Scenes of City Life is a social satire produced in Shanghai in 1935 and whose director and writer, Yuan Muzhi, gained fame as the director of Street Angel, a 1937 comedy/melodrama.
Yuan Muzhi established himself in the theater world at an early age. Before working on Scenes of City Life and Street Angel, he appeared in a number of films as an actor. The era in which Yuan Muzhi lived was a tumultuous one in Mainland China, and since he was already strongly influenced by leftist thought, he joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1940. Following that, he held a number of important positions in the film department of the Chinese Communist Party. He passed away in Beijing in 1978. During this period, Yuan Muzhi made no films for the general public, but instead only made a number of documentary films related to the Communist Party. As a result, Scenes of City Life and Street Angel are all that makes up the mere two theatrical films directed by Yuan Muzhi.
In the era in which Scenes of City Life was filmed, Shanghai was enjoying freedom, swift economic development, and a flourishing culture (at the time the country was still the Republic of China and not yet a communist state). Yet at the same time as parts of the city prospered, other parts had problems such as hardships among the common people and social unrest. Yuan Muzhi took all of these elements and presented them from the viewpoint of the general public fully utilizing the best video and audio technology that he could, turning the film into an amazing example of mass entertainment. The story, full of social satire, uses a bit of slapstick in its acting as well as the special qualities of the talkie to the fullest extent. The fusion of these two elements gives this movie an appeal that deserves special mention. In particular, you can feel the comedic acting throughout the film, along with camerawork that is clearly concerned with the details. This camerawork seems to possess the skill involved in making an audience laugh, and it’s easy to feel his acute filmmaking sense. It is believed that Yuan Muzhi likely watched a number of Hollywood examples of comedy and referenced those films. However, his outstanding moments never go beyond references; they are never copies. His movies overflow with his own comedic sense.
In Japan, the 1930s were also a time when the likes of Ozu and Naruse were making socially satirical comedies. Ozu, in particular, highly respected Harold Lloyd, and this influenced the comedies that Ozu made. However, comedy films made in Japan during this period are not meant to evoke loud bursts of laughter in every scene, but rather to give people a fond feeling that the movie was interesting after they watched it. They are basically delightful domestic dramas, quite different from traditional comedic films, a stark contrast with movies being directed by other Asian directors during the same time period.
In any case, despite being a comedy, Scenes of City Life, as a production, has some element of tragedy. Whenever it is shown in China it is always introduced as being a Lan Ping vehicle (Lan Ping, incidentally, would later become known as Madame Mao, wife of Mao Zedong) This is despite Lan’s character not being a central to the story; she is in a small number of scenes. Similarly, Street Angel is often called a Zhou Xuan film, her popularity as a singer overshadowing Yuan’s role as director. Thus, rather than an evaluation of Yuan Muzhi’s movies as his, the emphasis is placed on the idea that they are someone else’s movie first, a completely ill-suited and regrettable oversight.
If Yuan had made films in a more peaceful era, perhaps there would have been a greater volume of work with which audiences could enjoy. The fact is that he only directed two films, but with just these two, his exceptional and outstanding talent can be experienced.