The following is an interview with Richard J. Meyer, author of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai. In the interview Meyer discusses Wang’s onscreen career as well as her turbulent off-screen life and his own interest in Chinese film:
Question: How did you get interested in Chinese silent films?
Richard J. Meyer: I had the opportunity to visit the Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai film archives when I was a Fulbright Scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in 1996. I had studied silent films at New York university as a PhD candidate. The first Chinese silent films I screened were at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy in 1995. I realized then that they had never before been available in the West.
Q: Is that why you have produced several DVD’s of Chinese silent films?
RJM: Yes. I restored the films and commissioned musical scores to accompany them. I also recommended that the publisher of my books include DVD’s of them with each publication.
Q: Why did you write about Wang Renmei?
RJM: I had written books about famous stars of Shanghai films before, namely, Ruan Ling Yu, whose funeral procession attracted 300,000 people in 1934, and Jin Yan, the handsome hulk referred to as “the Rudolf Valentino of Shanghai.” Jin was married to Wang Renmei and the story of her life captivated me.
Q: What in particular interested you about her?
RJM: Her life reflected the turbulent period of China’s history in the twentieth century. What is more revealing is that her life was intertwined with Mao Zedong. Wang’s father was Mao’s teacher in Hunan where both grew up. The young Mao stayed in Wang’s house and often played with her when she was a small child. Later, he helped her get out of trouble during the Cultural Revolution.
Q: What DVD did you include with Wang Renmei: Wildcat of Shanghai
RJM: Wild Rose is her first starring role and her co-star is Jin Yan. Wang demonstrated her ebullience and zest for life in her performance. She charmed audiences and became famous as a result of her exuberance on the screen.
Q: What do you like especially in the film?
RJM: There is a scene in which Wang as a peasant girl is introduced to the wealthy parents of Jin Yan who had purchased modern clothes for her in Shanghai. The story is almost a Chinese pygmalion. She is seen attempting to walk in high heels and falling to the floor at the feet of the father. Later, she knocks over a tea cart and is thrown out of the mansion.
Q: How would you describe Wang Renmei as an actress?
RJM: Before she was discovered as a movie star, Wang was the leading performer for the Bright Moon Singing and Dancing Troop. Wang had a haunting voice and sang the theme song in The Song of the Fishermen which was China’s first international award winner at the Moscow Film Festival in 1934. The skills she had learned as a stage performer translated to her performance on the screen. Her enthusiasm plus her singing endeared her to countless numbers of fans throughout China.
Q: How do the films produced in Shanghai produced during the 1930’s compare with contemporary Chinese films?
RJM: The films of early Shanghai were more daring in their criticism of social conditions in Chinese society and the anti-Japanese atmosphere. Even though the government censored all films, the directors and writers were able to camouflage the message by using the melodramatic soap opera formula.