Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two from Zhou Xuan

Cinema Epoch has released nearly 20 pre-1949 Mainland Chinese films onto DVD over the past few years. Not being particularly knowledgeable about this period in film, I can’t really access whether most of these films are considered classics or not – though even I have heard of a few of these such as Song at Midnight, Spring in a Small Town, The Spring River Flows East and Street Angel. A list of their available films can be found here. A number of the DVD releases contain two films which isn’t a bad deal at all. From the two films I have watched so far, it seems evident that the print sources were not cleaned up and so there are plenty of scratches, occasional poor contrast and missing frames as one might expect from old films like this. It does appear that a few of the DVDs have essays within, but that wasn’t the case with the two I looked at which is a shame because knowing so little about the films, the directors, the actors and the industry it would have been nice having some context given. It especially would have been great if they had translated the credits so I could name the actors, but no such luck. Still it is obviously a terrific opportunity to see many films that have never been available and to get a small peek into the dream machine that was once Shanghai. If anyone has seen and enjoyed some of the other films on the label, feel free to recommend them to me.

Both films that I looked at starred the legendary Zhou Xuan, who was born in 1918 and died at the age of 39 in 1957 in Shanghai. Her life was rather a sad one full of broken relationships, broken promises and mental breakdowns. But she is still cherished today though not so much for her acting as for her singing and is nicknamed “The Golden Throat”. Though she was not the first actress/singer to appear in Chinese film, Xuan is credited by many for popularizing Mandarin pop music in films. Her acting ability seems in dispute – Stephen Teo refers to her as a “rather poor actress” but I thought she had great presence in a film I saw at the HKIFF two years ago, Secrets of the Forbidden City (1948), which was one of her final films and I think she is charming in Street Angel. I admit though that in Dream of the Red Chamber, her character nearly disappears in a state of ennui. The best write-up I found on her was on the Chinese Mirror site.

Here are two quickie reviews on these last two films that have been released by Cinema Epoch.

Dream of the Red Chamber a.k.a. Dream of the Red Mansion
Director: Bu Wancang

Previously, I had already seen two film versions of the classic 18th century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin about the lives and eventual downfall of a privileged Beijing family. It is a book that is near and dear to the Chinese soul and even has a term for the study of it, Redology. There have been many other film versions of the novel as well as TV series and Chinese Operas about the subject. From what I have read about the book, it contains numerous plot lines about a large number of family members, but the three film versions I have seen – this one and the two from the Shaw Brothers (1961, 1977) – focus primarily on the tragic romantic triangle between Jia Baoyu, the young heir of the family, and two of his female cousins – Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. These three films for the most part ignore the rest of the family except as to how they impact this trio.

The story is I am sure familiar to most of you in one form or another so I will be very brief. Baoyu is a very immature young man who very much prefers the company of the women and female servants in his family (“woman is made of water, man is made of mud”). A cousin, Daiyu, comes to stay with the family after her mother dies and she and Baoyu are attracted to one another though in a teasing flirtatious manner. Later the other cousin Baochai shows up as well and a mild pouty competition breaks out between the two women for Baoyu’s attention, but he clearly has been won over by Daiyu. But Baochai’s mother connives to set up a marriage between her daughter and Baoyu and the inevitable tragedy ensues for one and all.

This version unlike the two Shaw films is a straight on drama – not a Huangmei Opera as were those two films (though Zhou Xuan who portrays Daiyu does sing two snippets of songs) and thus it has more time to explore a little around the periphery of the story – in particular showing and strongly hinting at Baoyu’s sexual relations with his female servants and the trouble this causes. Interestingly though, as in the Huangmei versions Baoyu is played by a female. The world shown in the film is completely feminine – other than Baoyu, men rarely intrude and their presence is clearly not wanted. So in that respect it is a rather fascinating glimpse into what goes on behind the private walls, but overall unfortunately the film is much too slowly paced and generates little passion at all. The actors all look too old for this adolescent love story and Baoyu is such a spoiled petulant brat that it is hard to take his love seriously – or that of the women for him. He tragically is unable to grow up until it is too late leading to an ending which is actually the strongest part of the film. Zhou Xuan appears to basically sleepwalk through her role and her fate brings out little emotion from the viewer. I’d recommend either of the Shaw versions over this one. One other version that I would love to see is the 1952 Modern Red Chamber Dream directed by Yue Feng and starring Li Lihua as Daiyu , Ouyang Shafei as Baochai and Yan Jun as Baoyu and is according to Teo a modern day Marxist interpretation of the classic story.

As you may have noted, the film was made in 1944, well after Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese in 1937. Many actors and directors fled Shanghai for other parts of China/Hong Kong or simply refused to work for the Japanese who attempted to continue the film industry. The Japanese set up a coalition of film companies that was called Huaying and the company produced over 100 films during the war years. After the war ended there were many charges of collaboration thrown at many actors and directors who had continued to work under the Japanese, but many of them such as Zhou Xuan, Li Lihua, Ouyang Shafei, Nancy Chan and Bai Guang seemed to have escaped unscathed for the most part – but often wisely moved to Hong Kong.

