[left, the Da Zhonghua Baihe Company magazine's special issue on《Transparent Shanghai》]
In June, 1925, the Da Zhonghua (Greater China) Film Company was having cash flow problems, so it merged with the Baihe (Lily) Film Company to form the Da Zhonghua Baihe Company, one of the dominant Shanghai studios of the late 1920s. Most of the founders of this new company were European-oriented intellectuals, such as actor-director Wang Yuanlong, while others were more traditionally Chinese conservatives, such Zhu Shouju. It is generally accepted that《Transparent Shanghai》, considered one of the best Chinese films of 1926, was a case of the European tendency winning out. Although in his personal life actor/writer/director Wang Yuanlong might not have been an ideal role model, he was not averse to casting himself as a negative character. In writing this script, Wang said he wanted to make the point that "money can cause all kinds of evil," and personally acted the role of playboy Wang Shaoshan because he wanted to convey the corrupting effect money could have, even on someone born with every advantage in life. Through its portrayal of the warlord's son Wang Shaoshan, cheating on his wife to lure a poor family's widowed daughter-in-law into a hopeless relationship, Wang Yuanlong wanted to expose and attack the power elite of the time, particularly the warlords, who were corrupting daily Chinese life. For Chinese audiences, his message was of major significance. A major factor in the movie's success with audiences was its dance scenes and elaborate sets, depicting the rich and powerful enjoying the pleasures their wealth and position brought them. Most of the Chinese critics of the day lauded the film as first-class (albeit escapist) entertainment, but one tempered the praise with a touch of criticism, writing that "In its artistic expression, the film seems to focus more on displaying the rich and powerful enjoying the pleasures of their lives. The settings of the film, the living quarters and playgrounds of the rich, are all Western-style, very luxurious, with many ballroom dancing scenes showing men and women flirting and publicly affectionate. But while these are fascinating glimpses of a lifestyle most of us can only dream of, they are distractions from the film's main theme and ideas."
Toumingde Shanghai (1926) 透明的上海 (Transparent Shanghai)
Da Zhonghua Baihe. B&W. Silent. 11 reels. Direction: Lu Jie. Screenplay: Wang Yuanlong. Cast: Wang Yuanlong (Wang Shaoshan), Han Yunzhen (Han Shiyun), Yang Jingwo (Qiu Hua), Zhang Qingsheng (Li Renfu), Zhou Wenzhu (Zhou Yunyu), Wang Xuechang [i.e. Wang Cilong] (Wu Jingxi), Liu Xian (Wen Er), Li Minghui (Fufen), Bao Yuanming (servant), Gong Jialong (Gong Yiren), Wang Yingzhi (Young Master Ouyang), Zhong Fudong (his girlfriend), Tang Jie (third Young Master), Ren Ruzhen (Wang's girlfriend). Also: Wang Lanfen, Chen Manru, Zhong Shanshan.
[left, Li Fufen (Li Minghui) is comforted by her elderly father Li Renfu (Zhang Qingsheng)]
Elderly Li Renfu's son was killed in the 1924 Jiangsu-Zhejiang border war, leaving the elder Li with an extended family to support: his widowed daughter-in-law Zhou Yunyu, her young son, and Old Li's own, unmarried daughter Fufen. The family is very strapped financially, and in order to relieve their debts, the family members give their better quality clothing to Old Li to take to the pawn shop, and on the way back he is knocked down by a car driven by Wang Shaoshan. Wang, the son of a warlord, is a dissolute young man who doesn't work and relies on his father to support his carousing, although he has a wife, Han Shiyun. Fortunately Li is uninjured in the accident, and Wang drives him the rest of the way home. When they arrive to find Old Li's family members waiting for the money he brought them, Li introduces his family to Wang, and the young man is very taken with the young widow. He offers Old Li a sum of money in compensation and asks to visit the family again. From that point on, whenever he visits Li's home he brings a gift of money. Seeing a possible release from widowhood, Yunyu's heart is moved by Shaoshan's good looks and manners and his kindness to the family. When he invites her to go dancing she accepts, and since she is supposed be in mourning, upon leaving she tells her family she is going to visit an aunt who lives not far away. But when she arrives back late that night she is startled to see the aunt leaving the Li home, with sister-in-law Fufen seeing her off. Too embarrassed to enter, Yunyu goes back to Shaoshan and spends the night with him.
[right, torn between lovers and at a loss what to do, Fufen finds consolation in music]
The next day, Yunyu is still afraid to go home, so Wang Shaoshan takes the opportunity to rent another home for her, holding out the possibility of marriage but actually planning to keep her there as his mistress. The day after that, when Old Li and Fufen come to Wang's first home to report Yunyu is missing, Wang feigns caring and to comfort them gives them another gift of money. But in drawing the money from his wallet he doesn't notice when he drops two dance tickets. But Fufen notices and picks them up, planning to use them to go dancing with her boyfriend Wu Jingxi, a poor painter. They dress in their best, and at the dance that night, the couple meet Wang Shaoshan, who thinks Fufen looks gorgeous and spends much of the evening dancing with her, to the sorrow of Jingxi. He leaves, leaving Fufen and Shaoshan to dance and later have an affectionate tryst.
Meanwhile, since leaving home Yunyu misses her son, and takes to walking past her former home every night to check on the boy. One night, she peeks through a window and sees her son gasping for air, perhaps dying.
[A philandering husband (Wang Yuanlong) freely admits his infidelities to his wife (Han Yunzhen)]
Wang Shaoshan and his wife Shiyun have become alienated and, suspicious at her husband's neglect, she searches his private quarters. When she finds hidden in a pillow a journal indicating he has not only seduced Yunyu, he is now pursuing Fufen, she angrily confronts him. As they argue, Fufen arrives to see Shaoshan, but as she overhears him coldly admit to his wife's accusations of infidelity, Fufen leaves in sorrow and regret at her own naiveté. She returns home to find the faithful Wu Jingxi waiting for her, and the two reconcile.
Back at the Wang home, the married couple's argument gets more heated, until Shaoshan draws a gun. They struggle, and the gun goes off, igniting an explosion which blinds Shaoshan. They escape, but the next day, deranged by her remorse, Shiyun commits suicide. Having now lost everything, and with nothing to live for, Shaoshan sets fire to his house, immolating himself with it.
[Note: the critical quote given at the end of the first paragraph is taken from Zhishang Guan Ying Lü 1921-1949 纸上观影录 (Viewing Movies on Paper) by Zhang Wei 张伟 (Tianjin: Baihua Literature and Art Publishing House, 2005)]. Unfortunately, the copy I retrieved online did not include specific page citations.]