Dam Street

Dam Street


Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

A fine example of contemporary Chinese melodrama, Dam Street follows the disgraced Yun (Yi Liu) from her teen years in 1983 when she and her boyfriend Wang are declared guilty of “moral decadence” and expelled from high school for her getting pregnant, to her current occupation (ten years later) as lead singer of a travelling song and dance troupe who settle in to perform everything from classical Chinese opera to sentimental pop hits at the Pink Pussycat karaoke parlour, somewhere in south western Sichuan province.

When Yun gives birth in 1983 with the help of Wang's sister who is a doctor, Yun is told the child is dead, while in reality her mother arranges for the baby to be adopted by some teaching colleagues.

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Flashforward ten years and Yun's loss of face via her unplanned pregnancy seems to have followed her into adult life. Having never recovered her respectability, Yun spends much of her time performing tawdry cheesy songs in skimpy outfits, backed by rather lacklustre dancing girls, rather than the opera she seems to pride herself on. Even her personal life is tawdry, as she carries on an affair with a local married man. One day she befriends a local boy, Yong, but only after she reprimands him for spying on her in the shower.

Yong and his friend soon become regulars at Yun's singing performances, bringing her snacks and amusing her with their antics. Yun and Yong are soon so inseparable that Yun's friends tease her about her 'young lover', but the two are protective of one another in the manner of close siblings rather than a couple. But, just as Yun's life seems to be taking a turn for the better, Yong is becoming increasingly curious about the nature of his bond with Yun and the truth—of course—changes everything.

While the story and performances are engaging, the film is curiously structured, with two strange intertitles that explain intervening events just before the time shift to 1993, and then just before the end of the film. The events narrated by these intertitles seem, to my mind, sufficiently dramatic to be seen on screen. However, while the story itself is melodrama, Dam Street is a film that subscribes to an aesthetic of restraint: the moments of potentially overwrought drama (Yun being told her child is dead, for example) are fated to remain offscreen. Anger is readily expressed by Yun's mother when she discover's Yun's pregnancy and later by Yun herself when Qian, the manager of the Pink Pussycat, offers her 400 yuan for sex. Sadness and longing, two feelings that permeate this film, are rarely expressed in any conventional way.

In one of the film's most stunning moments, Yun is humiliated by the wife and children of her married lover Liu Waijin. They burst in on her performance of a love song, at the karaoke parlour, calling her a whore, pinching her elegant red qipao gown and pulling her hair. After she has collapsed on stage under their blows, the camera closes in on Yun's stunned expression, underscored by the melancholy strains of a violin. Her face at that moment is heartbreakingly lovely, but also suffused with the pain that has accompanied her precarious social position for the last ten years. Tellingly, she picks herself up and wanders dazedly back to her flat, as the audience stares after her. Throughout the story, Yun refuses to be pitied despite her low social status and what she does at the end of the film is a pleasing contradiction to the conventions of traditional melodrama, making Dam Street a tender story of loss and friendship reminscent of of Zhang Yimou's early work.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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The experiences of a vulnerable young women in Eighties China.

Director: Yu Li

Writer: Li fang, Yu Li

Starring: Xingrao Huang, Yi Liu, Kechun Li, Yizhu Wang

Year: 2005

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: China


EIFF 2006

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