In the HKIFF book, “Cinema of Two Cities: Hong Kong – Shanghai” there is a fascinating article on the Shanghai film industry during this period. Though the Japanese (with one intriguing exception) tried to force the film industry to focus on films with a pro-Japanese view, for the most part the films made were basic genre entertainment films. One Japanese critic disdainfully wrote “70-80% of the films were about triangular love and family affairs” – Red Chamber fitting this description fairly well. The director Bu Wancang did not fare quite as well. He had been a very popular director for years. One of his hits was Mulan Joins the Army in 1939 starring Nancy Chan. It was a patriotic film about repelling foreign invaders but it was made in the foreign concessions of Shanghai – films that were termed “Orphan Island” films. But once the Japanese took over those areas in 1941, Bu made two propaganda films for the Japanese and after the war his career never got back on track because of the dark cloud he was under. Interestingly, the Japanese attempted to do the same thing once they occupied Hong Kong but everyone refused to co-operate and no films were made.

Street Angel
Director: Yuan Muzhi

Street Angel was a real hook to the cranium from right field as I wasn’t prepared for what an amazing film this is. Not so much for the story which likely falls very neatly into the leftist social realism films of the period, but for the marvelously inventive technique and cinematic eye of the director Yuan Muzhi. This is particularly impressive in that he was only 28 years old at the time and that Street Angel was only his second film – the first by the way sounding more than a little compelling – a dark urban musical called Cityscape (1935). Yuan came from a theatrical background as an actor and this clearly influences his use of the actors in this film. Cinematic influences pile up as well – primarily from the silent era – from the Russian directors to the German expressionists to the sly comedy of Chaplin are all mashed together in this visually delicious potluck. It almost seems as if Yuan is making a silent film with sound – many scenes play out in wordless pantomime and the strongest moments are those of dramatic gestures or stark expressions caught in the amber of the lens. He neatly uses sliding frames sometimes to transition from one scene to another or in one wonderful instance the camera zooms up the opening of a trombone to come out in another location. After the Japanese invaded, Yuan left for Yanan where he joined the Communist Party and after the Civil War, he became quite a big honcho in the film bureaucracy in China. I am not sure if he directed any other films before he died in 1978.

The film begins in a chaotic montage of neon signs, street scenes and nightclub carousing until it settles first on a tall grandiose building only to slowly pan down to the slums of Shanghai where a festive wedding parade is making its way through a narrow crowded street with a marching band leading the way. One of the trumpet players is Chen (Zhao Dan) who is having trouble with the water in his instrument and having his friend Wang (Wei Heling) accidentally stepping on his feet. The shots careen around some more in a montage of onlookers sticking their faces out of windows and doors until the camera settles on a young woman waving to Chen. This is Xiao Hong (Zhou Xuan) who soon has to quickly rejoin her accompanist Wen inside a tea house where she is a singsong girl looking for customer requests. She is clearly not thrilled to be doing this or being with Wen as she plays constantly with her hair and seems totally uninterested in her song. Nevertheless, the songs became giant hits and Zhou Xuan was on her way to being a legend. The lyrics of the songs are shown on screen and were apparently done karaoke style back then so that the audience could sing along and we can happily watch the bouncing ball!

Whether it is not clear from the subtitles on the DVD or whether scenes are missing I can’t say, but from reading other sources it seems that Xiao Hong and her older sister Xiao Yun (Zhao Huishen) have escaped from the Japanese in Manchuria and have settled in Shanghai – but in a circumstance where they are clearly very subservient to a married couple who put them up. This couple makes Hong sing and makes Yun do even worse – she is a street walker always in the dark and on guard from police arrest. How this all came to be I am not sure. Yun’s profession has made her extremely bitter and something of a pariah to her neighbors – but Hong still loves her deeply and Yun is very protective of her little sister.

Gu, a gangster, shows an interest in Hong and her “guardians” set out to sell her to him. Chen though takes her away to another part of town along with his friend Wang and they try and plan their future. Yun later joins them as well and Wang begins to fall for her, but Gu and Wen track them down and tragedy occurs in a strangely abrupt and somewhat inconclusive ending. The final shot is another pan of the statuesque building where the film began as if to say the little lives down below on the street just don't matter.

