing off some stylistic elements similar to European artists such as Enigma. As you can tell from this tune, the New Age label is a bit of a stretch.

The Flood

That’s 洪水 (hóngshuǐ – The Flood), one of the more energetic tunes in the set, though it’s certainly not out of place.

There is a great leap forward in production values here – the whole album is beautifully recorded, with the mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments handled very nicely. Su Yong plays bass, and there are contributions by others on flutes and other traditional instruments. There’s a lot of percussion by Li Jia (李佳), but no drum kit aside from what is sequenced by Lin. The album’s ten tracks correspond to the ten days of the title.

The following year saw the release of another band-credited album, the first one to be recorded since Lin and Su’s project turned into a real band. Kingdom of Benevolent Strangers (陌生仙子国 mòshēng xiānzǐ guó, literally Strange Fairyland) features Lin and Su along with Li Jia (the percussionist from Ten Days) on drums, Song Jianfeng (宋建丰) on guitar, and Zhou Shen’an (周圣安) on cello. It was created as a band effort in the studio, though all the tracks feature Lin as composer, either on her own or collaborating with others. She is credited under the name Miyadudu (米亚嘟嘟), which she would later use for a true solo album. Oddly enough, the band’s name is translated on the cover as Cool Fairyland.
In 2009, I finally found a copy of this in a store in Beijing. I paid an exorbitant price for a CDR in a cracked jewel case. But I was so happy to have a real copy of it that I forked over the cash, though not without a little grumbling.

Here’s a track to sample. It’s been a staple of their live shows.

Dead Children in the Newspapers

That’s 死在报纸上的孩子 (sǐ zài bàozhǐ shàng de háizi); I picked it because it features the cello prominently. This pairing of pipa and cello would become one of Cold Fairyland’s defining features. As you can hear, the production is more straightforward and less atmospheric than Ten Days, but certainly better than the 2001 demos. Other tracks feature Song’s guitar very prominently, for some very powerful rock moments, especially on 里绝望的花 (shǒuxīnli juéwàng de huā – Desperate Flower in Your Hand). On this album you get to see the band’s real direction, which aims to combine traditional Chinese sounds with what might be called progressive rock.

The next recording is another Lin Di solo album, 2004’s Bride in Legend; the Chinese title is 迷路新娘 (mílù xīnniáng), which means Lost Bride.
Like Ten Days, it was produced by Liu Xing, and it is again a lush concept piece. This time Lin tells the story of Yilang Yilang, a young girl sent out from her home village to be the bride of a man in a distant city. The events she experiences along the way change her and her understanding of the world. The backing band is not credited as Cold Fairyland, though the liner notes mention “Cool Zone” again; Su Yong, Li Jia and Song Jianfeng are present along with an even greater number of traditional instruments. Oddly enough, the pipa is not credited to Lin Di; there is cello on the album, but not played by Zhou Shen’an.

Once again, it was released on Taiwan’s Wind label and marketed to the New Age crowd, with elaborate packaging including liner notes in English and Chinese (unfortunately my copy almost immediately came unglued so I have to be really careful with it). There is less prominence given to the electronic MIDI programming, and much more emphasis on the Chinese instruments. From start to finish it’s a beautiful experience, with enough energy to keep it from inducing sleep.

Mula Shabei War

The track I’ve picked (慕拉沙贝大战 mùlāshābèi dàzhàn) is actually atypical. It’s track eight, and the first time electric guitar appears – kind of stands out when you hear it in the album’s sequence, but in a good way. This album is a good match with Ten Days, another beautifully realized studio creation that seamlessly mixes East and West, ancient and modern.

The next album brings us back to where I started with this band: their live album 2005现场 (2005 xiànchǎng, literally 2005 On Location – 现场 is the phrase used for a reporter at the scene of an incident – though it’s usually called 2005 Live in English). It was recorded at ARK in Shanghai, and revisits music from all of the previous releases, including the Lin Di solo albums, as well as a couple of new pieces.
The band consists of the recurring musicians I’ve already mentioned, all together and working as a unit. The cello is especially prominent, and the rhythm section really gets the chance to cut loose, completely dispelling any New Age stigma.

Here’s the live version of a song that previously appeared on Kingdom.

