The first Chinese silent film that I ever saw was 1934’s 体育皇后, or Queen of Sports. It would have been 5 or 6 years ago, at the lantern festival in my home city, where they showed a few films on an outdoor screen as part of the festivities.1 The quality was pretty terrible—it was probably from VCD or maybe even archive.org, and there was no musical accompaniment at all—but I found the screen presence of star Li Lili (黎莉莉; sometimes romanized as Lily Li) quite special. As today is the centenary of Li’s birth, I thought it would be a fitting time to look back on this film and her performance in it.
Harder, better, faster, stronger
Shanghai was the centre of the Chinese film industry at this time, home to the three main studios, Lianhua, Mingxing, and Tianyi; it is probably Lianhua’s films that are best-remembered today. And so Shanghai is the setting of Queen of Sports, with Li’s character Lin Ying newly arrived from her village in Zhejiang to attend a women’s sports college in the big city. Director Sun Yu (孙瑜) had worked with Li several times, and he wrote the role of Lin in Queen of Sports especially for her. Similar to Wang Renmei (王人美), Li specialized in playing high-spirited, girl-next-door types that took advantage of her natural exuberance and onscreen energy. Indeed, as we meet her in Queen of Sports, she’s scaling the funnel of her ocean liner in order to better to see the city:
At the home of her relative, Lin is irrepressible, romping around the house with a dog. Asked about her impressions of Shanghai, she answers, “The people are strange as well! Some are as thin as skeletons, some are as fat as pigs!”, complete with a pantomime of same:
She also doesn’t know what to make of the fussy bureaucrat her auntie tries to matchmake her with, and blatantly cracks up at his formal manners.
As Lin, Li is fresh, uninhibited and is clearly having a lot of fun. She’s great to watch. However, Queen of Sports is ultimately a propaganda film, the message of which can be summarized as ‘good citizenship through athleticism’. And of course, we learn that ultimately the “spirit of sports” is not about individual heroism, but strengthening the nation through strengthening the body. There’s probably some kind of Foucauldian analysis to be made about the constitution of citizenship via discipline of the body … anyway, Queen of Sports has a heavy emphasis on the moral rectitude of physical fitness and hygiene. This is underlined by incredibly subtle dialogue between the characters:
So, apart from the expected sports training and competition montages, we also get shots which extol the virtues of good dental care.
Sun reportedly wrote the script for Queen of Sports during the lead-up to the Fifth National Games in 1933. The film portrays a somewhat non-traditional view of womanhood, but crucially, it is one in which naturalness is presented as the most desirable trait. This is made most explicit in a scene where Lin and athletics teacher Yun Peng go on a training run; they sit down for a break, and she begins to touch up her makeup, inspiring Yun to tell her, “Where did these things come from? A sports school student doesn’t need makeup.” Given that this action is entirely out of character for what we’ve seen of Lin, it comes across as rather pointed. In a later scene, Lin wants to leave the social event she is at with soccer star Hu Shaoyuan, not being keen on drinking alcohol or on his advances, leading him to exclaim, “You, young lady, are really not too modern!”
Although it’s a lightly treated part of the story overall, Lin’s potential love interests in the film underline this point, as each of them represents a different archetype. The main man is athletics teacher Yun Peng (played by 張翼, Zhang Yi). Here’s their meet-cute, where Yun’s sister reintroduces her as “Little Ying from the village eight or nine years ago, who climbed trees and raced with us!”, while Lin Ying pantomimes her childhood pigtails.
Yun’s main role in the film is to brood manfully; he also trains students in athletics. The other men to express interest in Lin are ‘Soccer King’ Hu Shaoyuan (played by 何非光, He Feiguang), something of a bad-boy socialite in his spare time2; and the dapper but fussy-mannered Gao Daoshao, son of the Vice Minister.3 The unpretentious athletics teacher, the talented but morally suspect socialite, and the prissy bureaucrat: although Lin doesn’t have an outright romance with any of them, it’s clear where the audience’s sympathies are supposed to lie.