The story is not really clichéd but certainly basic, but everything else makes it the classic it is considered to be. Yuan keeps the film from being too oppressively dark with numerous comic scenes and moments of bonhomie between friends – but clearly his leftist politics are showing. The use of lighting and shadows and the acting is very silent film stylized with broad expressions and dark eye shadow, but very effective – Zhou Xuan is utterly beguiling as the innocent impudent singsong girl with multiple impish expressions crossing her face faster than cars on a freeway, Zhao Huishen as the older sister plays the role almost as a wilting melancholy flower and some of the static shots of her are decimating, Zhao Dan is by turns comic and moving. Zhao Dan had quite the interesting life – during the war he was arrested by a warlord and kept in prison for a number of years, after being released he returned to Shanghai and stayed on in China after the Civil War. He became a well-regarded actor through the 1950’s in some important roles but he was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and jailed for five years. He died in 1980.

Here are three songs from Zhou Xuan.

Wow, some good news for me. Yesterday I received $40 for Jury Duty! That’s my first paycheck in four years! How many DVDs will that buy I wonder?

And I just have to throw in how pleasant it was seeing Obama take the Republicans to school the other day and give them a spanking that should make them sore for weeks. What a bunch of pasty robots in that room with the personality of a lead pipe. I love the way they whined about all the great plans they had to solve everything that no one was paying attention to. Obama had to be polite of course to some degree but I kept hoping he would say – well you guys were in power for 8 years – where were those great plans then? As Ralph Kramden would go "Hummmana Hummmana Hummmana".

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Paper Panties and Other Tales of Depravity

I will get to the paper panties later. First a quick announcement. I think I will have to take down some of the songs I have put up. I always figured that as long as they were not downloadable, no one would really care and maybe no one will. Or more likely no one will notice. But I read on another Blog (with a different Blog hoster) that several sites that did similar things were shut down without even giving the Blogger a chance to remedy the situation. Everything gone. I don’t think I have to worry about the older music but I think this weekend I will delete the music from Milkyway and the music from the Blue Hearts and Linda Linda Linda. So if you want to listen to that stuff one last time, do it soon.

Hey, how come no one told me that Patrick Galloway had a Blog going? He wrote a couple books on Asian cinema that I have read – Asia Shock and Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves – and quite enjoyed. He seems to update it regularly as well and not just use it as a marketing tool. I’ll add it to my Blog Links. Am also going to add, The Chinese Mirror, which I guess has been around for quite a while but I just never noticed it. There is a ton on early Chinese cinema and I think it is really exciting seeing Blogs like this one and Durian Dave’s that focus on the old films and old actors. A few years ago there was nothing around about this stuff. I hope there is much more in the future. If there is anything else out there I should add let me know – I just don’t focus sometimes.

Talking about music that I probably should not put up, as soon as I saw this still from a 1956 film titled Sunrise I thought of In the Mood for Love for some reason and thought about the music that plays as Maggie walks towards the room where they are playing mahjong and smoke is swirling in the air.

Today I went to Lexington and 28th street where there is a block of Indian stores and restaurants. Had Indian buffet and afterwards could barely walk across the street to the DVD store where I actually picked up some new Bollywood movies. I haven’t watched much new from India for the past year or two – focusing more on older films from the 60’s and 70’s. And I haven’t blogged at all about those recently – mainly because the ones I have chosen primarily by the cover have been dull affairs and not worth the effort. Like Baazi from 1968. Dharmendra plays a cop righting wrongs, the damsel in distress is Waheeda Rehman and Helen twinkles her toes – it sounded great but is an enormous bore and just plain stupid. The only interesting factor – and a doubtful one really – was that it was my first brush with the legendary comic Johny Walker who appeared in about 100,000 films during his very long career. He was discovered while driving a bus and chatting humorously with the customers. A producer thought he was funny, introduced him to the director Guru Dutt who had Walker test as a drunk – he did it so well that Dutt nicknamed him Johny Walker. I mean this guy is famous like Chaplin is famous over here, but if this was an example of his comedy I don’t get it. Clearly, comedy travels less well than any other film genre but this made me wonder if I was still on planet earth.

But buying these DVDs today got me thinking about all the lists I have come across of late – greatest movies and so forth. I know I could never list my top 100 films but if I tried the one Indian film that immediately popped into my head was Guide from 1965. Simply an amazingly thought provoking film with some stunning musical sequences. It too stars Waheeda. Her snake dance is lovely. I wish this clip was better quality.

Here by the way is a picture of snake charmers that used to come into our back yard in either India or Pakistan way back when to entertain the kids.

On the other hand my guess is that the film, Khawb-e-Hasti from 1934 would probably not make my Top 100 but I wanted to put the picture up anyway.

Last week I made another plunge into the Brooklyn Library’s video films and came out with these. Some comments.

