My Memories of Old Beijing (1983)

My wife added this to her want list ages ago as she is familiar with the novel it is based on. However it is little known outside of China and proved to be impossible to find. I only found it when I discovered a YouTube channel that seemingly specializes in very old Chinese films. It’s pretty odd to consider what is or isn’t allowed on YouTube at times but these films are so little watched that I doubt it’s much of an issue.

In the 1920s, 6-year-old Yingzi lives in Beijing with her family, her father in particular being well off and educated. Intelligent and inquisitive, she nonetheless sees the world around her through the eyes of a child and the film covers a few of her more important memories of childhood in an episodic format. One story has her befriending both a street waif raised by poor musician parents and a young woman who has been driven mad after being forced to give up her baby daughter. Yingzi realizes that they are mother and daughter and helps them find each other. Later after they move to another part of the city, the neighborhood is plagued by a spate of thefts. While playing in an abandoned lot, she comes across the cache of stolen items and deduces that the man who hangs out nearby is the thief. He talks to her about how he wasted his own youth and is determined to help his younger brother, a promising student, pursue his studies though that requires money. In this manner, the film reveals a bit of what life was life in China at the turn of the century.

Naturally a film like this plays up the adorableness factor of its child actress Shen Jie for maximum effect and it’s remarkable how well she pulls it off. The situations she comes across aren’t particularly novel, for example when she wonders why the nanny employed by her family takes care of her brother and herself instead of her own children. But the scenes are handled very well and with the film being set in the 1920s, you get a sense that these are dilemmas that society has grappled with since forever. It’s also great how this film, in line with this being from a child’s perspective, is non-judgmental over what’s right and what’s wrong. Yingzi’s actions inadvertently contribute to the thief getting caught and she feels guilty about it as both because they have become friends of a sort and because she genuinely does not know if what he has done is ultimately good or bad.

The film’s biggest fault is probably that it feels too short. I understand from my wife that it omits at least one major storyline that was present in the novel. In keeping with its source material, it also ends rather abruptly as if Yingzi’s family had fallen off the face of the Earth. The lack of a sense of proper closure makes it end on a very unsatisfying note. Otherwise, I found this to be a better than expected portrayal of a very turbulent period of China’s modern history from the perspective of a child. That is I think quite rare for Chinese films.

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