Two grins compete for the comic face of popular culture: the idiot smile of those who refuse to see bad news, and the steady beam of those who see through it to better times ahead. The 1936 Crossroads, like many a smart Depression movie, has a genuine smiling-through ebullience. What's amazing is that it wasn't made in Hollywood, but in a Shanghai threatened by Japan. Although censors cut explicit references to the Axis menace, the movie's barely employed college men and feisty working women are full of the spirit of resistance. Zhao Dan stars as a sometime proofreader and reporter and Bai Yang as his new gal, an out-of-towner who briefly works at a textile mill. Since he keeps nighttime hours and she punches in 9-to-5, for most of the film they don't realize they live on opposite sides of a flimsy apartment wall. Few performers could navigate this film's constant shifting between romantic farce and social drama; Zhao Dan and Bai Yang thrive on it. They bring a sportive chagrin to their anonymous apartment combats, a slapstick elegance to their courtship.
Bai Yang plays a type not often seen in American movies: a wised-up sort of ingenue, who's had an affair with a married man and retained her innocence. She roots everything in a sensual yet ultrasane personality. When she acts out a Camille-inspired daydream, what's funny is how close her swoony alter ego stays to her down-to-earth character. The San Francisco Film Society is screening Crossroads at the Castro as a tribute to Bai Yang, who died last year at the age of 76. In 1995, she appeared in Peter Kaufman's exuberant documentary The Wild East; in a heart-stopping passage, she explained that when the Cultural Revolution caught up to her and Zhao Dan, the co-stars again became next-door neighbors -- on opposite sides of a jail-cell wall.