FAR AWAY LOVE: A MEANINGFUL FABRICATION
The remarkable postwar works of Chen Liting, Shi Dongshan, Cai Chusheng, and Zheng Junli pose a major question. How was it possible for films that treated victory as defeat to be so popular? To answer this question, it is extremely important to go over almost every detail of their elaborate narrative reconstructions of the war years. This method allows us to appreciate patterns of appeal that link the texts to the popular audience. As Robert Darnton has pointed out, reconstructions
The first narrative, an amusing satire called Far Away Love, opens in Shanghai in late 1927. Chen Liting believed that a full understanding of the disruptive social dynamics of the war years required a grasp of prewar conditions. As the account opens, the audience sees a respected young professor named Xiao Yuanxi lecturing on the subject of "women and society." Xiao presents himself as a modern-minded intellectual who supports the cause of women's rights.
One day Xiao catches a female servant named Yu Zhen taking a book from his study. She claims she is only borrowing it. Given her rural background, Xiao is amazed the young woman can read. Later he tells a female colleague named Wu Ya'nan that he has a grand experiment in mind. Xiao proposes to take personal charge of the servant's reeducation. He is confident he can mold such fine raw material into a "modern young lady" (modeng xiaojie). At first Yu Zhen misunderstands. When she was still in her village, a landlord's son wanted to convert her into a xiaojie, that is, his concubine. The two intellectuals convince her that Xiao has nothing but the best intentions.
Yu Zhen finally agrees, and Professor Xiao lectures her on the role of women in modern society. Since "modern" is defined as "Western," the servant is taught Western table manners and the correct way to shake hands with men. Her peasant garb is exchanged for modern, urban clothes. Still, throughout her rigorous training, Yu Zhen continues to function as a servant. For example, Xiao insists that Yu Zhen sit with him at the breakfast table, but he still expects her to serve the meal.
The professor eventually writes a book entitled On New Women (Xin funü lun) about his experiment, and his fame spreads. He confesses to Yu Zhen, however, that her progress has not been totally satisfactory. She is not an "ideal" woman, he proclaims, because she is insufficiently "independent." Xiao complains that she obeys his commands a bit too mechanically. That problem is addressed, however, when Wu Ya'nan, known throughout the picture as Big Sister Wu, convinces Yu Zhen to go to a public meeting (on the Japanese threat) that the busy professor has no time to attend. Yu Zhen goes in order to show more "independence."
The narrative leaps ahead to 1931. Xiao has married his "ideal" woman and a son is born. Unfortunately, their domestic tranquillity is disturbed by the Mukden Incident. Influenced by Big Sister Wu, Yu Zhen attends ever more meetings. She also enrolls in a class that provides her with some leadership training. Xiao begins to resent the fact that his wife is never home. She justifies her absences by referring to his own remarks about the need for women to show "independence." When Japanese forces attack Shanghai in January 1932, Yu Zhen's father is killed in a
The narrative leaps ahead to July 1937. The couple has another son and war threatens once again. And once again Wu Ya'nan shows up to recruit Yu Zhen for war preparation. Xiao claims that the war will never reach Shanghai, and when it does he is shaken to the core. When a friend offers him a comfortable military desk job in Hankou, Xiao agrees to flee the city. Yu Zhen insists on staying in Shanghai as long as possible to do dangerous work at the front. Husband and wife separate, but Xiao refuses to take either of the children, even though he is headed for a safe rear area.
Xiao lives a life of great comfort in Hankou. He wears a fancy Nationalist uniform and lives in a spacious home once occupied by Japanese residents. He has servants and an expense account. When he is not attending meaningless meetings, he plays cards in his office. Enthusiastic young people plead for a chance to go to the front, but Xiao urges them to be "logical" and refuses to process their papers. At night Xiao spends his time in Hankou's best nightclubs.
When the Japanese occupy Shanghai, Yu Zhen retreats with other resistance activists. Along the way her infant child is killed in a Japanese strafing assault. Yu Zhen later joins a Nationalist military unit and puts on the crude uniform of infantry regulars. Every day she hikes along with the troops, helping wounded soldiers, refugees, and orphans.
One of the most visually interesting sequences in the film involves the reunion in Hankou between Xiao and Yu Zhen. The gap that now separates them is apparent in everything that happens. She is wearing rough straw sandals and a tattered uniform; he has expensive leather shoes and a full cape. He wants to pay for a rickshaw; she prefers to walk. He wants her to wear women's clothing; she insists on staying in her battle fatigues. He takes her to Hankou's most elegant restaurant; she says she is not hungry. (See figure 11.1.)
The restaurant scene is especially effective. Xiao spends a small fortune on a wasteful dinner while starving children gape through the window. Yu Zhen is appalled by the decadence of the restaurant culture. She asks Xiao when he started smoking and drinking so much. When the bill comes, Yu Zhen says that a soldier at the front could live for a month on what Xiao has spent.
Back in his lavish home, Xiao tries to tell Yu Zhen that life in the rear is different from life at the front and urges her to adjust. But even Xiao's pet dog does not like Yu Zhen. The dog smells Yu Zhen's feet and immediately begins an angry bark before jumping up on Xiao's lap. One evening they go out to a dazzling nightclub for an evening of drinking and dancing to Western music. The party ends abruptly when Yu Zhen slaps a man who is harassing her.
Figure 11.1. Wearing battle fatigues and straw sandals, an embarrassed Yu Zhen (left) enters an elegant Hankou restaurant with her corrupt husband (center), in Far Away Love (d. Chen Liting, China Film No. 2, 1947). Courtesy of the Film Archive of China, Beijing.
As the war gets closer to Hankou, Yu Zhen wants to return to the front. Xiao is opposed to her plan. Late one night her thoughts return to the warm feelings of community she enjoyed with her comrades in the army. Before dawn she slips out and returns to the "women's work brigade" at the front, leaving a note that tells Xiao she will return whenever she can.
The war drags on and the paths of husband and wife do not cross. With the fall of Hankou, Xiao drifts to Guilin, where he takes up a minor teaching post. Xiao's dignity continues to slip away. Students sneak out of his meaningless lectures, and a new article of his, entitled "Women's Heaven and Earth Is Still in the Family," is severely criticized in the press.
Yu Zhen, it seems, has a new family. She is working feverishly on the outskirts of Guilin with Big Sister Wu and many others who comprise a wartime Nationalist military collective. The group treats the elderly like parents, soldiers like brothers, and orphans like their own children.
The film ends when a Japanese assault on Guilin leads to a mass exodus of terrified refugees, including Professor Xiao, who looks quite pathetic. His clothes are
The refugees finally make it to an evacuation center where Yu Zhen's women's brigade has arranged for a caravan of trucks to take the women and children to safety. It is here that Big Sister Wu spots the wretched Professor Xiao among the women and children. She then brings Yu Zhen and Xiao together in the final scene of the movie.
Xiao wants to get back together with Yu Zhen. He says he needs her and cannot understand how she can get along without her husband and family. He wants her to go to Chongqing with him. When she declines, he asks if she has another man. She answers that she "loves all of those who have died and all who are still fighting." She pities him because he "loves only himself." His is a "selfish love." Still, she promises to talk to him about their relationship once the war is over. Xiao then jumps on a truck and goes off with the women and children.