“Little Toys,” released in 1933, features the legendary actress Lingyu Ruan as Sister Ye, a talented toymaker in a small village in China. This Chinese silent movie follows Sister Ye as she designs and makes toys in her family’s workshop. As she cheerfully makes the toys, she comments on the effect foreign toys made in large city factories have on the Chinese nationalist spirit. Since Japan invaded Manchuria in September 1931, we can easily see the political emphasis of her comment.
A personal tragedy affects Sister Ye when her son disappears during a shopping trip. When a warlord’s troops attack her village, it thrusts her and her family into the war. With patriotic ferver, her daughter and the rest of her family fight for the honor of China. As the story unfolds, an analogy is made about the similarity of the craft of making toy planes and tanks and their real counterparts. In her destitution, Sister calls out to her fellow citizens to resist foreigners and foreign influence forever. The movies theme: China should make its own toys and control its own destiny.
The many idyllic family scenes and fabulous hand-made toys add some wonderful visual elements to the story. We’re shown lots of clever toys, both whimsical and realistic. The planes and tanks made in the toy workshop are compared with the ones manufactured by machines in the big city. Using special effects, the factory planes and tanks take to the battle. China responds with craftiness, courage and resilience against the war machine.
The film screened at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with the explanation that Chinese merchants in Shanghai made a fortune by making military uniforms for the world’s armies. They poured money into their homegrown movie industry and made wonderful movies such as Little Toys. Lingyu Ruan became an icon of Chinese cinema, but she committed suicide at age 24 in 1935, causing massive public grief.