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Chinese Cinema, Melodrama, Sport on Film

Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (China 1957)

I’ve been foraging in the bargain bins at YesAsia.com again and I was pleased to find a couple of films that I have been looking out for. The first is this film from Xie Jin – his first high profile success and a key Chinese film in what scholars refer to as the Seventeen Year period (i.e. from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 up to the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966).

Xie Jin is the single most important Chinese director of this period – and he continued to direct films after the end of the Cultural Revolution and into his late 70s. He died in 2008 and his last film in 2001, Woman Football Player No. 9 was a virtual remake of Woman Basketball Player No. 5. None of Xie Jin’s films are available in the UK on DVD, but his best-known film in the West, Two Stage Sisters, is available from the British Film Institute on 35 mm.

The DVD that arrived was published in China by Beauty Media (www.gzbeauty.com). These DVDs also seem to be available via Amazon.com, but YesAsia is considerably cheaper. I wasn’t expecting much and in that sense I wasn’t disappointed. The disc is Region 0 (NTSC) and played fine on my sometimes temperamental player. But although the sound was OK, the image was bleached out (this was one of the first Chinese colour films, I think) and very scratched – it must have come from a damaged 35 mm print source. As the running time matches IMDB’s 86 mins (84 for DVD), I can’t be sure if it has been cut, but it certainly felt like it – see below.

Plot outline

The protagonist is Tian, a 40 year-old retired athlete who has become a coach and at the start of the film he arrives in Shanghai to coach the local women’s team. The team is in some ways more like a ‘girls’ or young women’s team since all the players, as far as I could see, are students of 17-18. They are all giggly and the man who welcomes Tian describes them as ‘naughty’ in the English subtitles (which are somewhat unreliable). One of the team is a particularly tall young woman named Lin Xiaojie, ‘Player No. 5’ who arrives at the training camp after the other girls. She has a boyfriend who is pressurising her to go to university to study engineering and she later tells the coach that her mother doesn’t really approve of her basketball either. Tian proves to be a strict coach who requires discipline from his team members and there are some frictions between him and the team, some jokes about a single man coaching a team of young women and some petty jealousies within the team – in fact, many of the conventions of the Hollywood team sports drama. However, the film shifts gear when in a series of flashbacks we realise that Tian himself was a star basketball player as a young man in Shanghai in the late 1930s, when he loved a young woman (Lin Jie) whose father owned the team that Tian played for. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure at this point, but most readers will have guessed that Tian’s girlfriend eventually became the mother of Lin Xiaojie and inevitably she must meet Tian again.

This plot outline suggests that the film will be a mix of the sports film with traditional Chinese film melodrama. But in fact it is more than that since any film made in China in the 1950s also had to have a directly political/ideological function – to promote the PRC, national pride in Chinese identity and the benefits of the communist system. Chinese films in the 1950s, produced by the state-run studios, were expected to follow the approved aesthetic of ‘socialist realism’ – that strange version of Hollywood realism developed in the Soviet Union under Stalinism to emphasise the heroic nature of workers and collectivism in a socialist society being built with revolutionary zeal. Most films would include a strong element of didacticism, often related to current Chinese Communist Party policies. Xie Jin includes one such speech (which is actually delivered twice) in which Tian tells a story about being humiliated as an athlete from the ‘sick man’ state of East Asia when he visited the West and how it is the duty of the young women on the basketball team to become strong athletes and to work together as a team in order to project their pride in the nation through victory on the basketball court.

Tian (Liu Qiong) holds his washboard as he tries to explain to the girls that he does his own washing. "Don't you?" he asks. Lin Xiaojie (Cao Qiwei) is the tall girl behind his left shoulder

This speech stands out in what is in other ways a conventional Hollywood-style sports film. Xie Jin does not display the socialist realist visual aesthetic – he is able, somehow, to combine Hollywood with the traditional Chinese melodrama and escape official disapproval. Xie’s Hollywood influences are primarily John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy – he also refers in interviews to being influenced by Bicycle Thieves. Though not as accomplished – or as beautiful – as the later Two Stage Sisters, Woman Basketball Player No. 5 is recognisably the work of the same director. By all accounts the film was very popular in China and even represented the PRC abroad, but I’m still suspicious about the version on this DVD (and on VCD). There are some odd inserts of train shots (almost Ozu moments!) that don’t make narrative sense as they are rural scenes when all the main characters are in Shanghai. Later, when the team travel to Beijing, there is a train sequence with a group song (dubbed by opera singers). The final scenes of the film are very rushed and I do wonder if anything else was there in the first cut – but again there are similarities with Two Stage Sisters. Instead of the Hollywood ending that often celebrates the moment of triumph, the ‘now’, Xie’s two films finish by suggesting that the major work is just beginning (i.e. as the team fly off to represent China overseas).

I enjoyed the film, but felt a little disappointed that the budget didn’t run to more than a few glimpses of Shanghai and Beijing in the 1950s. The representation of Shanghai in the late 1930s is reminiscent of Two Stage Sisters with villainous businessmen and Tian forced to play against a team of American sailors as part of a crooked deal. The melodrama works well and there is an interesting use of a symbolic pot of orchids which Lin Jie (herself a No 5 player in the women’s team in the 1930s) gives to Tian. A similar potted orchid then turns up in the later scenes. The actors are generally good and there is some interesting action on court, but I did feel that the actress who played Lin Xiaojie was rather ungainly in her movements for someone playing a top athlete. I think I may now buy some more Xie Jin films via YesAsia. (Two Stage Sisters is available.)

There is an interesting debate about Xie Jin on The Auteurs website discussion forums and two of his films are included in Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, ed. Chris Berry, BFI 2003.

The best direct commentary on Woman Basketball Player No. 5 that I have found is from Timothy Tung in ‘The Work of Xie Jin: A Personal Letter to the Editor’ in John Downing (ed) Film & Politics in the Third World, NY: Autonomedia, 1987. Tung stresses that Xie Jin was a celebrated ‘director of women’ and that he tended to find a new female star for each of his major films. He also argues that the group of young women seen in the film display an “uninhibited vitality” that was rare and fleeting in Chinese Cinema in the Seventeen Years period. The film was released at a time when Mao had announced the ‘Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign, urging intellectuals to speak out and the girls could be seen to represent a bright future of liberation. But the Anti-Rightist campaign stifled such voices only a few years later.

The best online resources on Xie Jin are available from Jump Cut No 34.

A translation of the full film script by two American students is available here.

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