After the Soviet army liberated Changchun, the well-equipped Manying Film Studios were handed over to Chinese communists from Yenan, who renamed them The North-East Film Studio. In summer 1946, the Nationalists launched a big offensive in the region and took control of the city. They soon established Changchun Film Productions and entrusted the direction of its first film, Songhuajiang Shang, to Jin Shan (1911-1982), a famous actor. As he was well known for his anti-Japanese activities, few people were willing to mention that he had been a clandestine member of the Communist party since the 1930s. The main actress, Zhang Ruifang (1918-2012), who looks young and innocent, was a well trained theater actress. Completed in autumn 1947 and screened in November in Shanghai, the film was a big success and received good reviews.
The story begins on the eve of September 18, 1931, the day the Japanese invaded Manchuria. The film contrasts the everyday life of ordinary people and the activities of those resisting against the invaders. The first twenty minutes, set at the end of summer in a small village on the banks of the Sungari River, are a pure moment of happiness, while the second part highlights the long sufferings of local people under the Japanese Occupation until they are liberated by the invincible spirit of a guerilla unit. The long sequences shot outdoors with a powerful camera, following the protagonists in the landscape from very far away, were unusual in Chinese filming at the time.
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Manchuria was the first area liberated from the Japanese army, and this was the first of three movies made by a new company in a studio built for Japanese propaganda vehicles. Director/writer/editor Jin Shan was most famous for having played the phantom in MaXu Weibang’s Yeban Gesheng (Song at Midnight, 1937, a version of Phantom of the Opera) but his lyrical opening scenes here reveal Dovzhenko-like skills as a director with a flair for poetic realism. Later scenes show a mastery of narrative ellipsis and off-screen space, and the closing scenes of an anti-Japanese uprising at a coal mine set the template for many subsequent depictions of mass struggle in Chinese movies.
The story spans the years from 1931, when the Japanese army arrived, to sometime in the early 1940s, when the Chinese resistance began to make significant gains. Chronicle narratives like this were already a staple in China’s leftist cinema, and Jin follows convention in anchoring the story in a few central characters: a family, young lovers and a guerrilla fighter in the resistance. The emphasis on tragedies and setbacks is fairly unrelenting, but Jin manages to offset it by respecting the young couple’s humanity; there’s a palpable warmth in his direction. He and his lead actress Zhang Ruifang became short-term lovers after the shoot but their careers soon diverged. She became a grande dame of communist cinema; he returned to theatre and wasn’t allowed to direct another film until 1956.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Jin Shan. F.: Yang Jiming, Chen Minhun. M.: Shen Jialun, Guan Zhibin. Scgf.: Gao Min. Mus.: Li Weicai. Int.: Zhang Ruifang (la ragazza), Wang Renlu (il ragazzo), Zhou Diao (il guerrigliero), Pu Ke (il nonno), Zhu Wenshun (il padre), Fang Hua (la madre). Prod.: Changchun Films Productions. DCP. D.: 119’.
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