Saturday 28 June 2008

The Peach Girl (1931)

While Hollywood had completely converted over to sound by 1929, with Chaplin's City Lights really the only holdout, much of the rest of the world was still making silent movies, notably in Russia, Japan and China. I'm still catching up with a lot of these and this is one that's been high on my list to find, not just because of its renown but because it stars Ruan Lingyu, one of the true icons of Chinese cinema, one later played by Maggie Cheung in Centre Stage aka The Actress. Ruan Lingyu was a legend but like many legends, she died tragically young, of an overdose soon before reaching 25. Therefore the age old question applies: is she a legend because of what she did or because of the perception of what she would have done.

Here she's Miss Lim, a poor young girl whose life is intertwined with that of a peach tree, which was planted by her parents the day she was born. She's born to Loo Chi, a farmer working for Mrs King, who naturally is of a different social station being his boss and his landlady. Mrs King also has a child, a boy called Teh-en who is about the same age, and as the title cards point out to us, class differences don't exist with children. Therefore it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to find that Miss Lim and Teh-en become very close.

We see them meeting as five year olds, getting into a mud throwing battle. Only later, after twenty minutes of buildup, do we see them grown up and in love. Miss Lim is a beautiful young lady, naturally, and Lingyu Ruan plays her with shyness and deference when Teh-en is there, but radiates inner feelings when she isn't. On the face of this performance, it's not particularly surprising that she was a legend, as she is massively expressive, with her body as well as her face. Teh-en is played by Yan Jin, and as a young man he's eager, but naturally the class difference stands like a third character between them, and that's what provides our story.

This film is interesting for more than Ruan Lingyu. There's a fight scene before she even blesses our screen that features Chinese kung fu from 1931 and it's fascinating, all deflection and throwing. Miss Lim's father bests Chang Fee, a cattle thief, by some sort of close wrestling and a throw. The peach tree metaphor is interesting too, given that this is a tragedy of a forbidden love and the introductory text explains the symbolic connection between peach blossoms and human teardrops. An alternate title for the film is Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood.

The Annual Temple Fair could have been more interesting from a cultural perspective but that isn't its purpose, here being entirely to build the connections between the two lead characters. Similarly we get to see little of the city, when Teh-en persuades his mother to let her come back with them for a few days. What we see is the two leads interact, very subtle work for 1931. Most surprisingly for a silent film, there's a great amount of subtle attention given to the supporting characters. There's especial power in the performance of Lili Zhou as Mrs King. She ages wonderfully and builds in a head shaking motion suggesting Parkinson's Disease that's highly believable. I was amazed to see that she only has one more credit to her name, and that as only a female guard in a further Ruan Lingyu film called A Spray of Plum Blossoms.

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