In a small village in the early 1920s, Ye, a mother of two, makes intricate, hand-carved toys, which are sold at the market by her husband. Ye and her family’s rural idyll is destroyed by a series of tragedies brought about by the Japanese invasion and the simultaneous development of a capitalist economy.
Made during the aftermath of Japan’s invasion of China, Little Toys is a Marxist war melodrama, containing strong nationalist sentiment yet reflecting Western influences. Director Sun Yu had studied filmmaking in the United States and Hollywood’s mark can be seen in the atmospheric cinematography reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s late silents. Sun’s montage techniques also suggest the influence of Soviet filmmakers. Starring perhaps the most celebrated actress of the era, Ruan Lingyu, Little Toys is one of a series of films she made with the progressive, left-leaning Lianhua studio during the Golden Age of Chinese cinema in the 1930s.
This Golden Age came about partly by accident because of China’s slow to transition to talkies. Studios and filmmakers couldn’t afford to adopt the new technology, and most Chinese-owned movie houses were not yet wired for sound. In the Encyclopedia of Chinese Film (1998), Zhiwei Xiao writes: “Chinese filmmakers saw an opportunity to expand a domestic market previously dominated by American products. They concluded that the language barrier, a minor factor during the silent era, would soon amount to a major obstacle for foreign films.” As there was little financial incentive for the Chinese studios to convert to sound, silent films were the standard well into the mid-1930s.
At the center of Little Toys is the mesmerizing Ruan Lingyu, often referred to as “the Garbo of Shanghai,” a beautiful and gifted actress whose suicide when she was just 24 years old cut short a career in mid-bloom. Ruan’s gift, like Garbo’s, was an ability to convey a depth of feeling that transcended the thin scripts she was sometimes assigned. Ruan often played characters from the lower classes whose victimhood mirrored the actress’s own troubled life.
Ruan began her career with the Ming Xing Film Company, making her screen debut in 1927 when she was 16. In her early films, she was often typecast as a prostitute or temptress. In 1930, she signed with the newly formed film company, Lianhua, which sought to make high quality films for the domestic market, hiring the best directors, actors, and technicians. Among the directors was Sun Yu who starred Ruan in the studio’s first film, Spring Dream in the Old Capital. In it, she plays Yan Yan, a prostitute who becomes involved with a married teacher in Beijing, leading to his downfall. Reluctant to play another prostitute in a potboiler, Ruan agreed only in order to work with Sun.
After the film’s success, she went on to star in several popular films for the company, including as a teen-age schoolgirl who, over the course of the story, ages to an old woman in Love and Duty (1931), and as a prostitute who uses her earnings to pay for her son’s education in The Goddess (1934). Ruan’s characters often endure great hardships—illness, poverty, rape. In at least four movies, her character takes her own life.
Just before signing with Lianhua, Ruan had made an unsuccessful suicide attempt because of her involvement with a reprobate gambler. In addition to paying off his debts, she was also taking care of her mother, her aunt, and an adopted child. By 1933, Ruan began giving him money to stay away. When she later began another relationship, Ruan was guilty of adultery under Chinese law. In 1935, seeing another way to exhort more money from Ruan, the gambler filed suit, resulting in endless sensationalism in the newspapers and tabloids. Unable to cope, Ruan took a second overdose of sleeping pills on March 8, 1935, this one fatal. Her funeral was reportedly bigger than Valentino’s. An estimated 100,000 marched in her cortège.
Another of China’s most popular actresses of the 1930s, Li Lili, costars with Ruan in Little Toys, in the role of Ye’s daughter. She had already demonstrated her youthful appeal in several other films by Sun Yu, including Daybreak (1933), as a pro-Revolution prostitute, and The Big Road (1933), playing a former prostitute who joins a group of workers who are constructing a highway for use in the war against the Japanese. In a 2010 article about Li Lili, film historian Yunxiang Gao writes that, in their films, Sun and Li “created the athletic movie star as an important archetype for Chinese film.”
After Shanghai fell to the Japanese in 1937, Li continued to make films sporadically until 1963. During the Cultural Revolution, Li and her husband were denounced and tortured on the orders of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. Li survived the Revolution, and, at the time of her death in 2005 at age 90, Li was the last living Chinese movie star from the silent era.
Sun Yu was one of the first Chinese filmmakers to be trained in the U.S., where he studied in Wisconsin and New York, including in a program taught by American dramatist David Belasco and a film studies program at Columbia University. He is sometimes credited with introducing sophisticated montage techniques to the Chinese screen such as during Little Toys’ war sequences when Ye’s toy planes are juxtaposed with actual war machines in battle.
The opening moments of the film, however, have the aura of a fairy tale. A fishing boat sits on a tranquil river at sunset, the rolling countryside in the distance. A traveling shot taken from within the boat glides along the river past thatched cottages, children playing together, and billowing clouds overhead. These romantic pastoral scenes wouldn’t be out of place in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). Like Murnau, Sun draws a sharp contrast between rural and city life, a common theme in many left-wing films of the time. Chinese rural life is the center for peaceful family life, work, and a stronghold of tradition; whereas the city—with its Western influences, technology, and capitalism—is a threat to these ideals.
The plot and style of the film shift dramatically once Japan invades China. The story plunges into melodrama as the tragedies unfold for our heroine, resembling overheated American films of the period, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). This bifurcated style can be seen in Sun’s other films of the period, Wild Rose (1932) and The Big Road (1935).
After the outbreak of a full-fledged war with Japan in 1937, Sun moved to Chongqing, where he directed several patriotic propaganda films. After the war, he produced his last major work, the elaborate film biography The Life of Wu Xun (1950). Shortly after its release, Mao Zedong personally wrote an article denouncing the film, and Sun’s career faltered. He directed only a handful of films over the next 20 years.
Matt Severson is the photograph curator at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library and has written in the past on Chinese silent cinema.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Donald Sosin