Desperate Flower in Your Hand

On this CD’s cover, the Chinese title 手心里绝望的花 (shǒuxīnli juéwàng de huā) is translated as “Holding the Flower of Despair,” but I’m sticking with the way it was written earlier – both seem accurate translations, and I guess the difference in meaning is pretty slight.

If I had been able to read Chinese when I got this CD, I would have noticed that the original release years and album titles for all the tracks are listed, and include something for 2006 called 地上的种子 (dìshang de zhǒngzi Seeds on the Ground); there is also one track with no other appearance listed. The only flaw to this recording is the occasional shaky quality of the vocals (more so the men’s backing parts than Lin’s lead), which is of course understandable given the live setting.

Also in 2005, Ten Days was reissued on a domestic Chinese label with a different cover:
In 2007 (not 2006 as promised on the live album), the next band album appeared. Seeds on the Ground continues the progression towards a less pop-oriented sound, with more attention given to the band’s unique qualities, especially the instrumentation with pipa and cello. Two of the new songs that appeared on the live album are given a studio treatment.
The personnel remains the same as on the live album, and the mood is a bit more serene in the studio setting, though far from sleepy. They start off with the title track, which features acoustic guitar, pipa, hand percussion, and a lovely vocal arrangement.

Here is a sample to give you an idea what they’re up to on this album:

The Moon at the Fortified Pass

That’s 关山月 (guānshān yuè – yes, only three characters for the six words of the English title). It’s one of only three tracks with lyrics, and those lyrics are by the famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. On the whole, Song plays a lot more acoustic guitar than electric. Several tracks feature odd meters and complex rhythms. In some ways, it seems that on this album, the band has come into their own, finally integrating all the diverse elements into a unified whole.
In the fall of 2008, I finally had a chance to see Cold Fairyland live. They played at the Modern Sky Festival in Beijing’s Haidian Park. I wrote about the performance originally here. Check it out for more photos and video.
It was here that I discovered founding bassist Su Yong was no longer with the band. I don’t know the story, but he’s been replaced by Seppo Lehto, who is Finnish. Su is now working with Wu Zhuoling (吴桌玲) in A-Z.
I also discovered that the lineup has been augmented with a full-time keyboard player, Xi Jin’e (奚近萼); previously, Lin had covered keyboards in the studio and alternated between pipa and keys when playing live.
As far as I know, Li Jia is still the band’s drummer, and just couldn’t make it to Beijing when I saw them.
It will be very interesting to see how these changes will play out in the band’s next recording, whenever that may be. Lin Di tells me the current lineup makes the band a “3 couples band.”

Lin Di’s most recent project is a solo CD called 秘密花园的邂逅 (mìmì huāyuán de xièhòu Meet in Secret Garden), credited to 米亚嘟嘟 (Miyadudu). It is perhaps her first true solo album, with very little participation by other musicians.
Here’s my favorite track:

Waterbird’s Secret Language

水鸟密语 (shuǐniǎo mìyǔ) is the track that features pipa most prominently, which is a large part of the appeal for me.

And finally, in 2009, Seeds on the Ground was re-released with a different cover.
Not sure why they changed it. It’s pretty, but I prefer the original one.

There you go, a short (yeah, right) introduction to my favorite Chinese band. I’m tired now.

Rock in China entry: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Cold_Fairyland
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/coldfairyland
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#!/pages/Cold-Fairyland/40842708567?ref=sgm
Official site: http://www.coldfairyland.com/
iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/cold-fairyland/id264914696?ign-mpt=uo%3D6

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.


The Yaogun Diaries, part 5

Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll".


Moving even farther astray from the punkish side of Chinese rock, we find this band, known sometimes by the Chinese version of their name, 牛奶@咖啡 (niúnǎi kāfēi) with the @ often not pronounced. I suppose you could say they’re not a rock band at all (see below for their own take on the question), but I have a pretty broad definition of rock. To pick a Western genre for them, I would probably choose “indie pop” but I don’t regard anything including the word “indie” as an actual genre. They are basically the duo of Fu Yan (富妍), known as Kiki, singing and 格非 (Ge Fei) on keyboards, guitar, programming, and so on. In a live setting other players are added to fill out the sound.