Why does your husband call you Lambchop?" "Because sometimes I wear paper panties." I am not sure I even get that but it is one of a barrage of leering, smirking jokes in one of the most peculiar films I have come across in a good while. On its surface one might expect that this 1964 Billy Wilder film would be your conventional romantic comedy with perhaps a little more buzz than you would get from say a spunky Doris Day “I really just want a husband” film that people were used to back then. Most of these early 60’s romantic comedies were as dangerous and taboo as a day game at Wrigley Field – in the end all the conventions were met head on and marriage was in the wings waiting. But Kiss Me, Stupid starring Kim Novak, Dean Martin and Ray Walston is a salacious pizza in the face of everything tasteful and expected. Wilder was taking a crazy swing at Hollywood’s morality code with this insidious and subversive look at  marriage and sexuality. Back in 1964 large studios just didn’t take chances like this, but either Wilder’s reputation got it through or someone forgot to read the script. I can see almost see Takashi Miike doing a remake of this but with a lot more bodily secretion. But Wilder misjudged his market badly – first the Catholic Decency League did one of their massive protests against the film basically saying anyone who saw it would end up in Hell and then the critics savaged it like a bloated piñata and finally no one showed up to see it. But seeing it today, it is a gas – a really weird totally amoral one because you can’t help watching it through the time prism of 1964 and thinking what the hell were they thinking.

Dean Martin plays a Vegas crooner and actor who likes the dames a lot but a conveyor belt of cocktails even more – and the character’s name is Dean and he is part of the Rat Pack – so basically Martin is playing a rancid parody of himself and doesn’t seem at all embarrassed by it. He has to drive to Hollywood for an appearance on a TV show. He makes the mistake of stopping off in a small town called Climax (get it) where two frustrated song writers (Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond) sabotage his car so that they can get a chance to sing their songs to Dean. But they know Dean likes women and Walston worries that he will go for his very pretty wife (Felicia Farr – who was married to Jack Lemmon, who Wilder really wanted to play Walston’s part but he was busy). Walston picks a fight with his wife – on their wedding anniversary – so that she will go stay at her mothers and in her place he brings in a waitress/part time hooker from a nearby dive – this being Kim Novak who will do anything you want for the whole night for $25. $25. Talk about inflation. So he tries to pawn off his made-up-wife on Martin to have sex with in a really really creepy way – meanwhile his wife comes back and thinks he is fooling around and so sets out to have her own fun. And she does. With Dean. And Walston ends up in bed with Novak. And everyone is better off for it. No nodding to the Hollywood code back then that you have to be punished in some way for infidelity. And smutty innuendoes throughout. I think my mouth was agape much of the film. Interestingly, after Lemmon turned down the role Wilder brought in Peter Sellers to play it and he did until he had a heart attack. Some say it was just an excuse to get off the set because he was going crazy with the script.

Elizabeth Taylor sure was a knockout back in 1952 when Love is Better than Ever was released. I know her basically from her 60’s films – Cleopatra, Taming of the Shrew, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – when she was on her forth or fifth husband, had become more Rubenesque in her form and had become something of a celebrity caricature – but back in 1952 she was exquisite. Just perfect. This film was directed by Stanley Donen in between Royal Wedding and Singin' in the Rain, but this one doesn’t approach either of those classics on any level. It is kind of a frivolous romance about a tough New York agent who is only committed to good times finding himself falling in love with an innocent Connecticut dance teacher of little urchins. It plays out pretty much as one expects – older man gets young hottie. Off the set some not so nice things were happening to the leading man, Larry Parks. He had been called up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and forced to admit that he had once been part of a communist cell. And he gave names. He was ratted out in turn by none other than Lloyd Bridges. Bridges of course went on to Sea Hunt fame and to spawn Jeff and Beau – Parks basically never worked again except for a little bit in television.

I had to do it one of these days. Not because I really wanted to but because these films are a part of film history and in their time they were enormously popular. I am speaking of course about the teaming up of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in seven musicals during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. This style of musical – her rich operatic soprano and Eddy’s rich formal baritone – has been parodied hundreds of time – in particular the film (Rose-Marie) in which Eddy plays a Canadian Mountie and they sing to each other in the wilderness. Before this, MacDonald had appeared in two Lubitsch musicals – Love Parade and The Merry Widow – that were huge hits as well. So I co-incidentally picked their first film – Naughty Marietta (1935) – in which Jeanette plays a French princess before the guillotine started doing away with aristocratic heads and she is so loved by the peasants that they cheer her and join her in song. But her evil uncle wants to marry her off to some old obese Spanish lord and so she skips off in disguise as a commoner to New Orleans – which the French hadn’t sold yet. There she meets a rugged mercenary and sparks fly, songs are sung and of course eventually love comes. In the meantime though, Louis the XIV has sent his army after her because he too wants a little bit of fun with her. Actually this wasn’t so bad after all – no true Gitmo material here – rather corny fun. Don’t sue me if you play this and it damages your eardrums! Sweet Mystery of Life.

