Unlike most Chinese films of its period, which were adaptations of accepted and well-known dramatic and literary works, it was made from an original screenplay.
In 1935 a runaway tongyangxi, Zhu Chunhua, takes refuge at an itinerant Yue Opera troupe performing at a Shaoxing village. The head of the troupe, A’Xin, intends to send the girl away, but Yue Opera teacher Xing, seeing her potential, takes Chunhua in as a disciple and trains her. Chunhua signs a deal with the troupe and becomes the performing partner (in a dan role) to the teacher’s daughter Yuehong, the latter performing as a xiaosheng.
A rich provincial landlord Ni invites Chunhua and Yuehong to sing at his house privately after the troupe reaches his province. He takes an interest in Yuehong; however, Yuehong and her father spurn his interest and as a result, Kuomintang cops forcibly seize Yuehong one day during a performance. Chunhua is also arrested and tied to a pillar for days as “public humiliation”. The two are released after Xing and A’Xin send bribes to the KMT cops.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Yuehong, Chunhua and the troupe go through hard times. In 1941, Teacher Xing dies of an illness, and troupe master A’Xin sells his two best performers to Tang, a Shanghai opera theater manager, on a three-year contract. Yuehong and Chunhua, now sworn sisters, rapidly become Tang’s biggest stars, causing Tang to forsake his aging star and former lover, Shang Shuihua.
Three years elapse. Yuehong and Chunhua are renowned in the city. Chunhua remains down-to-earth but Yuehong grows steadily more materialistic. Sick of having to sing opera for life, Yuehong rashly agrees to Tang's proposal, but Chunhua distrusts Tang and refuses to support Yuehong’s marriage plans. Unbeknownst to Yuehong, Tang already has a wife, and is keeping her as a mistress.
One day faded ex-star Shang commits suicide by hanging herself backstage. Chunhua is incensed that Tang, her former lover, attempts to shirk his responsibilities by claiming he has nothing to do with her death. Through this episode, Chunhua gets to know a "radical" lady journalist Jiang, who advises her to become "progressive" to teach other Chinese to distinguish between truth and falsehood. She starts performing “progressive” operas like an adaptation of Lu Xun’s ‘’The New Year Sacrifice’’.
Chunhua’s works alert the KMT regime who gives Tang the task to ruin Chunhua's reputation. They get A’Xin to file a lawsuit against Chunhua and Manager Tang coerces Yuehong to testify against Chunhua, but at the crucial moment in the courtroom, Yuehong faints.
The film ends in 1950, one year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Chunhua prepares to perform The White-Haired Girl for country folks at Zhejiang. Tang has run off to Taiwan with the KMT cohort and Yuehong is quietly abandoned at Shaoxing province. Although Yuehong witnesses Chunhua’s drama, she is too ashamed to face her sworn sister again. Near a quay later the day, however, the sisters manage a tearful reunion. On the boat the following day, Yuehong vows to learn her lesson and walk the "correct" path while Chunhua dedicates her entire life to performing revolutionary operas.Xie Fang as Zhu Chunhua (竺春花), the main protagonist, a Yue Opera performer. Originally a tongyangxi, she is adopted and later excelled in the dan role. She becomes a leftist and performs revolutionary operas.
Cao Yindi as Xing Yuehong (邢月红), daughter of Teacher Xing. She plays the xiaosheng (male) parts. Enticed by Manager Tang to forsake her art, but is abused frequently until reunited with sworn sister, Chunhua.
Feng Qi as Teacher Xing (邢师傅), father of Yuehong, a Yue Opera teacher.
Gao Aisheng as Jiang Bo (江波), a "progressive" leftist lady reporter
Shen Fengjuan as Xiaoxiang (小香), a former troupe performer who plays supporting roles. Later reunited with Chunhua.
Xu Caigen as Jinshui (金水), Xiaoxiang's husband and former troupe member.
Shangguan Yunzhu as Shang Shuihua (商水花), an aging former star in the Shanghai opera scene, a former mistress of Manager Tang who was jilted. She later hangs herself.
Ma Ji as Qian Dakui (钱大奎), a Yue performer at the Shanghai theater
Luo Jingyi as Yu Guiqing (俞桂卿), a Yue performer at the Shanghai theater
Wu Bofang as Little Chunhua (小春花), a village tongyangxi who is Chunhua's namesake.
Li Wei as Manager Tang (唐经理), the unscrupulous stage manager and theater owner who keeps Shang and Yuehong as his mistresses.
