In the history of Chinese motion pictures, one filmmaker who cannot be ignored is Sun Yu; nor can his 1934 classic "Da Lu"大路 ("The Big Road", sometimes billed as "The Highway"). While it shares the summit of Chinese silent film with two other 1934 films, "Shen Nü" 神女("Goddess") and "Yu Guang Qu" 渔光曲 ("Song of the Fishermen"), "Da Lu" differs from them in a major regard: it is a "male film ". With a cast headed by Jin Yan, China's most popular male star of the 1930s, it included such popular and well-known actors of the day as Zheng Junli, Luo Ming, Zhang Zhizhi and Han Lan'gen. It was an all-out celebration of male strength and virility. It is interesting to note that the male heroes all had names
very similar to the screen names of the actors portraying them: Jin Yan:Jin Ge, Zhang Junli:Zhang Jun, etc. [above right, laboring for national defense: left to right, Luo Peng, Jin Yan, Zhang Yi]
"Da Lu" is historically significant for two principal reasons: first, it is an outstanding representative of the 1930s leftist national defense film, and second, it is one of the most mature works of Chinese silent film art. However, 70 years of difficult and often chaotic times will inevitably leave their marks and scratches on film, so if you believe that technology and art should get equal weight in evaluating a movie, such classics as "Da Lu" may not rank among your most rewarding viewing experiences. Where classics are concerned, viewing pleasure should not be the sole, universal goal in watching it.
The story focuses on a group of young men, itinerant construction workers who live and work together. They are distinct individuals: a coolie laborer from childhood, an embittered ex-farmer, a college dropout drifter, a Laurel-and-Hardy-like comic pair, etc. Unable to find steady work in Shanghai, they leave and travel around the country working in road construction. Their days are filled with hard labor under a blazing sun, but they always keep their spirits up, singing as they work. For recreation, they often relax at a small restaurant with two friendly and flirtaceous girls who work there. The girls, Ding Xiang ("Lilac") and Mo Li ("Jasmine"), entertain and sing to the young men, flirt a bit, and party with them after work. The women are also distinct individuals: Mo Li (played by Li Lili), the elder of the two, had been a sing-song girl who came to the area after the destruction of her hometown. Ding Xiang (Chen Yanyan) is the restaurant owner's daughter, a romantic and starry-eyed ingénue entranced by these virile young men from the city.
A subplot concerns a traitorous local landlord in the pay of the enemy who attempts to sabotage the road project, even to the point of abducting and imprisoning the young men on the eve of its completion. The plot is thwarted by the two clever young women, who infiltrate the traitor's mansion, freeing the prisoners, and (in Mo Li's case), getting him drunk, seducing him and uncovering evidence of his treason.
The road is completed and the Chinese Army moves forward to the front. But just at their moment of triumph, most of the characters are killed by a strafing enemy aircraft. In a final, hopeful scene, the surviving Ding Xiang sees her friends' spirits rising from their dead bodies and joyously continuing their work. "No," she vows, "they will never die!"
By the 1930s Chinese movies were reaching their highest point of Western-style liberation. On screen, sexy young stars were becoming the norm, while off screen, even same-sex romances were in vogue for a time in places like Shanghai. On screen and off, women were beginning to speak in a louder voice. Shanghai in particular was subject to the lively Sino-Western cultural exchange of that time, and "Da Lu" is more evidence of this.
First, barechested men are everywhere in the movie. Jin Yan, Zhang Yi, Zheng Junli, etc., the hottest male stars of the day, were repeatedly shown shirtless. All close-up shots of Jin Yan, the "Emperor of Movies" and a former star athlete, include his chest or his chiseled abdominal muscles, which combined with a constant flow of perspiration made him look like a bronzed sculpture. While such scenes were rare in Chinese films at that time, they were included to convey the image of male strength. Another scene which was very advanced for the time has the group of young men skinny-dipping in a river. When the two female leads happen upon them, rather than fleeing in embarrassment, the girls stay on the bank making fun of the naked men in language that is fairly aggressive.
But the most daring scene does not take place between a man and a woman, but between the two actresses, Li Lili and Chen Yanyan. Chen Yanyan had always been cast as sweet young ingénues, while Li Lili, noted for her dancer's legs and athletic figure, usually portrayed more mature coquettes. In this particular scene, the two women are talking in the rear of the restaurant and snuggle up together on a deck chair, then conduct their conversation while embracing, kissing, etc. But it would be a mistake to conclude the director was trying to portray a Lesbian relationship, for while the girls are cuddling together the sole topic of their conversation is the men on the road crew who have entered their lives. The overall impression is of two sisters, with the more sophisticated elder lovingly explaining some of the facts of life to her younger, more naive sibling.
