The Letter with Feathers
Cai Yuanyuan, Shu Shi, Cheng Zhi, Zhou Boxun
Director: Shi Hui
More than half a century before Hong Kong's Echoes of a Rainbow was awarded this year's Berlin Film Festival Crystal Bear for best youth-oriented feature, Chinese child stars made their first impression on Western audiences with the child-centric war classic The Letter with Feathers (1954).
The Shanghai Film Studio production was the People's Republic's first entry in a non-Soviet Bloc festival (Locarno) and the first to win a prize (at the 1955 Edinburgh Film Festival). Set during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), the tale of a 12-year-old shepherd who risks life and limb to get his flock and the titular letter across enemy lines is pure communist propaganda, but so entertainingly executed that it led more than a few 1950s mainland adolescents to consider heading for the hills to join the guerillas.
The picture's technical slickness has everything to do with its Shanghai roots. Though the story takes place amid the rocky terrain of the remote northern Chinese interior, the cast and crew are largely products of the cosmopolitan pre-PRC movie scene. The script by Zhang Junxiang endows the proceedings with enough humanity and veracity to make them ring true, the major exception being the cartoonish caricatures of the Japanese invaders headed by the stereotypical commander, nicknamed Cat's Eyes (Zhou Boxun).
The on-location camerawork by Luo Congzhou, who received his initial training from renowned cinematographer Dong Keyi in the 1930s, captures the starkly beautiful black-and-white landscape without injecting a hint of glamour. Another prominent name among the crew credits is assistant director Xie Jin, then in the initial phase of what would prove to be Chinese filmdom's most illustrious directorial career spanning the pre- and post-Cultural Revolution eras.
Chief credit not surprisingly goes to Shi Hui, the era's most distinctive movie personality and occasional actor-director - notably for The Life of a Peking Policeman (1950). Here, he eschews a role in front of the camera to concentrate on showcasing the uncomplicated benignity of Haiwa (Cai Yuanyuan, top right), the peasant warrior at the movie's centre. Entrusted with a feather-embellished letter denoting the message's urgency, Haiwa displays a heady mixture of courage and ingenuity in keeping the message from falling into the hands of both the Japanese and their Chinese lackeys (including Cheng Zhi, in yet another of his patented incarnations of comic evil).
Shi's capable direction is evident in roles both big and small. Shu Shi, one of Hong Kong's top Mandarin stars before his expulsion by the colonial government two years previously, is as convincing in his cameo appearance as Haiwa's peasant father as he is in his most celebrated part, Emperor Guanxu in Sorrows of the Forbidden City (1948). Perhaps the director's greatest accomplishment is the naturalism achieved in the portrayal of Haiwa, a lad whose simplicity and cleverness never descend into cutesy precociousness. All the more remarkable in that child actor Cai, son of Shakespearean thespian Cai Songlin, came from an urban intellectual milieu far removed from Haiwa's universe.
The black-and-white clarity of Haiwa and his mission proved a perfect vehicle for mid-1950s moviegoers and bureaucrats. Coming as it did at a time when mainland cinema was still recovering from the criticism campaigns of 1951-1952, The Letter with Feathers was a bright spot in the brief respite before the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement that would result in Shi's denunciation and suicide at age 42.