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Wutai jiemei (Two Stage Sisters)

Posted by martinteller on July 29, 2013

In 1934 China, an all-female opera troupe performs.  The star is Xing Yuehong (Cao Yindi), who plays the male leads.  A young woman named Zhu Chunhua (Xie Fang) is trying to escape an arranged marriage, and hides out in the troupe’s tent.  She is admitted into the company, and Yuehong and Chunhua become so close that they call each other “sister”, and eventually the two become very well-known for their performances.  However, while Chunhua remains true to her roots, Yuehong embraces the wealthy lifestyle and leaves acting for a marriage of convenience to the stage manager Tang (Li Wei).  As Chunhua becomes more politically motivated, Tang is pressured to drive an even bigger wedge between the sisters.

This was one of the films I discovered through Mark Cousins’s excellent documentary miniseries The Story of Film.  It’s part melodrama, part political propaganda and, at the end, part courtroom drama,  Some may find the melodrama rather overblown, but I found it suits the theatrical nature of the film.  Non-diegetic songs are used to comment on the action, making the movie itself at times feel like a Chinese opera.

It’s harder to overlook the propagandistic elements as the movie rails against westernization and rallies for Communism, but I’ve seen much worse, especially in Soviet cinema.  There were cuts made to the film, and the original ending is more heavy-handed (I don’t know who made the cuts, or when they were done).  I also thought there was something subtly sinister about Chunhua’s indoctrination to Communism, but I can’t say whether or not this was intentional or merely my perception.

Nonetheless, the drama is consistently compelling, with many interesting bumps along the road (the story spans two decades) and fine performances by all.  The visual style is quite lovely, with sublime camera movement and a color palette that looks like Jack Cardiff’s work for the Archers.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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