A few posts back I mentioned the magazine article listing what they thought were the Top 100 Spy films and I was able to cross one off the list that I had never seen – The Mask of Dimitrios starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Both of these actors almost always played character roles – Lorre the small sweating “don’t turn your back on him” dangerous man while Greenstreet was the larger than life snake charmer. Both were together most famously in the 1941 Maltese Falcon trying their best to stab Bogart in the back. Here though they are in the lead roles. A body washes up on the shores of the Bosphorus and is identified by the police as Dimitrios – a swindler, a blackmailer, a killer, a smuggler and everything bad. Lorre is a Dutch writer of detective novels and he gets it into his head to track down the details of Dimitrios‘s life which takes him all over eastern Europe and finally to Paris. He meets the mysterious Greenstreet along the way who also wants to find out how Dimitrios died. Shadows and odd camera angles abound in this nifty noir that seems part Maltese Falcon and part The Third Man. Initially, I had assumed that it was very influenced by the style and story of The Third Man until I noted the date it was made – 1944 – and realized that it came out five years prior to that film.

And just a quick mention of three other musicals I watched. Flirtation Walk has the two big co-stars of many of those Busby Berkely films – 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 - Dick Powell and the big sweet eyed Ruby Keeler – and I was expecting a lot of fun musical bits. But this film is a bust with some fairly lame musical numbers and a lamer dramatic narrative. By the way, if there are any noir hounds reading this – watch Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944) – one of the best ever and his Marlowe is one of the best as well. But if Flirtation Walk was a disappointment that was nothing compared to Yolanda and the Thief (1945) starring Fred Astaire and directed by Vincent Minnelli. When you talk about the history of Hollywood musicals, these two names are at the top of the list – so how could this film be such a celluloid abomination. Well first you create an absurd story about a rich young woman just out of the convent believing that a conman (Fred) was her guardian angel – then you basically don’t let Astaire dance much – and when you do they are in these gaudy god awful pretentious big numbers that put me to sleep. And of course once again the old guy gets the young hottie. Ain't life wonderful. Ay, just awful. I still love Astaire though and always will. The trailer for a film that is “the most spectacular ever conceived”!

Thankfully I left what turned out to be the best of these three musicals for last – I Love Melvin – just a simple New York City tale with lots of location shooting (especially Central Park) that starred two of the three legs from Singin’ in the Rain – Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. There is nothing fancy here – just a plain old love story that is mild and sweet – but Reynolds is adorably cute and O’Connor sure can dance. He never really made it to leading man status because of his average looks but few people could dance (or skate) better in Hollywood in the 50’s. This came out right after Singin’ in 1953. One early number in which Debbie – who plays a dancer on Broadway – is a football being tossed, carried and kicked around is pretty amazing. It appears that the film is available from the Warner Archives. Here is a much too long trailer.

Finally, just a picture my father took somewhere in India back in the late 1950’s. Note the film poster way in the back.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Is Hujan Panas the Greatest Movie Ever Made?

Probably not, but I sure want to see it and find out for myself! It's been a rainy day here and so I have been bored. So I went wandering on the Internet - looking for music by Helen Li Mei on CD with no success - and that accidentally led me to three Youtube videos of this Shaw Brothers Malaysian film from 1953. As most of you probably know, the Shaw Brothers had a film operation going in Singapore/Malaysia before they did in Hong Kong. They owned a large chain of theaters and produced films for the local Malays and imported Chinese films for the Chinese population. This whole world of Shaw films is extremely unknown to most of us, but apparently some of them must be playing on Malaysian television or put out on VCD there because there are various clips on YouTube of some of them.

Initially, most of the directors were of Indian descent. One of the most important ones was B.N. Rao who began working for the Shaws in 1953 (the film company was called Malay Film Productions) and made Hujan Panas in that same year. Rao was also the first director to make a horror Pontianak film. What also makes this film interesting is the song writer, choreographer and performer, P. Ramlee. Ramlee wrote hundreds of songs for the screen but he also became the first successful Malay director, beginning in 1955 until his early death in 1973 at the age of 44.

Here are three musical videos I found of the film - the first is a wonderful attempt at a girl's high school Busby Berkely stage number, then a lovely nightclub performance from one of Malaysia's legendary singers Siput Sarawak and then finally Ramlee himself doing a funny little song that I can't get out of my head.

All this info is from the excellent book, Singapore Cinema by Raphael Millet.

Ah, so many movies to see! Now on with the show.

Las Vegas

For the past few months I have been in a total retro mood - old movies, old music, old mystery novels, old pictures. I think I know why I have sunk into this deep pool of nostalgia to explore the past but I won't get into that. Just a sense of time passing too quickly. Steve was nice enough to send me the link to this Blog of historic photos and I have enjoyed looking at them. And it made me think of some photos my grandfather took back in 1962 on a trip to Las Vegas. Kind of interesting to see just how much it has changed since then. I just wish we had the same cars now though! I never was very close to my grandfather - partly because my family lived overseas for most of my first 17 years but also because he was a tough old bird who didn't have a lot of kind words for anyone. But he was a fanatic Boston Red Sox fan and I recall during home leaves listening to the games on the radio with him on hot summer days on the porch looking out on the backyard and sipping lemonade. My grandmother though was an angel. Not a cross word crossed her lips in her 89 years. For no particular reason, here are the photos I found of his trip to Vegas. I wish I had known them better.

