In earlier posts (e.g.《Ma Jiefu》,《Rouge》), we discussed the classic short story collection Liaozhai Zhiyi 聊斋志异 ("Strange Stories from Liaozhai"), a rich source of material for Chinese filmmakers over the years. This 1931 silent production was based on another of the stories, and like《Ma Jiefu》, its Qing dynasty setting was transplanted to that of modern Shanghai, among the upper levels of its society. While its two lead characters were both female, one-time matinee idol Zhu Fei was cast in the chief male role, that of a husband so besotten by his new concubine that he totally neglects his faithful wife. This was supposed to be Zhu Fei's movie comeback, but it didn't work out, and he faded from sight, dying a few years later at the age of 32.
Lianhua. B&W. Silent. 7 reels. Premiered June 20, 1931 at the Peiping Theater in Shanghai. Producer: Luo Mingyou. Direction: Shi Dongshan. Screenplay: Zhu Shilin, adapted from the story of the same name by Pu Songling (1640-1715). Cinematography: Zhou Ke. Sets: Fang Peilin. Cast: Zhou Wenzhu (Heng Niang), Tang Tianxiu (Hong’s wife, Madam Zhu), Zhu Fei (Hong Daye), Ye Juanjuan (Baodai), Chen Yitang (Di Yuanzhai), Chu Fang (Miao Zhusan).
In spite of its more modern setting, like all Liaozhai stories this one has a supernatural component, in this case depicting the close interaction between a fox spirit and a woman. And, as in other Liaozhai stories in which a fox-spirit is a major protagonist, Heng Niang plays the role of advisor to a human character, this time to a neglected wife named Zhu. Madam Zhu and her husband Hong Daye used to be a happily married couple, and when her businessman husband decides to celebrate his financial success by taking a concubine, she accepts this as a successful man's due. But when he dotes on the younger woman to the point of neglecting Madam Zhu, her ‘first wife’ status becomes threatened. Madam Zhu tries desperately to win back her husband's affections, but none of her female charms appeal to him, the newcomer is all he cares about. Madam Zhu grows so miserable that she would rather give up her preeminent household status as "first lady" to trade places with the concubine. Then an ordinary looking woman in her thirties appears unexpectedly and befriends Madam Zhu. The stranger, named Heng Niang, advises the unhappy wife to take the exact opposite approach: neglect her appearance, busy herself with household chores, refuse her husband’s amorous advances for as long as possible, and then unexpectedly groom herself in the most alluring fashion and display her charms to her husband. These combined tactics of self-effacement and playing hard-to-get work out as planned and Zhu is restored to her marital bliss. Realizing that she has lost her exalted status, the concubine sadly leaves. The mysterious Heng Niang also disappears, and it turns out she was a fox-spirit.
[Neither of these two stills from the film are explained, but they both illustrate the popularity of the art deco style among Shanghai's fiscal and social elite. Click on either image to view full size.]