Long Live the Mistress! (China, 1947)
From the perspective of gender studies, discussing about an impressive female protagonist is often controversial. As an enlightened and maverick “new women” of old Shanghai, Eileen Chang, the screenwriter of Long Live the Mistress!, was also a unique and rebellious litterateur who endowed independence and critical spirit to the female characters in novels, the liberated modern Chinese women. These characters were both welcomed and suspected by people at that time due to the collision between old fashioned and modern morality caused by defining feminism and a new social status. I’m not going to bring this explosive topic into this piece, but I will emphasize an innovative aspect of this film considering it was produced in the 1940s, which is a kind of commonness of Chinese female centered cinemas in portraying major female protagonists.
As directed by Sang Hu, Long Live the Mistress! is a melodrama which depicts a unique social phenomenon more sportively and sarcastically, while tactfully avoided controversial themes and details. Told in a classical Hollywood style, the story introduces the everydayness of a middle class young mistress, Sizhen (Jiang Tianliu) whose normal life is a tangle of little farces and familial contradictions. Sizhen is an ideal modern Chinese woman, who is endowed with some intelligent opinions. This is a wisdom that probably none of the woman of old China had and she has to use it to resolve family tiffs. For instance, she deftly resolves the verbal conflict between her mother-in-law (Lu Shan) and Nanny Zhang (Sun Yi), who are householder and housemaid respectively. Nanny Zhang smashes a dish neglectfully (this is heard by the old lady), and complains that her monthly salary is much lower than the others. Sizhen deceives the mother-in-low by insisting that the broken dish was their neighbors so as to avoid the nanny being blamed. She also makes up arrears to Nanny Zhang by stumping up from her own savings.
Objectively, this film gets rid of traditional social-critical perspective and eliminates the depressed, obedient stereotype of woman in feudalistic China. Even more, it upends the assumption of women being treated as the property of men. Sizhen marries into a relatively rich middle class life and lives peacefully. It seems that she is in an enclosed time-space environment. Despite the Chinese civil war, in this place, commerce is booming and hedonism is rising. As for the pother characters, the female roles are comic, whose stupidity and histrionics are exaggerated. Sizhen’s husband, Zhiyuan (Zhang Fa), is cowardly and calculating; Sizhen’s father (Shi Hui), also Zhiyuan’s father-in-low, whos is unprincipled; Sizhen’s younger brother, Sirui (Han Fei), similarly, is a simple but outspoken comedy role. A series of oddball male characters subvert traditional male images, which laterally creates the intelligent characteristics of Sizhen. However, this defamiliarized approach does not demolish the film’s reflection of social reality since Sizhen’s family is an example of ordinary Chinese families of that period.
As for the aforementioned commonness between female characters, something predestined for women, especially under the semi-feudal society, is that they have to sacrifice their self-interest and become absolute altruists. Like most women, Sizhen is more likely to be the multifaceted mediator of the family, whose liberation and awakening are socially determined. Because the women are required to play a more important role, in order to resolve different conflicts and make everyone satisfied, they may even bear unprincipled blame. Sizhen makes an all-out effort to be a paradigmatic wife by helping Zhiyuan borrow money from her father and start his own business. After Zhiyuan has an affair and becomes insolvent, Sizhen still protects him from scandal for. However, after being exposed, the relationship between the two families deteriorates. Unquestionably, Sizhen is regarded as the initiator of evil. The allied relationship between families is broken.
Ironically, at the end of film, the inconsolable Sizhen finally decides not to divorce. This, however, stems from a puritanical motivation to maintain a connection between family members. No matter how unconventional, wise, and flexible she may be, Sizhen ultimately becomes a tool to stick something together, to retain a so-called balance. It’s a point that is also in more modern female centered works such as Wang Jing’s Feng Shui (2012) and Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (2017).