With names like “Little Cat” and “Little Monkey,” the characters in the 1934 Chinese silent film “Song of the Fisherman (Yu Quang Qu),” seem destined for a wild and strenuous life. Being born in a poor fishing family in a Chinese coastal village, they indeed scrounge for sustenance amidst hardships and competition against the vastly more privileged social elite. But Little Cat remains resourceful and Little Monkey gets the most out of his meager talents to achieve a level of redemption and success.
The beauty of this era in China is that it contains so much social and political intrigue, much like the Weimar Republic days happening near the same time in Germany. The rich had so much and partied so hard that movie stories reeked of social consciousness. This film, presented at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), adds a hit song and plenty of pathos while following the hardships of a struggling but loving fishing family. The great Chinese film star Renmei Wang plays the perky Little Cat, the female part of a pair of fraternal twins. Her twin brother, Little Monkey (Han Langen), came out weak and simple, and she loves and protects him the best she can. On their meager fishing vessel with old and torn nets passed down from their equally poor grandfather, Little Cat can outfish anyone. But the big boat in her fishing waters belongs to the richest family in town, whose handsome son pines openly for Little Cat even though the social pecking order would indicate a bad match.
The film stops twice so Little Cat can sing “The Song of the Fisherman” song, a sad and lilting number that sold a lot of records in China. After a while, Little Cat and Little Monkey leave the village and relocate to Shanghai. A personal tragedy happens and they are left completely alone to fend for themselves. Little Monkey finds some work in a travelling show playing a simpleton, and things begin to look up for them. All this time, the handsome son of wealthy fishing family in their home village has been away. In a movie less concerned with socialism, Little Cat and the handsome boy would spend more time together. But this is really a story about survival and Little Cat’s devotion to Little Monkey. The movie ends abruptly as Little Monkey finds peace in his own way.
Directed by Cai Chusheng, the film resonates as a artifact of a lost world of both innocence and menace, political intrigue and family values, hardship and resourcefulness. I hope SFSFF continues to show these Chinese films from the golden Shanghai era.