Their first album was called 燃烧吧!小宇宙 (ránshāo ba! xiǎo yǔzhòu), officially translated as Burn! My Cosmos, and came out in 2005.
I really enjoy this happy music, which reminds me of some of the Japanese bands I like. Here’s a track for you to get the idea.


This song, called “Lasia” actually garnered them some success in China, apparently hitting #3 on some kind of chart (I can’t find documentation of this, just a reference on Baidu).

There’s also a fun video for the title track of the album:

The first time I saw them live was at the Beijing Pop Festival in September of 2007. You can read my original post here.
By the end of the set, they had a whole bunch of extra people on the stage dancing and singing the chorus of a song that wasn’t on the CD; even then I knew enough Chinese to make out the title “Wo bushi rock ‘n’ roll” which means “I’m Not Rock ‘n’ Roll” – ironic since it was the most rock oriented tune they played.
The next time I saw them live was in a much more controlled setting, MAO Livehouse, in July of 2008 as part of a “girls’ night” featuring all female-led performances. While I didn’t write a review of the show, I did post some pictures. Here’s another one:
I found myself grinning like an idiot pretty much throughout their set. Kiki is so charismatic, cheerful, and cute you would have to be a real grouch to dislike her. There was a charming bit where she brought out a sequined top hat and a sparkly cane to do a little dance. The hat later ended up on the guitarist.

I even took some video of their final number.

Later in 2008 they released their second album, which has the happy title of 越长大越孤单, More Grown up, More Lonely.
When I got it, I was very happy to see it had the song I remembered from their festival performance. 我不是 Rock ‘n’ Roll (I’m Not Rock ‘n’ Roll).

I’m Not Rock ‘n’ Roll

About the same time as the CD came out I saw them again, this time at the Modern Sky Festival. Again, they got only a few photos instead of a full review.
It was a really fun performance, what with the pirate hat and bubble machines and all, and the crowd was so big I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage. This was by far the biggest stage I’ve seen them on, and they had a great time. The backing band was a little different, featuring a female keyboard player to fill in while Ge Fei concentrated on guitar.

In addition to their own CD releases, Milk@Coffee was involved in an interesting little project put together by Modern Sky Records: a CD for children called 星猫 (xīng māo Star Cat).
I hope this project is successful – it will be great to have a generation of kids exposed to music other than sappy pop.

Rock in China entry: http://wiki.rockinchina.com/index.php?title=Milk@Coffee

Note: All images and audio files presented here are in the interest of increasing awareness of Chinese rock in the English-speaking world. If you are the owner of the copyright in any of them and object to this free promotion, let me know and I'll remove the offending media.

The Dianying Diaries, part 2

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

小城之春 (xiǎochéng zhī chūn) – Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

As I mentioned last time around, the 1948 Chinese classic film with this title was remade in 2002. Though the official English titles are different, in Chinese they are identical. This time around, the director was Tian Zhuangzhuang (田壮壮 ) of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, along with Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and Chen Kaige (陈凯歌 ). Tian’s career has been very erratic, with a smaller number of films to his credits than others of his generation. This is due in great part to the aftermath of his 1993 film 蓝风筝 (The Blue Kite), which was banned in his homeland and earned him a forced hiatus for a few years. Even after his blacklisting was over, he did not make another film until this one nearly ten years later.
On the surface, this film is a marked departure from Tian’s tendency to push the boundaries of what his government would accept – it’s a simple story of a love triangle with no significant political or historical content. The plot remains unchanged from the original, so you can read my previous entry to see what it’s about. There is perhaps a slight bit of subversion in the choice to remake a neglected classic, first since that film was somewhat out of favor (though not banned). And by retreating into the past, to a movie that was made before the Revolution, maybe he was making a statement about how the authorities’ restrictions served to render Chinese artists impotent. But we should not read too much into these possibilities.

If I had seen this film on its own, and not shortly after watching the original, I might very well have felt differently about it. To be honest, this modern film suffers from the comparison in most respects. Although it garnered positive reviews both in China and abroad, I find it pales next to Fei Mu’s achievement.

