In the political and financial aftermath of the war, Shanghai gave the illusion that it was a city full of opportunities and everyone was running after easy money. Li Lihua, a lady without means, and Shi Hui, the hairdresser, faked their identity, trying to convince each other that he/she was a good party for marriage. The film painted a ferocious picture of a society which gave few possibilities to ordinary people. Scenarist Sang Hu has written some of the best comedies of Chinese cinema and this sparkling and well-interpreted satire is still incredibly modern and funny.
On July 11, 1947, about 800 hairdressers gathered in front of Shanghai’s biggest movie theatre, the Da Guangming, where Jiafeng Xuhuang had its first projection, to protest against the way their profession was represented in the film. The management finally agreed to make some changes to calm them down. This incident helped the film obtain the highest number of ticket sales of all those produced by Wenhua. A journalist from “Life” magazine, then in Shanghai, made a photo-reportage on the two main actors. It was published and excited the curiosity of Americans about the film. Some months later, it pushed Huang Zuolin, himself fluent in English, to supervise a version of the film dubbed in English. Renamed The Barber takes a wife, it had quite a success in the U.S. Many were touched by the elegant beauty of Li Lihua and later she played the leading role in a Hollywood film, The Buccaneer (1958), with Yul Brynner.
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Wenhua was the more sophisticated of the two leftist film companies operating in Shanghai during the civil war period of the late 1940s, probably because many of its directors, writers and actors came from theatre backgrounds. Not all, though: scriptwriter Sang Hu (who turned director himself the same year) had once been a theatre critic but came into the film industry during the war as a scriptwriter for Zhu Shilin and had a cinéphile sensibility. He infused this Lubitsch-like rom-com with lessons he’d learnt from Hollywood comedies of the 1930s. His satires of bourgeois manners and social climbing were loudly approved by pro-communist critics, but Sang turned out to be more an entertainer than a political animal.
The wonderful Shi Hui plays Yang, star clipper in the Time Barber Shop, who poses as a business executive when he replies to a Lonely Hearts ad in a newspaper – little suspecting that the advertiser ‘Miss Fan’ is not a wealthy overseas-Chinese but a penniless young widow. Since the woman is played by the equally striking Li Lihua (who went on to star in movies by Frank Borzage, Li Hanxiang and King Hu), the film boasts two luminous performances and gives both stars the farcical situations and repartee which allow them to shine. Future director Ye Ming is also memorable as Yang’s co-conspirator, barber n.7. Director Huang Zuolin (here billed simply as Zuo Lin) doesn’t aim much higher than filmed theatre, but the script and cast carry the day.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Sang Hu. F.: Huang Shaofen, Xu Qi. M.: Fu Jiqiu. Scgf.: Wang Yuebai. Mus.: Zhang Zhengfan. Int.: Li Lihua (la ragazza), Shi Hui (Yang), Lu Shan (l’amica), Ye Ming (barbiere n. 7). Prod.: Wenhua. DCP. D.: 92’.
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