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China, the thirties. Running away from an arranged marriage, country girl Zhu joins a troupe of opera performers. She's taken under the wings of Yuehong, one of the female singers and the two become close friends. They move to Shanghai and become stars but the relationship between the two stage sisters is shattered when Yuehong chooses the bourgeois life by marrying the rich manager of the theater and Zhu becomes a communist.
Holy cow! The last thing I expected to see in a 1965 Chinese propaganda movie was a lesbian love story. A lesbian love story, not, as is sometimes the case, as an example of Western-style decadence and immorality, but where homosexuality is treated sympathetically, as an integral and vital part of the main characters. Nothing's very explicit off course, for the most part it's all in the looks they throw each other, but the hurt, anger and betrayal Zhu feels when Yuehong tells her she's getting married for financial security should remove all doubt that these two are lovers. The official reading of that scene may be that Zhu feels Yuehong betrays the class struggle, but you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see this is really a scene about heartbreak and what Yuehong really betrays is her own sexual identity.
After the break-up, Zhu joins the communists. Here, once again, her mentor is a woman and when director Xie frames the two of them standing in a doorway, lit by the warm yellow light inside the house, set against the cold, dark world outside, once again this relationship is given romantic overtones.
As I watched Stage Sisters with ever growing amazement, I couldn't escape the notion that here is a party-approved Communist propaganda movie that, sneakily, subversively, uses its story of communist revolutionaries, with their double lives, their secret friendships and their illicit rendezvous, as a metaphor for homosexuality.
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