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Street Angel analysis

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Every country has specific famous era in which their cinema portrays the reality of their society, the 1930’s was the era in which China’s cinema bent itself towards portraying society and modernization.

A lot of distinctive features developed by Chinese film over the last hundred years are the result and testimony of the particular kind of interaction linking culture with politics in the twentieth century china. As a kind of mass entertainment Chinese film has been affected by historical forces in a unique manner. To understand Chinese cinema’s motifs, images and predominate narrative modes and thematic orientation requires a thorough knowledge of both the industry’s development and historical changes taking place in the cinema.

This paper shall analyze the movie Street Angels (1937), taking under consideration the symbols used in the movie. Apart from this the paper shall also highlight the fact that it is based on modernization in china and it shall also analyze how the movie is based on the social conditions of China in 1930.


Street Angels is a film about the lower depths of Shanghai. Written and directed by Yuan Muzhi in 1937 for Mingxing, it is in a dark, expressionistic style and is regarded as one of the major classics of Chinese cinema. It features the great actor Zhao Dan as a young man who makes a precarious living playing the trumpet in street processions. When the girl he loves is raped by one of her parents’ clients, he finds that society offers no way for the poor to get justice. The film was heavily censored by the KMT government which was still trying to appease the Japanese. The movie is based on a kind of totalizing nostalgia, which uses the past so that the movie can develop continuity across the past to the present. It was greatly admired by critics for its portrayal of the oppressed in Shanghai at when the movie was released, till today; Street Angel is at times regarded as a true classic of the “leftist” filmmaking period which was developing at a great speed.

An alternative film aesthetic Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angel (1937).in line with Shanghai cosmopolitanism has since become a negative example in official historiography. The leftists, on the other hand, claimed outstanding films to their credit (Gary p16)

However, some films such as Street Angels, escape persecution and are today acknowledged as the precursors of contemporary realist modes of filmmaking that also draw upon traditional forms of representation. Street Angel portrays bighearted urban youths struggle to flee from their corrupt surroundings in the poorest neighborhood of Shanghai. This tale of unity, friendship, and affection living in the corrupt ways of urban society has been inferred in different ways. It is without a doubt a critique of Shanghai’s semi-colonialist society; it has also been considered as a Chinese portrayal of Italian neorealism.

Street Angel is based on Shanghai’s street prostitute. It openly portrays the fact that, these girls had no position in society; they were just bought and sold, and given very little independence. They are trapped in this vicious cycle of b being bought and sold and their way to escape is by wedding some one or running away.

Thus it can be said that it portrays the era before socialist morality became creed, prostitutes thrived in China’s port cities. Shanghai was infamous for its brothels in the 1930s and ’40s (The Washington Post p1).

The street angle was made in the early years of the decade, thus at that the Chinese cinema was working on portraying change. Thus it can be analyzed keeping in mind the factors of a change, complicated social, cultural as well as traditional norms which portray the 1930’s. This movie involved a lot of analyzing individual cultural texts as each one have a different diachronic and synchronic meaning – thus this film is a combination of histories and presentation of the social condition of that era, thus it severed as both a fictional as well as a factual movie. Critics of street angel were expected to comment on a conflicting set of political and cultural norms, which were portrayed in the movie, in order to revel a complex culture beset by inextricable issues.

Strong women characters like the two sisters were portrayed in this movie. As they had an omnipresent presence in Chinese cinematic portrayal of women and the start era of cinema in which of modern social configurations are portrayed, even though the women portrayed in the street angel were prostitutes. Women’s contribution in the movie was greatly appreciated (Yingjin p36).

Street angel a musical and thus it followed the genre of Chinese cinema in 1930. Thus this movie was made in order to portray the social conditions by means of song and not a dramatic plot, and their promotion material showed titles of the songs sung in the movie and the singers who sung them. Needless to state, a lot of the actors of street angel were not movie stars however they popular artists who usually took part in such musicals. It can be said that this movie portrayed the social condition of china in a more colorful manner then past movies of that era, as a lot of catchy songs were used in this musicals.