Deng Nan as A'xin the “Monk” (和尚阿鑫), the former troupe owner, a not-so-educated boor who will do anything for money.
Shen Hao as Mrs Shen (沈家姆妈), a wealthy heiress who tries to adopt Chunhua and has illicit dealings with Manager Tang.
Dong Lin as Third Master Ni (倪三老爷), a provincial landlord who tries to take Yuehong for sexual favors.
Ding Ran as Commissioner Pan (潘委员), a Kuomintang official intent on ruining Chunhua and her revolutionary opera troupe.
Two Stage Sisters demonstrates director Xie’s keen interest in traditional Chinese opera art, which he had studied during the Japanese Occupation at the Jiangen Drama Academy. He had then worked with noted opera practitioners like Huang Zuoling and Zhang Junxiang. The film was one of the few PRC films to feature a totally original screenplay rather than one adapted from literature or drama.
Xie Jin maintained later in his life that he was forced to make concessions in the second half of Two Stage Sisters. In an interview in 1989, he confessed "the second part seems weak to me. I couldn't finish it the way I would have liked. If I could redo the second part now, it would improve the entire film."
Some forms of Chinese opera troupes were made up entirely of artistes in one gender only. This was due to the strict fengjian taboo which forbade men and women to appear together on stage. This is still the case in more traditional Chinese opera troupes performing in mainland China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. This also explains why most huangmeidiao movies feature women in male roles (e.g. Ivy Ling Po).
Unlike Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), which depicts Beijing Opera, the Yue troupe in Two Stage Sisters is an “all-females” troupe; Yuehong plays the xiaosheng role.
Shanghai was often seen during the early days of the PRC as a symbol of the bourgeois decadence and as such, is seen as the ideal venue to depict the stage sisters’ struggles later in life.
Two Stage Sisters was well received domestically when it was first screened, but the film was heavily attacked during the Cultural Revolution for portraying and condoning “bourgeois” values. It was particularly the case since Xia Yan, Vice Minister of Culture when the film was made, had made script corrections and encouraged Xie Jin to shoot the film. As Jiang Qing had a feud with Xia, Two Stage Sisters became the perfect vehicle to condemn Xia and was denounced as being a typical decadent pro-bourgeois drama and banned.
Since the late 1970s however, both the director and the film have been rehabilitated and the movie has made its round internationally. Two Stage Sisters won the Sutherland Trophy of British Film Institute Awards in the 24th (1980) London Film Festival, amongst other international prizes.
Today, Two Stage Sisters is considered by some to be Xie Jin’s masterpiece. Many critics find a Hollywood melodrama flavor to the movie, while Gina Marchetti notes an indebtedness to Soviet social realism. Summing up the film, Marchetti concludes:
“…more than simply documenting aesthetic and social changes by incorporating these opera allusions, Two Stage Sisters
chronicles its own roots, giving the viewer a rare glimpse of the history behind Chinese film aesthetics of the mid-1960s. It is as a document of this unique Chinese socialist cinematic sensibility that Two Stage Sisters
is particularly important to an understanding of Chinese film culture as well as socialist cinema aesthetics in general.”
Gilbert Adair gave the film a glowing review on Time Out magazine:
“The performances are terrific, but what really distinguishes this amazing hybrid (in Western terms, that is) is the director's fluid and elegant style. Colour, composition, pace, and above all, camera movement, create an exhilarating spectacle that is never thematically shallow. Imagine Sirk's colours and emotional sense, Scorsese or Minnelli's craning camera shots, allied to a politically perceptive treatment, and you're half way to imagining this film.”
Mike Hale, writing on the New York Times, was also receptive:
“Two Stage Sisters
… is unexpectedly fluid and subtle, with emotions that ring true. It’s also a sweeping, ambitious narrative that moves from the provinces to the theater district of Shanghai and back again. Some cramped staging may reflect a lack of resources, but Mr. Xie’s technical assurance and the overall level of the acting are the equal of at least a modest Hollywood drama of the 1950s or ’60s.”
J. Hoberman of The Village Voice said that "as one sister moves left and the other right, the parallels with Chen Kaige’s 1992 Farewell My Concubine are obvious."
In 2014, the film underwent a six-month 4K restoration at L'Immagine Ritrovata Film Restoration Laboratory in Bologna, Italy. The restored film opened the 2014 Shanghai International Film Festival at the city's Daguangming Grand Theatre, with the lead actresses in attendance.