To illustrate why I feel this way, let me go through some of the things I noted about the original, comparing the differences.
(The original Yuwen meets the new Yuwen)
First of all Yuwen’s narration is gone. In the DVD extras, Tian explains that her narration reduced the other characters’ importance, and he wanted to tell the story in a more balanced way, giving equal weight to Liyan and Zhicheng. I would call this change neutral.

Second, the character of Little Sister is significantly altered. Far from being the perceptive young woman she was in the original, she is giggly and immature. I’ve considered that maybe it’s just the choice of the young actress for the part, but it’s more than that. Frankly, the character of Little Sister in the original was a real joy; even when she wasn’t speaking you could see from her attitude that she understood what was going on maybe better than anyone else in the story. Her reduction to a shallow teenager is quite a loss for the film.
Third, the dialog is much more naturalistic, lacking the stagy quality I noted in the original. I’d have to call this one in Tian’s favor. While the acting style of the original didn’t really bother me, by comparison this seems more true-to-life. In addition, there’s a lot more talking in this version – some scenes that were nearly silent before now have dialog.

Fourth, Yuwen mostly lacks the forthright flirtatious manner she sometimes exhibited in the original. I found it decidedly odd that a 21st Century film would actually be less daring than its 1948 source. Yuwen is on the whole less energetic, independent and engaging in this go-round.

(I couldn't find this part with subtitles. The rowboat scene is about five minutes in.)
Fifth, while there are still scenes with singing, it is no longer Chinese folk songs that are sung. In the wonderful rowing scene of the original, they sing an ode to springtime, that, while it’s sung in Chinese, is set to the tune of “The Blue Danube.” And when Zhicheng gets drunk at Little Sister’s birthday party, he sings a piece from an Italian opera.

And finally, this film is in color. The cinematography is really lovely, but does lack the sense of desolation that the black and white gave us. As before, the lighting is often dim, though the candlelight now provides a warm glow rather than feeble flickering.

Another difference that was quite jarring was this: in the original, we never so much as saw another human being aside from the five principles. Now, for no reason I can make out, there is a single scene that breaks out of that confinement. Zhicheng goes to Little Sister’s school and teaches her classmates how to dance a waltz (again, note the favoring of a foreign influence over Chinese tradition).

To some extent, the rowing scene sums up the changes Tian made to Fei’s movie. The camera angle is much wider, giving us a detached, less engaged feeling; the characters do not exchange any meaningful glances, giving little hint what they’re feeling; and a Chinese folk song is replaced with a bastardized version of a European classical tune.

So while I would not say Tian’s film is a classic of Chinese cinema, it is far from a bad film, and shows lots of craft in the making. Tian obviously knows what he is doing, and what I see as shortcomings here are for the most part deliberate choices, not failures in movie-making skill. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from watching this picture, but would definitely urge everyone to seek out the original.

Wikipedia entry
IMDB entry
Netflix entry


The Dianying Diaries, part 1

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

小城之春 (xiǎochéng zhī chūn) – Spring in a Small Town (1948)

