Considering the “strong comic atmosphere” in the early scene of Chinese cinema, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the earliest extant Chinese-made feature is Laborer’s Love (aka Cheng the Fruit Seller, 1922), a slapstick that reminds one of Buster Keaton’s physical comedies in which pratfalls play a significant role in creating comic effects. Although also relying on exaggerated facial expressions and body movements to win laughter, including a magnificent out-of-focus shot that assumes the point of view of the carpenter-turned fruit seller, the nearly 30-minute long short reaches its funniest moment right when patrons of a noisy nightclub fall from the sliding ladders, one by one, landing on their buttocks and necks. The smart trick, namely turning the stair into a controllable slide, ultimately helps the fruit seller get the nod from the old doctor for his marriage proposal.
Using deceitful device to let people fall from the ladders and eventually gain personal profit creates a moral dilemma for the filmmakers. To make laughter morally justifiable, director Zhang Shichuan (1899-1954) and scriptwriter Zheng Zhengqiu (1889-1935), the founding members of the famed Star Film Company, used a few scenes to build up the moral character of the fruit seller. He is portrayed as a caring “laborer,” as he treats children with generosity and forgiveness; he is also depicted as a macho hero, as he dares to stand up to the street bullies. Meanwhile, the very fact that the fallen patrons are nothing but drunken gamblers and girl-chasers also adds certain legitimacy to the deceitful act. In this way, the filmmakers were able to avoid offending traditional Chinese moral values, which view such actions as taking advantage of other people’s difficulties or stoning a person when he is down morally unacceptable. As a matter of fact, the whole narrative of Laborer’s Love, despite paying “lip service to the ‘sanctity of working classes’…, a typical May Fourth slogan,” is an affirmation or “endorsement” of Confucian notion of filial piety. All the actions taken by the fruit seller are meant to accomplish only one goal: winning the stamp of approval from his sweetheart’s father/the old doctor on his marriage proposal.
Laborer’s Love (劳工之爱情; China, 1922), A Star Film Company production, B & W. Silent, with Chinese and English intertitles (Premiered October 5, 1922 at the Olympic Theater in Shanghai).
Director: Zhang Shichuan
Screenwriter: Zheng Zhengqiu
Cinematographer: Zhang Weitao
Cast: Zheng Zhegu (Zheng the carpenter), Zheng Zhengqiu (Doctor Zhu), Yu Ying (Miss Zhu).
Running time: 22 MIN.
Shaoyi’s Rating: A (for historical significance)