[right, Mo Li and Ding Xiang share some serious girl talk]
The movie was a very bold effort, both in its depiction of male nudity, and in its reversal of sexual angles, i.e. men as observed through the eyes of women. At the same time, the brotherly relations among the male friends was a perfect embodiment of the traditional Chinese view of values and ethics.
A bright spot in the film is its depiction of two romances. One is between the college dropout Xiao Luo (played by Luo Ming), and Ding Xiang. Their relationship is a more traditional romantic one: a young couple having a private chat under a full moon. The other romance is more subtle and implied than evident, between Mo Li and the road crew's leader, the lifelong coolie Jin Ge (Jin Yan). Their mutual attraction is never expressed directly, not until the ending when as their lives are slipping away the two clasp hands to express what was never spoken between them.
[left, Ding Xiang and Xiao Luo enjoy the moonlight]
While "Da Lu" is a silent movie, it does have sound. This may seem contradictory, but Chinese film studios were in a transitional period between silent and sound, and sound effects (the roar of a tractor, the wind rustling tree branches, etc.) and music were added in post-production. There were several songs in the movie, including one by each of the girls that reflect their distinct characters: Mo Li entertains the restaurant patrons with a jaunty, but actually very sad song about her native village, devastated by natural disasters and warfare (as she sings, we see actual newsreel footage of horrific flooding); Ding Xiang, in a private moment with Xiao Luo, sings to him a simple ballad about birds and their freedom. The movie's theme, "Song of the Great Road," composed by the legendary and tragically short-lived Nie Erh, became a big hit in China, and is still included on any Chinese list of that country's classic movie themes.
In viewing a classic film it often helps to keep in mind the political and social context in which it was made, and in the case of "Da Lu" that context is very significant. On September 18, 1931, the Japanese Army invaded the Northeast China provinces collectively known then as Manchuria, and in 1932 set up the puppet state of Manchukuo, with Pu Yi, the deposed "Last Emperor" as its figurehead ruler. From that base, the Japanese continued making incursions into North and Northeast China. And yet the movie never mentions the Japanese by that name: it is always "the enemy". There is a reference to Manchuria being occupied by a foreign power, but it is "the enemy" doing it. The objective in building the road is to enable the Chinese Army to move troops to the front and battle "the enemy". In the final, climactic scene, the attacking aircraft are "enemy planes". In case any further hints were needed, in a scene showing the collaborationist landlord receiving his marching orders from an enemy agent, the latter is another Asian man who has to communicate through an interpreter.
This was due to the political environment at the time the movie was made. In 1934, the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) was following a policy of appeasement, an attempt to keep the Japanese at bay while the Chinese Army pursued its campaign to irradicate the Chinese Communists. It was not until 1936 that the "Xi'an Incident" took place, and Chiang was forced to make common cause with the Communists to oppose the Japanese. Although "Da Lu" was a national defense film, intended to arouse the Chinese people's patriotic feelings, going against official government policy by identifying the enemy might have resulted in the film's suppression.
So if you ever see "Da Lu" with English intertitles, and there is any mention of the "Japanese," know that it is flawed. Someone has robbed the audience of the movie's political subtext by mistranslating its Chinese intertitles.
Da Lu 大路 [The Big Road]
Production studio: Lianhua (United China). Silent, with added music and sound effects. B&W. 10 reels. Premiered January 1, 1935 at the Lyric Theater in Shanghai.
VCD reviewed from the Guangzhou Beauty Culture Communication Co., Ltd.
Direction and Screenplay: Sun Yu. Cinematography: Hong Weilie. Cast, in credits order: Jin Yan (Jin Ge), Chen Yanyan (Ding Xiang), Li Lili (Mo Li), Luo Peng (Xiao Luo), Zheng Junli (Zheng Jun), Liu Qiong (Big Liu), Liu Jiqun (Boss Ding), Han Lan'gen (Young Han), Zhang Yi (Old Zhang), Zhang Zhizhi (Big Zhang), Shang Guanwu (Hu Fu), Hong Jingling (Hong Jin).