Cathay Remembrances

I was cleaning up my kitchen cabinets the other day and came across a PR package that Cathay had been shopping around the film markets a few years ago. At that time they still had some mild hopes that they could get the same buzz for their films that the Shaw Brothers were getting for theirs. Not a chance of course. No foreign distributors were interested in old Hong Kong dramas, musicals and comedies which is what 90% of Cathay's catalogue of films are. Not too long after that film market, they ceased even releasing any more films to DVD. I guess there wasn't even much of a market among the Chinese for these old films.

From 1956 till they stopped production in the early 1970's, Cathay produced over 250 films. Initially, Cathay claimed that they would release 150 of these onto DVD, but in the end only around 45 films made it to that medium. To people who love film and in particular love Hong Kong film it was a real shame because in many ways Cathay was the crown jewel of Hong Kong film studios for about a decade until their main competitor the Shaw Brothers (both primarily Mandarin language studios) overtook them with their martial arts films. Cathay wasn't able to adjust to the audience's changing taste and so slowly became irrelevant. But for a few years they had some of the best directors, best composers and best scriptwriters in the business - and in my opinion an astonishing array of charismatic and talented actresses that the Shaw Brothers never equalled. From today's perspective, the Cathay films may feel very old-fashioned and at times a bit hokey, but they still have a sentimental heartfelt elegance, charm and verve about them that I really take to.

Inside this PR package were 11 by 8 photos of ten films. Here they are along with song and video.

For reasons that absolutely mystify me, when I embed individual links for the song, it always defaults to the final song on the post. So every link plays the exact same song. That makes no sense to me but I can't fix it. So I have grouped all the songs together at the bottom of the page.

Mambo Girl (1957) - this is the film that made Grace Chang a star. It is probably the best musical to come out of Hong Kong and also includes a nightclub performance from Mona Fong. It co-stars Peter Chen who seemingly made a habit of showing up in nearly every musical of Cathay's and later the Shaw Brothers - and as the young sister there is Kitty Ting Hao, who later had a rather tragic life. It is a marvelous film that made me understand why Grace Chang was a legend and so beloved.

Here is the famous opening sequence from Mambo Girl that introduced Grace to the world.

Her Tender Heart (1959) - another Cathay classic melodrama about family relationships starring Lucilla You Min. She won a Best Actress Award for this film.Wang Lai (also pictured) was to continue in films until 1992.

I don't think Lucilla was considered a singer, but here she is. This is contained in the Pathe 100 set of CDs.

Song at the bottom of the page.

Escort Over Tiger Hills (1969) - Cathay made an attempt to jump on the martial arts bandwagon that the Shaw Brothers had mastered but generally with little success as they simply didn't have the action choreographers or physical actors who could do it. This is suppose to be the best of their films in this genre (I have not seen it) and starred Roy Chiao who had been in numerous Cathay dramas and comedies since the late 1950's. After leaving Cathay, he appeared in some of his most famous films - The Arch and three films with King Hu, A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones. His final film was in 1999.

Cinderella and Her Little Angels (1959) - a very congenial romantic comedy starring Peter Chen and the legendary Linda Lin Dai. Lin Dai had become a star in her debut in 1953, Singing Under the Moon, for the film company Yung Hwa. Over the years she starred at both Cathay and Shaw until her suicide in 1964.

The same goes for Lin Dai - not a singer as far as I know and this duet sort of proves that. This must be from a film but I am not sure which one. This is also part of the Pathe 100.

Song at the bottom of the page.

The Greatest Civil War on Earth (1961) - this very amusing comedy tackled an issue that had become a part of Hong Kong's social fabric in the 50's and early 60's - the huge influx of population into Hong Kong from the Mainland after first the Japanese occupation and then later after the Civil War. The locals spoke Cantonese and the Mainlanders spoke Mandarin (thus leading to two separate film industries) and this as well as other cultural differences were at times points of real life conflict. This film plays with this idea and in the end concludes that no matter what, we are all Chinese. Starring two of Cathay's best characters actors as the fueding fathers (Liu Er Jia and Leung Sing Po), it also has Kitty Ting Hao and Christine Bai (the major female star of Cathay's Cantonese division) as the daughters.