This film was made by director Fei Mu (费穆 ) just before the Revolution, so you can’t expect any propagandistic content. As you might recall, Japan occupied much of China starting in 1937 (the Second Sino-Japanese War), and weren’t finally expelled until 1945. This story is set in about 1946 in the aftermath of the war, and though it gets only fleeting mention, it is silently present in the ruined setting.
In a small town that is never named (it was filmed in Wuzhen (乌镇) in Zhejiang (浙江) province) but is somewhere not too far from Shanghai , the Dai family has its home. Their large compound, with multiple courtyards and many rooms in adjoining buildings, was heavily damaged by Japanese mortar fire, and in any case only four people now live there.
Dai Liyan (戴礼言, played by 石羽 Shi Yu), though only about 30, is the family patriarch. He has been in ill health for six years – it is suspected that his respiratory problem may be tuberculosis.
The second resident is his wife of eight years, Zhou Yuwen (周玉纹, played by 韦伟 Wei Wei). (Remember, in Chinese culture, women do not take their husband’s family name.) She is pretty but withdrawn, having lived in separate rooms from her husband since early in his illness. She takes care of him dutifully, but there is no affection apparent.
Liyan’s younger sister Dai Xiu (戴秀, played by 张鸿眉 Zhang Hongmei) is the third resident. She is 15, a very bright and perceptive girl, usually referred to as Little Sister (妹妹).
Finally there is Lao Huang (老黄 literally “Old Huang” – a typical way to refer to an older man, and not at all disrespectful, played by 崔超明 Cui Chaoming), the family’s loyal servant, who has been there longer than any of the others.
Over the years they’ve developed a routine. Every morning Yuwen rises and takes a basket into town to get groceries and her husband’s medicine and walks along the old city wall on the way home; Liyan gets up and sits in the garden, sometimes attempting repairs or tending plants; Little Sister gets up and walks to school, sometimes coming home for lunch, sometimes not until after school; Lao Huang takes care of things around the house. Presumably they have dinner together, though we don’t see that directly.
Shortly after the movie starts, their routine is interrupted by the arrival of Zhang Zhichen (章志忱, played by 李纬 Li Wei), a childhood friend of Liyan. Liyan hasn’t seen him since Zhichen left town to attend medical school in Shanghai. Through circumstances that aren’t explained, Liyan is unaware that Zhichen was Yuwen’s boyfriend when she was 16, before she met Liyan, and Zhichen is unaware that his former girlfriend married his old friend. These five characters are the only people seen in the entire film.
Zhichen’s arrival (he stays for several weeks) serves to highlight the emptiness of Yuwen’s marriage, and though this side of the love triangle is never consummated (this shouldn’t be a spoiler when you consider where and when it was made), tensions rise, and we wonder if Yuwen will leave her husband to be with her true love, or perhaps even do something more serious.

That’s enough of the plot. There are a few things to note about how the story is told.
Yuwen provides voice-over narration, mostly giving us background, sometimes revealing her thoughts, and occasionally providing information she really shouldn’t know according to the events seen on screen. Sometimes this is a little jarring, especially when the voice-over is interspersed with conversation.
Second is that Little Sister is quick to pick up on what’s going on. She can tell there is something between Yuwen and Zhichen, feels sorry for Yuwen’s unhappy situation, and is not blindly supportive of her brother; she’s slightly flirtatious toward Zhicheng.
Third, the dialog is a little stiff and stagy, rather like a play translated to the screen, though to my knowledge the screenplay was based on a short story, and there never was a play. I attribute this mainly to the era in which it was made. I understood enough of the dialog to pick this up, and I know others who don’t understand Chinese at all who have come to the same conclusion.
Fourth, in her scenes with Zhicheng, Yuwen is often quite playful, even a little flirtatious. There’s one scene where she circles her old boyfriend playing with a scarf, covering the lower part of her face like a veil while her eyes sparkle mischievously.

Fifth, there are several scenes with singing, usually Little Sister singing a Chinese folk song, but very little in the way of incidental music. There is a really interesting scene where the three principles take a boat out onto the river with Little Sister and they sing 在那遥远的地方 (zài nà yáoyuǎn de dìfang "In That Distant Place") together.
And finally, it is in black and white, with the ruined house seeming all the more desolate for the lack of color. Many scenes are lit by the dim overhead lightbulbs that make up the majority of the old house’s lighting, and at the times when the electricity goes out, there are only candles and lamps.

I mention some of these things for future comparison with the 2002 remaking of this story, which I’ll talk about in a forthcoming post.

The lack of political content led to the disfavor of the Communist government, which had the policy that art should further Party ideals. Since it didn’t contain any uplifting messages of the people overcoming oppression, it had no place in the country’s cultural mixture, seen as “Rightist” maybe more by default than by anything actually in it. So while it was never outright banned, it was basically ignored for decades, in mainland China at least. It also didn’t help that director Fei Mu fled to Hong Kong after the Revolution. Luckily copies have survived, though the DVD transfer I watched had some flaws, places where the picture or sound had problems. Others of Fei Mu’s early work have not been so lucky.
As I mentioned, the acting is maybe a little stiff by modern standards, and reminded me somewhat of American movies of the thirties. But I would not say that this film was in any way behind the the times for its era. The camera work, framing, and lighting are all quite good.

All in all, it is a fine film, and worthy of a place among the world’s classics of cinema. In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Critics Association voted it the greatest Chinese film of all time, topping a list of 100 movies weighted heavily towards the HK industry.

Wikipedia entry
IMDb entry
Netflix entry