Chinese silent film star Li Lili.

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By Joe Bendel. Like Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili was a true diva of silent Chinese cinema. And if you think former diva status would not be particularly convenient during the Cultural Revolution, your suspicions are correct. Having upstaged Madame Mao in the 1930’s hardly helped, either. Yet there should have been no complaints about the ideological content of Sun Yu’s Daybreak, which screens this Tuesday as part of the Asia Society’s current film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen.

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Ling Ling is a fresh faced country girl, who comes to Shanghai with her man in search of employment. Briefly, things look promising when they find work at a yarn factory. Unfortunately, trouble with the law forces him to ship out as a merchant seaman, leaving her vulnerable to the city’s predatory elements.

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First, Ling Ling is drugged and raped by the playboy factory owner. Later, when wandering lost through the city, she is sold into a brothel by an ostensive protector. It might be a bad business, but Ling Ling adapts to it, reasserting command of her illicit destiny as a high-priced prostitute, but with both a heart of gold and a raised political consciousness. Dispensing aid to her struggling neighbors while conspiring with subversive elements, Ling Ling truly becomes a new woman.

From "Daybreak."

Of course, it ends tragically. All the best propaganda does. Although Daybreak is not as stylishly realized as Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, a revolutionary hooker is certainly a much more attractive radicalizing agent than a clenched-fist factory worker. The camera absolutely loves her – and just like Ruan, Li Lili knew how to milk a death scene for all its worth.

It is not hard to see why Li was such a diva of the silent era (in fact, she was once part of a theatrical tandem known as the Four Divas). Her Ling Ling is cute, innocent, and eventually saucy – but nobody’s dummy. Despite all the wrongs done to Ling Ling, she is never a mere victim in Daybreak, which is a major reason why it remains such a notable work.

A product of its time, Daybreak is an interesting but imperfect film, whereas Li’s story is absolutely fascinating. China’s last living silent film star, she led an epic life in ways both great and terrifying. Indeed, it raises a great historical “what if” question. In the way we wonder about Hitler’s artistic frustrations, perhaps if Lan Ping (a.k.a. Jiang Qing) had been a better actress, the suffering of millions might have been avoided. Recommended in its own right, mostly for Li Lili’s luminous presence, Daybreak screens this Tuesday night (11/20) at the Asia Society, as their can’t miss Goddess series continues.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on November 19th, 2012 at 12:44pm.

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