Little Toys (1933) title image

director Sun Yu
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The first of five films that I was to watch at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Sun Yu’s Little Toys was the first Chinese film that I have seen from the silent era, though the festival often features Chinese or Japanese films.  I was unfamiliar with the period of the heyday of Shanghai film-making in the 1930’s, unfamiliar with the directors and even the stars, Lingyu Ruan and Li-li Li.  While the film itself is a tragedy, the introduction of the film included some interesting notes about the tragedy of Lingyu Ruan who went on to take her own life at the age of 24.  There is always a little additional haunting when such facts are added to the viewing of a film.

Little Toys tells the story of Sister Ye (Ruan Lingyu), a creative toymaker handcrafting her wares in a small village.  She is wise and good-hearted, shunning a lover for her family, offering thoughtful advice, being the sole driver for the income of her village, raising her two children alongside.  The tragedies mount as her husband dies and small son is abducted (in a very leering, creepy moment in the film), and in many ways it only gets worse.  But Sister Ye pushes on, often addressing the camera directly as she falls into intense reveries about the right things to do.  As her daughter grows up (then played by Li-li Li), she channels her mothers spirit, leading the children of the village in play and exercise, developing her own skills in toymaking, and speaking as well of the proper, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” sort of self-motivational drive, punctuated with the good old “thumbs up”.

The film is strikingly propaganda-like, or maybe just very clear in its ideological messages.  The direct address of the audience leaves little question to whom Sister Ye is really addressing.  And in the film’s notable final sequence, in which still, even in this version that we saw in the theater just this weekend lacked key intertitles, Sister Ye proclaims in crazed, manic terror, for the people to take up arms because the enemy (in this case, the Japanese), are coming yet again to destroy and wreak havoc.  The final sequence is the culmination of the drama, in which Sister Ye, has lost everything, and though she’s being delusional, the crowd around her (and by suggestion, us the audience) see that she is actually predicting something real, sending a warning message like some sibyl on the street.  And in that sense it’s very prophetic, coming only a couple of years before the Japanese again invaded China at the onset of WWII.

Sister Ye also seems to be critiquing the coming of mass production, representing as she does, the artisanship of traditional crafts.  The message here is a little muddier, though modernization and industrialization become conflated with military aggression and weaponry.  Children “want” little toys of the fighter planes and tanks that devastate the land and the people, toys that have to be produced by machines and mass industry.  These asides are also part of the bald ideological elements.

Something beneath all of that, though, that struck me, was how the film centered so much around women, strong women who are the core of everything of the film.  Sister Ye is a creative force, ingenius and innovative, but also wise and deep, helping others to understand the world around them and what is right and wrong.  Sister Ye and her daughter are the industry of their village.  The men are like hangers-on, helping out, hunky or sad-sacks, but they are clearly nowhere as full of wisdom and energy.  I don’t know if this is something particular to this film, this period, this director, Ruan Lingyu.  Like I said, this is the first Chinese film of this period that I’ve seen.  I still thought it was most striking, especially watching other films from throughout the world where women are codified and “typed”.

Little Toys is a very moving film, sad, striking, very interesting.  There are numerous moments, shots, images that stand out considerably.  But nothing more so than the culmination of the tragedy in the final sequence.  Ruan Lingyu cries out at us and the drama is hard to forget.