Air Hostess (1958) - with its deep hued Sirkian colors and cheerful songs, this is one of the most delightful commercials for air travel ever made as the viewer follows the loves and lives of Air Hostess's serving coffee and tea in the Asian skies. In the late 1950's Hong Kong was rapidly changing from a sleepy British trading port to a major modern city and a number of Cathay films proudly showed this social and material progress. The picture below seems an odd choice as it focuses on two of Cathay's lesser stars - Kelly Lai (who popped up years later in In The Mood for Love) and Dolly Soo Fung rather than the two big stars in the film, Grace Chang and Julie Yeh Feng. Kelly Lai was an archetypal Cathay leading man - urbane and diffident - with Peter Chen, Chang Yang, Cheung Ching and Tien Ching all falling into this same pattern. This played fine as long as Cathay stuck with its contemporary settings and the genres they specialized in - and as long as the women were the focus of these films with the males basically being foils - but when it came time for Cathay to try to catch up with the Shaw Brothers in action films, they found their cupboard bare of leading men who could do that sort of film.

Grace manages to find a song to sing in just about every country - forget where this one was - Bangkok perhaps?

Our Sister Hedy (1957) - another terrific sentimental film about family and the changing attitudes of Hong Kong as exemplified by the differences of the four daughters - from the traditional to the freewheeling. The film was a breakout for both Julie Yeh Feng and Jeanette Lin Cui. Peter Chen, Kelly Lai, Chao Lei and Tien Ching are all on hand as the boyfriends who are basically background material to the female actresses.

Julie did release some music but often her singing voice was dubbed in films - which annoyed her greatly. There is an entire CD from Pathe of her songs. This is from the film It's Always Spring.


In the film It's Always Spring, Julie and another sexy Cathay actress, Helen Li Mei are competing singers - but though the studio had Julie sing her own songs Helen was dubbed by another singer. She may not be a great singer but she did release some music and this song - from the Pathe 100 - is pretty nifty.


Wife of a Romantic Scholar (1967) - though Cathay is known primarily for their contemporary - often middle class - settings, they produced a number of period costume films - but only a couple made it on to DVD. This one stars Jeanette Lin Cui, Annette Chang and Chao Lei, who seems to have bounced back and forth between Cathay and Shaw. Jeanette was to make her last film for Cathay the following year and soon retired after that upon marriage.

And yes, the Pathe 100 also includes a song from Jeanette who as far as I know didn't have much of a singing career. This may be from a film, but I am not sure.


Wild Wild Rose (1960) - Grace Chang had always been the good girl, the good wife, the good person in her Cathay films so she jumped at the opportunity to take on a very different kind of role - perhaps the best in her career as a sultry nightclub singer who rips your heart out (a version of Carmen with some of the music as well). She attacks the role with a voracious sensuality that shocked her fans at the time, but the film is now considered one of the 100 Greatest Chinese Films.

Here is Grace doing her best Carmen.

Sun, Moon and Stars (1961) - this was one of the few Cathay attempts at an epic big budget movie - told over two films - it is the story of three women and their involvement in the Sino-Japanese war. The three are Grace Chang, Lucilla Yu Min and Julie Yeh Feng.

At one point in the film the character played by Grace entertains the troops with this stirring song. Ditto.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lets Go French!

Pourquoi? Well, why not. A change of pace is good for me every now and then and I'll tie it in somewhat gingerly to Hong Kong film. I try not to be one of those American's who like to snigger about the French every time they disagree with the USA on something because there are lots of things I love about the French - Paris is the greatest city in the world to walk around in, their movies can be very cool New Wave or post New Wave, I could eat profiteroles all day and all night, a female French accent gets me every time, they almost make smoking look like something I should be doing, Inspector Maigret, cafe's where you can sit for ages without a waiter giving you the evil eye, Godard for saying "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." and French pop music from the 1960's.

Two female singers from that period in particular are my favorites. One is the amazing Francoise Hardy who began singing in the early 60's with a melodic pop/folk style that is very mellow and very catchy. I've been addicted to her music for years now and have almost everything she has done. When she first hit the scene she was nicknamed the "Yeh Yeh Girl" for her jaunty pop energy in songs like "Oh Oh Cherie", but her style quickly matured and so did she. She recorded regularly into the 1970's and from then on till the present day on a much more intermittent basis. There are a number of YouTube videos of her, but here is one of my favorite songs of her's, Une fille comme tant d'autres.

My other favorite French singer? None other than Brigitte Bardot. If I was forced to chose who was the sexist woman in the world, I think Brigitte circa 1960 would be it. I am not sure if the term "sex kitten" was created for her but it should have been. Her sex appeal is atomic. Many of her early films were straight out fun romantic comedies with a large dose of Bardot sizzle. I came across a video of one of these films in the Brooklyn Library the other day and took a look at it. It is Une Parisenne from 1957 and it doesn't seem to be available on DVD. She co-stars with Charles Boyer and Henri Vidal in a totally infectious and charming silly comedy about newly weds sorting out their concept of fidelity the French way. But Bardot was a good singer as well - not great but she chose her material well for her voice and released quite a bit of music in the 60's. Her most famous song is probably one in which she duets with Serge Gainsbourg called Bonnie and Clyde (later covered by Luna). One DVD I would highly recommend to anyone who is a fan is a compilation of some of her TV appearances called Divine BB and this YouTube video is one of those songs. She is so cute in this.

