The story of Cai Chusheng's 1934 drama Song of the Fishermen / Yu Guang Qu, screened at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, begins in a small coastal village in China, where twins are born to an impoverished fisherman's wife (Xue Qiyun). In the next scene, the father has apparently died at sea, leaving the wife not only to raise her own children, Little Cat (Wang Renmei) and Little Monkey (Han Langen), but also to become nursemaid to the wealthy Fishing King's son (Luo Peng).
Although the children grow up together and become amiable friends, a stratified class system keeps them apart, and tragedy ensues. When the mother of the twins grows old and blind, and is no longer employed by the rich family, her children strike out on their own in the big city, Shanghai. Work is scarce and standing in line all day hoping for a job proves futile. Little Monkey resorts to acting as a street entertainer, which only results in more unfortunate circumstances; eventually, the siblings are forced to become field hands. The children later return home and try to console their sick mother in their poverty.
'Song of the Fishermen' missing big chunks of the narrative?
In Song of the Fishermen, writer-director Cai Chusheng details poverty and China's class system convincingly, but big chunks of the narrative seem to be missing from the film. Scenes jump very fast with little continuity to tell the story, as I found myself filling in the blanks with my own imagination. Not helping matters was that the print was a bit washed out.
Overall, what I found most impressive in Song of the Fishermen was Han Langen's performance as one of the twins. He had a face made for tragedy/comedy – extremely expressive and full of pathos. Also of note, Song of the Fishermen reportedly became the first Chinese movie to win an (unspecified) award at an international film festival: the 1935 Moscow Film Festival.
Song of the Fishermen / Yu Guang Qu (1934). Director and Scr.: Cai Chusheng. Cast: Wang Renmei, Han Langen, Luo Peng, Yuan Congmei, Xue Qiyun.