- Song of the Fishermen (movie 1934) review: In this landmark social drama – reportedly the first Chinese feature to be recognized at an international film festival – writer-director Cai Chusheng depicts the dehumanizing consequences of China’s strict class system.
Presented at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, writer-director Cai Chusheng’s 1934 social/family drama Song of the Fishermen / Yu Guang Qu begins in a small Chinese coastal village, 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 children, Little Cat and Little Monkey, but also to become nursemaid to the wealthy son of the local “Fishing King” (He Renzhai). Although the three children grow up together and become friends, China’s then rigorously stratified class system keeps the twins in a realm apart from that of the rich boy.
When the twins’ mother grows old and blind, and is no longer employed by the rich family, Little Cat (now played by rising star Wang Renmei) and Little Monkey (Han Langen) strike out on their own in the big city: Shanghai. Yet work is scarce and standing in line all day hoping for a job proves futile. Little Monkey resorts to acting as a street entertainer, but that leads to more unfortunate circumstances. Meanwhile, the Fishing King’s son (Luo Peng) is also in Shanghai – but as a student.
Eventually, the siblings are forced to become field hands. They later return home and try to console their sick mother in their poverty.
Missing narrative chunks?
In Song of the Fishermen, filmmaker Cai Chusheng convincingly depicts China’s unyielding class system; having said that, big chunks of the storyline seem to be missing from the film.
Scenes are stitched together with little continuity, forcing this viewer to use his imagination to fill in the narrative gaps. Not helping matters, the print was a bit washed out.
Overall, what I found most impressive in this late Chinese silent was Han Langen’s performance as Little Monkey: Han had a face made for tragicomedy – beautifully expressive and full of pathos.
Also of note, Song of the Fishermen – which was partly shot in the village of Shipu, Zhejiang (on China’s central coast) – is supposed to be the first Chinese feature to be honored at an international movie festival: Chusheng’s drama earned an honorary award at the 1935 edition of the Moscow Film Festival.
Song of the Fishermen / Yu Guang Qu (movie 1934) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: Cai Chusheng.
Cast: Wang Renmei, Han Langen, Luo Peng, Xue Qiyun, He Renzhai, Yuan Congmei.
Cinematography: Zhou Ke.
Production Company: Lianhua Film Company.
Running Time: 56 min.
“Song of the Fishermen (Movie 1934)” notes
Song of the Fishermen reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).
Song of the Fisherman movie credits via the British Film Institute (BFI) website.
Song of the Fishermen image: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“Song of the Fishermen (Movie 1934): Landmark Chinese Social Drama” last updated in April 2023.