The movie didn’t have many symbols used in it, everything was quite direct. However there were two extremely important symbols. One was the news paper put on the windows. When people were extremely poor was this something quite common in those days, nevertheless it portrays how deeply newspapers effected society and spread ideas even after they were just old printed headlines.

Another important symbol at the end, the camera moves from the hovel in the alley, and over the boundary wall and onto a shot of a wonderfully built skyscraper. This was a symbol of modern development.

Another important symbol can be seen in the opening montage scene, in which the surrounding buildings are juxtaposed and titled in different positions, this symbolizes the fact that the Shanghai is a city which is “alienated, estranged and ha a brutal overtone” (Yingjin p10). The fact that they show the Cheng and Wang moving up to the top of the sky scraper to visit a lawyer, in this scene at the same time the camera is panning down to show the lower city, this symbolizes the fact that there was a class difference in the China, and that the lower class was always degraded and considered low. Basically buildings where used to symbolize the progress and classes differences prevailing in China in that era.

Almost here and now, but not quite: even though the actual fulfillment lies elsewhere, in more then a few places in the movie, the pleasure of such fulfillment is experienced when the skyscrapers are visualized in such a manner that they work as symbols, this credit goes completely to cameraman’s ability to reproduce and disseminate the images of sky scrapers taken by the camera (Pang p25).

Apart from the symbols used in the movie, characters themselves symbolize the bad condition during the economic progress in China. Chen Xiaoping is the main character however he serves as symbol in the movie, as his nature of helping the girls out this portrayed the fifth modernization as it portrays humanitarian values as well as economic progress.


The fact that this movie is known as the transition from silent films to talkies in Chinese cinema, it is start of modernization in Chinese movie making. Apart from this it is linked with the fifth modernization as it portrays humanitarian values as well as economic progress. It is considered as an intense art film as it is a complete analysis of social issues in China. This, film played a vital role when modernization was at its peak in China. As this Film could reach people of all classes, and portray the conditions of China more clearly then a book OR article could.

This can be seen quite clearly in the plot of the movie when Chen Shaoping helps the two sisters Zhou Xuan and Xiao Hong to escape from the evil intentions of the old musician. He lets Xiao Hong live with him. This is a true example of humanitarian values in times of economic progress.

The movie analyzes the historical and social conditions which gave birth to the Urban Generation, its visual innovation, and it’s an ambiguous relationship to China’s main film industry as well as the international film industry. It is completely focused on the Urban Generation’s awareness of social importance, , and its portrays gender and sexuality, characters are those who were usually portrayed in the cinema in that time period- like the common man and people living in the city as well as the homeless and prostitutes. The film makers were interpreted the uncertainty and anxiety caused by the immense urbanization of present-day China.

Military forces were in China to exploit its resources but ultimately could not care less about the benefits to the country. So the enforced prostitution scenario, and the thug’s bullying, in Street Angel is very pointed indeed. That’s the kick that makes this film a lot more than cute melodrama (classical-iconoclast p1).

The movie portrayed how young women who challenged the system of social realist in China nearly always died. This is what they portrayed when Zhou Xuan was murdered as she helped her sister, Xiao Hong to escape the musician who wanted to sell her to the thugs.

The movie portrayed modernization in China as it showed the extraordinarily wide gap in the class system, partly because the vast landscape as well as the large population of lower class didn’t let the social, economic, and cultural changes catch momentum. It is therefore important to notice that in the movie is completely based on the difference in class and justice between the upper class and lower class in times of modernization.

How to arrange those elements in a shape of a storyline is exactly what the melodrama of 1930s Shanghai films had expertise in. Narrative framing used in this movie performs this function of bringing together each and every temporally discrete element into an arranged manner, thus modernization is used as narrativization and modernity is inturn cinematized.

Rather than just addressing the complex gender-related issues like prostitution in this film that other social issues have dealt with at length, the main focus of the movie is like Chinese cinema of 1930, it too represents modernity, to be more precise, colonial modernity in the search of something innovative.

