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A Film by Mei-Juin Chen

Co-produced and Co-written by Ned Anthony

60 min

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF LI XIANGLAN (2015) recounts the early life and career of the Manchurian-born Japanese film and pop music sensation Li Xianglan (a.k.a. Shirley Yamaguchi) during the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. Able to pass as Chinese, Li became famous for playing the Chinese ingénue in Japanese propaganda melodramas. The film tells her story, from her rise to stardom to her detention and near execution by the Chinese, through clips from her movies, which incorporated elements of her own biography, interwoven with archival newsreel and talking head footage. The film also traces China’s experience during the war, as well as the emergence of cinema in China as a medium for propaganda, mass entertainment and artistic expression.


This one-hour documentary traces the rise and fall of Li Xianglan, who deftly navigated the clash of nations to become one of Japan and China’s biggest movie stars during World War II. A Manchurian born Japanese who could “pass” as Chinese, she was a propagandist’s dream. She rose to fame in a series of Japanese romantic melodramas playing the Chinese girl who falls in love with a Japanese man. For a while it worked, but when Japan lost the war her cover was blown and she nearly faced a firing squad.  A double life; a dangerous game.


The film uses clips from rarely seen movies of the period to tell the story of this remarkable young woman who, through the alchemy of history and the magic of cinema, was transformed from a real person into an icon, an enigma of layered identities, actual and invented. She was Yoshiko Yamaguchi, daughter of Japanese settlers to Manchuria; Li Xianglan, a Chinese actress created by Japan to promote Japanese-Chinese friendship; and a movie character, a pretty Chinese girl who stirred the desire of Japanese men. She was half flesh, half celluloid, half human, half fantasy.


Others who led double lives weren’t so lucky. In the second part of the film we meet Li’s friend, the Taiwanese-born, Japanese-educated writer and filmmaker Liu Naou. As the war raged, Liu chased his dream of directing feature films, first working with the Chinese, then the Japanese. But as a Taiwanese, his identity remained unsettled. Neither Japanese nor Chinese, he lacked a true country to call his own. Neither side trusted him and he ended up dead as a result. Liu Naou’s tragic story stands in somber contrast to the tale of Li Xianglan, a citizen of Japan. It invites reflection on the nature of film, art, identity, history and individual freedom.


The Double Life of Li Xianglan reveals a world that is half real and half fantasy, where the Japanese nobly strive to bring the fruits of modern civilization to China while at the same time slaughtering millions; where a Japanese teenager becomes a Chinese movie star, is unmasked, and is finally set free in one of those miraculous turns of fate that only happen on screen; where a young man from a small Japanese-governed island at the edge of China also courts fame in the movies but meets a far sadder end; and where the people of this island, buffeted by historical forces beyond their control, struggle to figure out who exactly they are.


This film raises questions that are still relevant today.

Channel 2
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- Stanley Rosen, Director, East Asian Studies Center, University of Southern California

Critical Response

“This fascinating documentary, which is highlighted by compelling archival footage and vintage film clips, offers important insights in a dispassionate manner into a period of history -- China under the Japanese occupation -- that understandably still provokes strong emotions today.  By focusing on the early film career of Li Xianglan (known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi in Japan and Shirley Yamaguchi in her American films) and the complex decisions an individual with one foot in Chinese and one in Japanese culture had to make under highly stressful conditions, we learn about such larger issues as the Japanese use of film for propaganda purposes, Shanghai as a cinematic base for the production of mass entertainment, and the conflicted identity of Taiwanese under the Japanese occupation.  It would make a great teaching tool for a wide variety of courses and should trigger stimulating and passionate discussions among the students.”


World Premiere, San Francisco Asian Art Museum

Official Competition, Women Make Waves Taiwan

Opening Film, China Women’s Film Festival 


Art & Artist   Asian   Film   History   Women

The Double Life of Li Xianglan

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