A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Wild Rose (Sun Yu, 1932)

Wild Rose director Sun Yu
By 1932, sound was so established in American filmmaking that Charles Chaplin's decision a year earlier to release his City Lights with a score and synchronized sound effects but without dialogue was regarded as an anachronistic whim on the part of a cinematic genius. But elsewhere in the world, sound had not fully taken hold. Chinese filmmakers like Sun Yu were still making silent films: Wild Rose was the fourth in his career as a director, which began in 1928. Raised in China, Sun studied drama at the University of Wisconsin and film at the New York Institute of Photography and Columbia University before going home again in 1926. Wild Rose is a skillfully made tale of the romance of a country girl, Xiao Feng, which translates as "Little Phoenix," and a rich young city dweller, Jian Bo, who wants to be an artist. Wang Renmei, who made her film debut as the girl, became one of China's major stars during the 1930s, and eventually married her co-star, Jin Yan, who was known as "the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai." Jian and Little Phoenix meet one day when he's sketching in her village. He's amused by her attempts to do a military drill with a group of kids and her exortations that they love China. When a fire destroys her home, he takes her to the city with him. After a quarrel with his father, caused by Little Phoenix's clumsy attempt to adjust to city manners and fashion, the young couple move into a slum, sharing quarters with two of his buddies, resulting in scenes that were obviously inspired by La Bohème. Unable to sell his art, Jian takes a job as a sign painter, working on billboards -- which are, interestingly, mostly in English. But he falls ill, and their increasing poverty causes Little Phoenix to steal a wallet from a drunk. When she's caught, Jian takes the rap, so she goes to his father and secretly makes a deal: If he'll bail Jian out, she'll leave him. Time passes, and when patriotic fervor is roused by the Japanese attempts to take over Manchuria, Jian finds her and and his old friends in the crowds recruiting troops for the war. Wang's performance is strikingly reminiscent of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford at their spunkiest. The story is nicely handled, if a little disjointed toward the end, and the movie gives us some remarkable looks at China in a turbulent era. The scenes of slum life are nicely contrasted with the upperclass milieu of Jian's family, who live in an opulent mansion that's a blend of Chinese style and Art Deco.
Wang Renmei in Wild Rose