Like a lot of other leftist films in that era, the melodramatic movie street angel, due to it’s storyline and role of characters, it is a conflict amongst old and new, nation and Western, and traditional and modernization (Thompson & Brodwell p 47).

Thus it can be said due to this modernization the movie had a lot of binary oppositions. However, this movie can be considered as apart of the general modernizing project in China as it is presents modernizations and serves a conscious preservation of their old ways of life. Street angels would have been oversimplified if it would have presented the complex association among colonial influences and the local struggle, thus it could just be considered as an antagonism. A lot of critics have argued that this naive insistence on portraying a struggling lower class and the colonial influences only helps in promotes the notion of a linear progress of history (Nowell-Smith p12).

The movie was made suing a realistic approach, it brilliantly portrays a few main characters such as prostitutes, a singsong girl, a trumpeter, a newspaper seller, a barber, and a trivial newspaper stand owner, and it also portrays their poverty, joblessness and heartbreaking loss. Living in poor social and living conditions, these characters had an extremely low position in society are unified and they lend a hand to each other, portraying the brilliance of human nature and affection.

The movie portrays modernization in a very unique manner; street angle utilizes the genre of “Melodrama” as a central role in supporting the genre of modernization which is depicted in the movie. Throughout this movie this genre remained a contested concept, even as at the same time, there is barely any agreement regarding its support to modernization in the movie. The fact that melodrama helped in showing how modernization had affected the people of china in such manner that girls were driven to prostitution

Interest in the Chinese way of life of modernization has been portrayed in this movie. The fact that Chinese modernization and change in urban couture n began in the 1930’s, thus it can be seen in the movie with the uniqueness of combining as well as balancing modern and traditional components

The Chinese cinema around the same time Street angel was launched began to embrace the splendor of both traditional and modern life style as a result this made their movies more attractive.


Even though the above discussed movie is based on the lower classes, Street Angel may portray the problems and threats the poor have to face in every day, however it also portrays their inner strength and ability to handle such problems.

The fact that the movie also portrayed prostitutes in Shanghai, China had a limited history of prostitution during it’s modernization era. The movie rightly shows how many girls of the lower class were sold and bought. The movie portrays in China’s modern history as it shows Shanghai in great depth. Furthermore, prostitution was part of the 1930’s in China which this movie rightly portrays.

This movie also portrays how the lower class did not have the equal opportunities and justice from the law like the upper class, who were capable of affording costly lawyers if they needed to file a complaint against the person who would harm them. Skill, imagination and determination were what got them through life.

Apart from this it’s wonderful symbolization of using buildings as a difference in class and justice give the movie a brilliant touch. Thus to conclude it can be said that the entire movie is a master piece which ahs portrayed the social condition of China in 1930 quite accurately.

Thus to conclude it can be said that street angle was a wonderful example of how Chinese cinema had developed and turned into a national cinema in the 1930s. Street angel did not just fulfill the requirements of the market, producers of street angel permitted artists to try out with new genres and styles.

The outcome was remarkable, and thus it bought this movie closer to international developments like modernism, expressionism, and neorealism, on one side, and it even promoted a lot of traditional Chinese aesthetics. The street angel was not just seen as pure visual entertainment or moral discourse; it was a movie in which artists and audiences both portrayed the social issues of china.


The Washington Post; Prostitution Thriving Once Again in China’s Prosperous Coastal Cities (1992) p1 retrieved from http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-995094.html

classical-iconoclast; (2010) p1 retrieved from http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.com/2010/02/street-angel-1937-chinese-weimar-movie.html

Thompson Kristin and Bordwell David; Film History: An Introduction. Second edition. New York: McGraw-Hill p47

Nowell-Smith Geoffrey (1999); The Oxford History of World Cinema Oxford University Press, 1999 p12

Pang Laikwan; Building a New China in Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield Productions, Oxford, 2002 p25

Gary G. Xu; Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema, Rowman & Littlefield 2007 p16

Yingjin Zhang (2004); Chinese National Cinema (National Cinemas Series.), Routledge 2004 p36

Yingjin Zhang and Zhiwei Xiao ; Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, Routledge, 1998 p10

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