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María Elena Marqués,
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Nelson Pereira dos Santos
Modesto De Souza,
Films can have strong political messages, even those with messages contrary to one's own culture (in this instance, American culture), and still be considered a good films (The Battleship Potemkin, for instance). Two Stage Sisters presents a similar situation, in which a Communist political message was destined to be an integral part of the film. Instead of maintaining its cinematic integrity, however, it devolves into an overly-theatrical, cookie-cutter propaganda piece in which enemies of the state are stereotypical, clownish villains, and those with Communist ideals are heralded as angels of morality. This is most unfortunate, as it begins as a film with a strong, emotional situation with great potential. Instead, Two Stage Sisters becomes diluted in its ambition, over-extended political message, and an overly complicated plot line.
The film begins by introducing us to a family of stage performers and managers, namely Master Xing, his daughter Yuehong, and his assistant Ahxing. They find a runaway bride, named Chunhua, has stowed away with them, and Master Xing insists that she joins them to become an actress. Over time, she accepts Yuehong as her sister and Master Xing as a father figure. Such a situation, combined with the simplicity of the countryside setting, an antagonist within their group (Ahxing), and conflict with their outdated culture and surroundings (for instance, Chunhua is publicly tied to a stake as punishment for striking a police officer), sets the stage for an emotional drama based on the ties of unconditional kinship.
On the basest level, the film remains such a drama, as conflict is generated by the death of Master Xing and a move to the big stages of Shanghai. Yuehong sets her sights on stardom, fame, and wealth, and she parts ideological ways with Chunhua, who seeks artistic license and personal bonds with her fellow actresses. At this point, however, politics becomes the driving force of the story rather than personal conflict. This isn't to imply that political leanings weren't included earlier in the film. Indeed, a political agenda can be discerned, yet it is present in a much more subtle manner than in the latter half of the film. For instance, Master Xing defends his daughters' rights against a prominent local man who wishes to force one of the girls to stay the night with him. In the ensuing conflict, Chunhua strikes a police officer, leading to the aforementioned public humiliation. These circumstances are presented as being emblematic of an outdated culture that must be replaced with (what will be) a progressive, Communist ideal.
Once the girls move to Shanghai, however, the film becomes less of a case for Communism and more of a warning against capitalism. Yuehong is taken in by their new boss, Manager Tang, and accuses Chunhua of jealousy. She eventually marries Tang and flaunts her wealth in front of the other actresses. It is unmistakably suggested that capitalism is the cause of her corruption, and Tang, the main antagonist, is demonized as an exploitative boss who drives one of his actresses to suicide. Ahxing becomes an overacting puppet, his buffoonery presented as a subservient method to gain favor in the eyes of his superiors. Chunhua, meanwhile, explores political and artistic license as she becomes what the film eventually distinguishes as Communist. In reality, the only support the film shows for Communism is by demonstrating that it is the opposed to the Nationalists and the capitalists. Its only depicted advantage is that it is different from the other demonized political parties.
By this point, the film has fallen into the realm of pure, unadulterated propaganda. As Chunhua and the other actresses rally to support an ideologically Communist play that is suppressed by the government (an irony that such censorship is frowned upon by a Maoist-era Chinese film), Tang and his bosses become all the more perturbed by their growing public support. They order Ahxing to attack Chunhua, and when he is arrested, Yuehong is chosen as their scapegoat. This culminates in a climactic court scene that plays out like a bad episode of Chinese Law & Order. Yuehong is exonerated, and years later, Chunhua and her friends are given freedom by the liberation of Communism. Once again, no actual advantages of Communism are examined, and the anti-capitalist tirade concludes with Yuehong, fallen from grace, realizing her mistakes and joining Chunhua in a Communist wonderland. These tactics only turn the film into a political piece, not an artistic piece. Considering the poor arguments integrated into the story and the brash propagandist attitude utilized by the filmmaker, it succeeds at being neither.
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