A dozen classic black and white Chinese films from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are now available for free on YouTube — with English subtitles. The movies represent some of the key highlights from China’s first “Golden Period” of cinema and are a Sino cinephile’s dream come true.
The treasure trove of films is being made available courtesy of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia and includes Goddess and New Women, both of which star tragic silent screen legend Ruan Lingyu, plus, Street Angel, with singer Zhou Xuan. Also in the mix are Spring in a Small Town, Crows and Sparrows and Wanderings of Sanmao, titles which regularly feature when it comes to lists of the most important Chinese films ever made.
It’s well worth working your way through the whole collection, but here’s a bit more background on three of our favorites:
This Republican Era silent short was made with English and Chinese title cards, indicating that it was made for audiences in both languages in 1920s Shanghai. Also known as The Romance of a Fruit Peddler, the film is a romantic comedy of sorts, following titular fruit seller and laborer Zheng in his attempts to marry the daughter of a poor doctor whose clinic operates opposite his fruit stall.
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This sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute and her attempts to provide a better life for her young child is often seen as Ruan Lingyu’s most iconic role and a key moment in early Chinese cinema. Ruan — who also leads New Women (1935) — became a screen star at an early age in swinging Shanghai before committing suicide at the age of 24 just one year after this movie came out.
Set among the ruins of a family compound shortly after the end of the Sino-Japanese War, this allegory for the state of China in the late 1940s was declared as “powerful,” “exquisite” and “a film to fall in love with” by The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw in his 5 star review of its 2014 re-release. The main cast of just five actors navigate storylines of depression, love triangles, and post-war psychology.
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