Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Released to predictable controversy in the midst of the Chinese Civil War and on the eve of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Shen Fu’s The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes (occasionally translated as Myriad of Lights) was categorically dismissed by the nationalists and viewed as a step in the right direction by the communists. The movie is unashamedly heavy handed in its politics, a product of its having been made by the communist Kunlun Film Company in Shanghai, where the film is set. Discussing the context of The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes, I feel immediately in over my head. My understanding of China at the time is passable at best and abysmal at worst, a clarification I make as preemptive self-defense. The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes’ content is its context and I just want to make sure that, should I write something ignorant, I get to say, “I told you so.”
Situated somewhere between melodrama and the emerging neorealist movement, the film follows the Hu family from their economically strained yet joyful family life to their descent as victims of various societal ills. By following a network of characters (the Hu family and their acquaintances), Shen is able to explore his ideas from a variety of perspectives. At the center of it all is Hu Zhiqing (Lan Ma), a young husband and father who works a vaguely defined desk job at a place referred to only as “the company.” Before he is able to dissuade them, Zhiqing’s extended family comes to Shanghai from the country, led by his elderly mother, portrayed incredibly by Wu Yin who was only thirty-nine years old at the time of filming. The arrival of the relatives places additional strain on the family and causes a clash of class and culture. Just as the family’s economic situation becomes clearly unsustainable, Zhiqing is fired from his job by an old schoolmate, now a wealthy, scheming executive in “the company.”
That Zhiqing’s workplace is referred to so vaguely is indicative of the film’s purpose, but also the aspect of The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes that I found most grating. As can be gleaned from the title and by the shots of miniatures that bookend the film, Shen is attempting to hammer home the universality of the situations onscreen. Zhiqing could be any member of the Chinese middle class and the exploitation at the hands of the executives is to be reminiscent of the plight of all China. The issues are defined well and, as with most social issue dramas, scenarios are designed to dramatically highlight certain ironies or contradictions in the social order. Among my favorite examples of this being done in the film is in the introduction of one “the company’s” executives, who is first seen speaking English, and later when the goods labeled “MADE IN USA” being moved into the spare room the extended Hu family was kicked out of. Both instances illustrate well the parasitic nature of the United States and other countries on Chinese society without resorting to exposition, as much of the film does. For entire conversations, characters cease to be characters and become ideological representatives and mouthpieces, yet another hallmark of the social issue drama, though a more unfortunate one. Specificity and humanity are vital to making a movie’s social message hit home. By stripping specific details from his world, Shen makes his film feel further from reality rather than closer. The best moments of The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes are owed to its performers, particularly the aforementioned Lan Ma and Wu Yin, or found in the rare moments of truly expressive direction, often sandwiched between stilted dialogues.
Though often lackluster, Shen’s direction in conjunction with Zhu Jinming’s cinematography achieves a fair amount of powerful imagery, usually in close-ups and most frequently during the uncharacteristic final act. Particularly striking is a moment in which Zhiqing stumbles through an alleyway, the camera swaying with him in a sequence reminiscent of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.
While scenes like this one shine through, I should note just how poor the film looks. The version available on Amazon Prime is often so dark that I occasionally had trouble understanding what was onscreen, other shots were grainy or pixelated. On top of that, the subtitles are messy, rife with misspellings, grammatical errors, and even lines of dialogue left untranslated. While this is distracting, I don’t think it ruins the movie, in fact, it’s miraculous how much the movie’s strengths shine through the technical shortcomings. Even in the worst of it, the brilliance of Wu Yin’s performance is clear and no amount of grain or pixelation can hide it. Syrupy as it is, the ending (ironic in its similarity to It’s A Wonderful Life) really does work. Seeing all of the characters come together to collectively support one another genuinely hit me, no matter how didactic it may be. The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes is certainly a flawed movie and often a flat one, but Shen obviously feels every moment deeply, imbuing even the corniest displays of humanity with an earnestness too honest to dismiss.
“From the Depths” is a recurring column where the central conceit is that I bumble ignorantly into the vast realm of widely unseen movies, scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of hidden gems or, at the very least, interesting disasters.
The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes (Myriad of Lights) is streaming on Amazon Prime.