Romance of a Fruit Peddler (1922)

Director: Zhang Shichuan

Chinese cinema is not one of my strong points, I will admit, though my list of stuff to watch does contain what I gather are at least a few older classics of pre-Revolutionary filmmaking… including this, which is as old as Chinese cinema gets, being the earliest example of Chinese film still existing (earlier films made from 1905 onwards having vanished). From what I can gather, filmgoing in China was very much dominated by the Americans when this delightful short was made (it became one of Hollywood’s biggest foreign markets fairly quickly during WW1 when the hitherto dominant Europeans were otherwise occupied), and the influence of American slapstick isn’t exactly hard to detect here.

Our story concerns a street fruit vendor, in love with the daughter of the doctor across the street from him, but the latter won’t let him marry the girl unless he can improve the doctor’s business, which has been poor of late. Which our young hero does by adapting a stairwell into a deathtrap for some noisy neighbours of his, killing (or at least severely injuring) multiple birds with one stone. The latter contraption actually looks genuinely dangerous, with this business being filmed in long shot and likely without professional stuntmen or anything; I found it worryingly easy to imagine the performers being hurt for real.

The whole thing is kind of crude (though I do like the brief bursts of undercranking) but charming, and there are a couple of other notable things about it: it was an early production by Mingxing, which would become the big “leftist” studio before the Japanese invasion in 1937, and it has bilingual intertitles, so it was presumably at least partly aimed at English-speaking audiences in Shanghai; I’m familiar with this phenomenon from later Hong Kong films—which had to have both Chinese and English subtitles to accommodate the Mandarin- and English-speaking minorities there—and I was kind of amused to see that the occasionally dubious rendering of the English lines of the sort I often saw in those HK films from the 1990s was already a thing in 1922…

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