Being a sports film, Queen of Sports obviously features the typical arc where the athlete quickly achieves success but then must overcome adversity to gain a (moral) victory. Lin excels at running and is heralded in China for her abilities, but must overcome the jealousy of her classmates and the temptations of the high life before rediscovering the True Spirit of Sports.4 But there’s some other things in the mix, like Lin’s fish-out-of-water schtick when she arrives in Shanghai, the thin man/fat man duo who turn up for a comic relief subplot, etc. The most important subplot concerns Lin’s jealous classmates Ai Zheng, Qiaohua Xiao, and Chen Yan, who conspire against Lin break her reputation as Queen of Sports by winning all the races. Which isn’t really all that evil, given that they all attend a sports academy—but what about Qioahua’s heart condition? but the doctor’s orders? The melodrama is piled high as Qioahua wins the race against Lin, only to then DIE IN LIN’S ARMS, exclaiming, “Lin Ying, I regret it! I think … I don’t understand the true spirit of sports!” Later, Lin announces that she won’t enter the finals that afternoon, which inspires this hilarious reaction from her rivals Ai and Chen:
Aesthetic qualities of Queen of Sports
Before the Second Sino-Japanese War and the “orphan island” era, Shanghai was a flourishing, cosmopolitan world city that was undergoing a huge art deco building boom. One of the nicest things about films of this period is seeing that architecture represented; a parallel to the art deco style seen in concurrent Hollywood films. Other films are probably better exemplars of this, but the flavour of Shanghai is still shown in Queen of Sports, for example on Lin’s car journey to her new home:
Likewise, there are some lovely interiors.
The real style of the film comes from Sun Yu, whose direction is very polished: Queen of Sports is a well-edited picture with interesting camera framings and movement. Sun had spent time in America attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison (now known as Bordwell & Thompson HQ) and then studying cinematography, editing, and scriptwriting in New York, and this instruction clearly shaped the fluidity of his film work. To my eyes, there are also hints of Soviet influence in shots like this:
For his 1932 film 火山情血 | Blood of Love Under the Volcano, Sun had been the first director in China to rig a camera on a crane, and a mobile camera is also used to effect in Queen of Sports. One striking shot shows the women in their shared bathroom preparing for the day: the shot begins near ground level, then pans up to ceiling height to give a deeper view into the room.
Another thing that stood out for me in Sun’s direction is his use of text/characters in conjunction with image. Right off the bat, we have opening credits with dynamic animation:
I’m always quite fascinated by intertitles, and although most in Queen of Sports are standard white script on black, some have themed background graphics, or are even animated.
left: Women’s sports at Jianhua have a glorious history. right: “That’s right. Work harder and talk less! … Mr. Yun, I will listen to everything you teach me! … Mr. Yun, from now on I will work harder and talk less!”
However, what really got my attention were the shots that overlaid text onto the film itself, especially notable in a series of shots that repeats the sentence ‘Lin Ying broke the national record for the women’s 200m final!’ three times.
In general, Sun is fond of optical effects, and several of the sporting montages have a series of quite elaborate wipes (below left). The allure of the sports trophy is also enhanced through a glamorous double-exposure shot.
And another visually interesting thing: this shot, which I was really hoping would go further down the Busby Berkeley path – it didn’t, but it still looks pretty cool.
Into the future
After the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, Sun Yu decamped to the wartime Kuomintang capital of Chongqing, where he directed a couple of propaganda films. As a left-leaning director, he fell out of favour in the Mao era in quite dramatic fashion, when Mao personally denounced Sun’s film 武训传 | The Life of Wu Xun (1950). Neither was Li Lili to fare well in the post-war era; she inspired the wrath of Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao, a former C-list actress who had been in films with Li. Over what seems to have been simple jealousy on Jiang’s part, she later spent years tormenting Li and her husband.
– – –
Queen of Sports has its shortcomings, but it’s a surprisingly enjoyable film if you can get past the silly propaganda aspects, and even those hold some amusement. Happy birthday, Ms. Li!
– – –