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April 16, 2009

The Peach Girl

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Bu Wancang - 1931
Lianhua Film Company All Region DVD

Seeing Stanley Kwan's film Actress, about Ruan Lingyu, made me interested in seeing more than the excerpts included in Kwan's film. Billed here as Lily Yuen, Bu's film serves as a wonderful introduction to both Ruan and has also made me more interested in the other work of Bu, billed here as Richard Poh. Ruan was a few years younger than Janet Gaynor. To put Bu's film in the context of general film history, while Hollywood and Europe had completed their conversion to sound filmmaking, Asian films were still silent well into the early 1930s. Bu's film, with this one example, seems to be the work of someone who studied closely the work of D.W. Griffith and probably Frank Borzage. Both because of the star and the director, there should be motivation for greater film scholarship.

The basic story follows a classic silent film template as well. The young, but poor, daughter of a tenant farmer is in love with the son of the landowner. The conflicts here are of class as well as city boy and country girl. Chinese tradition is looked at both in terms of traditions regarding class and gender, as well as how some of the characters dress. Lim and Teh-en are the lovers, whose pure love is disrupted by both their own pride as well as that of their traditional parents. Teh-en's mother would rather pay of Lim and her family rather than allow her son to marry someone considered socially unacceptable. The title comes from Lim, as a small girl, having her life compared to a peach tree by her parents, with the blossoms compared to tears.

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In setting up the relationship between Lim and Teh-en, they are introduced as five year olds, with the titles noting that children do not notice class difference. One very funny scene is of Lim and Teh-en joining some other young children, merrily flinging mud at each other. The country children are very informally dressed, in shorts and thin short sleeved shirts, with one small boy not wearing any pants. When one of the boys tosses mud onto Teh-en, it is an act both of camaraderie as a deliberate form of making the formally dress boy an equal to his new playmates. Teh-en's indignant mother, who makes a points of wiping the boy's hands whenever he touches Lim, finds her son as dirty as the other children. Teh-en is taken away, but not before mud is flung onto the mother, a shot as funny as any from Mack Sennett.

Bu's filmmaking style is classical in the best sense of silent film in the late Twenties. There is a frequent use of depth of field, of filming motion within the frame, as well as using traveling shots. In this regard, Bu's style is similar to that of some of the better American directors of the late Twenties. Bu began his career in what would now be call documentary films, and the footage of a fair seems to have been shot at a real event, judging in part from the crowds seen in an establishing montage. Some of the footage is mottled, but not enough to damage the charm of The Peach Girl. Bu's film would also suggest that, beyond its historical interest, there are other treasures of the silent era yet to be better known.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 16, 2009 12:46 AM