National Customs was the last film that Ruan Lingyu made, and it is dedicated to her memory. After her swansong in 'New Women', with its real-life parallels, this film comes like an afterthought, more akin to Xiao Wanyi (Small Toys) which, as it happens, also co-starred Li Lili. These two actress play sisters, Zhang Tao and Zhang Lan, both graduates from Middle School, who are considering what to do with their education. They wind up continuing their education in Shanghai, where Zhang Lan (Ruan Lingyu) pursues her studies in a Spartan fashion, while her younger sister plays around and learns all about 'being modern', which seems to consist of wearing makeup and alluring clothes, as well as a freer approach to interaction between the sexes.
It is here that the theme of the 'New Life' movement pops up. This movement was initiated in 1934 by Chiang Kai-shek with the aim of returning China to Confucian social ethics by the rejection of Western-styled individualism and indulgence. As the film goes on, the 'modern' versus the 'traditional' society comes to be embodied in the disagreements between the sisters.
While ably supported by the rest of the cast (including several familiar faces from the Shanghai film industry), the stars of the show are Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili. They have been very well cast and use their talents appropriately.
The plot, while tending towards melodrama in the early stages, quickly turns to social issues which were of mounting importance for Republican China. In its attitudes, the film becomes an interesting time-capsule of the New Life era, and it is probably more important as a historical document than as simple entertainment.