QUEEN OF SPORTS (China / 1934)
Widely regarded as one of the very best Second Generation Chinese filmmakers, Sun Yu (1900-1990) primarily learned his craft in the U.S.: he studied literature and drama at the University of Wisconsin before moving to New York where he delved into cinematography, editing, scriptwriting, etc. at Columbia and the New York Institute of Photography. After returning home, Sun started his career in the late 1920s but came to prominence in the early 1930s with Lianhua Film Company, a famous leftist studio. There he also met a young and talented actress named Li Lili, with whom he collaborated on a number of occasions during the early part of the decade.
Queen of Sports (Tiyu huanghou), which followed such Sun and Li films as Blood of Love (1932), Daybreak (1933) and Little Toys (1933), features the latter as a charming and energetic villager named Lin Ying who travels to Shanghai to fulfill her dream of competing in athletics on the national level. She joins a sports college and begins to train as a sprinter. Most, including the handsome young coach she eyes, are startled by her talent. But a couple of her counterparts become jealous of all the attention she gets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fame and celebrity Lin achieves during a short period of time eventually causes her to lose track of her goal. And so it becomes up to her to regain her physical and mental strength before the final tournament.
Reportedly written in the lead-up to the fifth National Games in 1933, Queen of Sports is a progressive/modernist effort featuring a light, almost humorous touch, undoubtedly the product of Suns familiarity with Hollywood films (Sun's ultimate resolution however puts most thematically similar ones to shame). It is also well shot and edited -- the competition sequences in particular are quite impressive. While the focus clearly remains on the essence of sports, Sun judiciously finds a way to integrate pertinent commentary on societys mores and values.
In his book Hong Kong Cinema: A Cross-cultural View, author Law Kar wrote that "one of Chinese cinema's most popular figures was the country girl, a healthy, sexy farmer's daughter who first appeared in the heyday of Shanghai movies. In sharp contrast to the sophisticated but often hapless city women, they were natural beauties who embodied the hearty goodness of the land." Along with Wang Renmai and Xu Lai, Li was also mentioned as one of the original "wildcats/country girls," and, based on the characters she often embodied in Suns films, rightfully so. Li left a mark with only a handful of films; she died in 2005 at the age of 90. Sun drew the ire of Mao and the CCP with his 1951 effort, The Life of Wu Xun. His career was never the same.
*QUEEN OF SPORTS is available on DVD from Cinema Epoch. It is featured alongside Sun's highly political The Big Road (1934), which is arguably his most famous film.