So let's bring in the very faint Hong Kong connection to French music. I have yet to see it but in one of Johnny To's latest films, Vengeance, he casts one of France's most famous singers, Johnny Hallyday, who has been around forever. I actually realized that I have one of his CD's - so though I doubt it, but just in case anyone was curious about what he sounded like, here for your listening pleasure are two songs of his.

I am not sure if the use of a French actor is in some small way To paying homage to the great French director that he admires so much and that perhaps influenced if not his style perhaps his fascination for crime films, Jean-Pierre Melville. I am slowly going through Melville's all too small filmography - Le Samourai (which of course influenced John Woo as well), Le Doulos, Le Cercle Rouge (Woo is a big fan of this one as well) and the absolutely brilliant Bob Le Flambeur. Last week I caught up with Un Flic (1972), a nifty very compact crime thriller shorn of any fancy adornments. Four guys rob a bank (two of them being American actors Richard Crenna and Michael Conrad, of Hill Street Blues fame). One of the gang gets wounded and their plans slowly begin to unravel with the sleek handsome cop Alain Delon tracking them down. Catherine Deneuve is the femme fatale - attracted to both Crenna and Delon and vice versa. Action films have changed so much since then - Melville has quick shootouts and quick deaths - no bullet ballet stuff going on. At one point Crenna robs a parcel of drugs by boarding a speeding train from a helicoptor - probably pretty fancy stuff back then but you can imagine what a director would do today to pizzazz it up 1000% with special effects. This was Melville's last film as he died the following year at 56 years old.

And just for the heck of it, one more YouTube video of Brigitte singing and showing her famous cleavage!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Anita Yuen - Photos and Two Film Reviews

The other night I was cleaning up the links on my website (Hong Kong Cinema – View from the Brooklyn Bridge) as I try to do from time to time. In most of these past clean-ups one or two links may have gone dead, but this time around there was a whole passel of them. It always makes me sad when a web site goes silent – to some eerie graveyard in the Internet Beyond where they cry on each other’s shoulders and ask what did I do wrong? I thought I’d live forever. For many of these sites there was someone who had poured their heart and time into them and I always wonder what happened – too busy with life, disenchantment with Hong Kong film, sudden death, mental breakdown, a jail sentence or simply a sense that no one really cared about their site. I don’t even check on my traffic stats because I don’t want to know how few people visit this Blog. I can’t handle the truth! One of the really big ones to vanish is Kung Fu Cult Cinema which had been around for years and was a terrific site. Where did it go? New ones of course spring to life – usually in Blog form these days – that are great reads – the cycle of life. Someday in the probably not too distant future, it is my guess that upon birth everyone will receive an email address for life and a Blog/Facebook page to detail their exciting lives.

Today five old Egyptian films on DVD showed up. Just what I needed, more films to watch! But I am curious to see if the Golden Age of Egyptian film was really so golden.

Everyone loves spy films don’t they? If so, there is a magazine from the editors of American History at newsstands that lists their 100 favorite spy films. As one would expect there is plenty of Bond, John Le Carre, Harry Palmer and Hitchcock on the list but there were a load of films that I wasn’t familiar with at all and will over time have to track down. Each film gets a one page write-up but for my taste there were way too many spoilers – but I guess that is the difference between writing for a history magazine rather than for a film magazine. In history there are no spoilers. Oh, I can’t tell you who won the Civil War because that would spoil it for you! Not surprisingly there were not many films mentioned from Asia - the only one being Lust, Caution coming in at number 38. How could they have ignored Angel with the Iron Fists from Hong Kong or The Great Gambler from Bollywood!

Here are the Top Ten:

The Third Man
North By Northwest
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Goldfinger (my favorite Bond film)
Our Man in Havana
The Manchurian Candidate
Smiley’s People
Pickup on South Street
The Lives of Others

Now on to Anita.

Beginning in 1993 Anita Yuen ruled the Hong Kong film universe for about three years before her flame began to dim among allegations of exhibiting strange behavior on the sets and before the Hong Kong audience moved on to other actresses as audiences tend to do in our ADS society. Everybody wanted a piece of her for a while though – she was Hong Kong’s “It Girl”, the winner of the 1990 HK Beauty Pageant and everybody’s sweetheart with her patented short hair style, easy toothy grin and unbounded pixie like energy. She could make you cry and she could make you laugh with just an expression or a tear in her eye. She was to some degree representative of the Hong Kong women of the 1990’s or at least how they wished they were – spunky, smart, sympathetic, stylish and self-reliant and all of her best roles were set in contemporary times in which these traits could be displayed.

Almost from her entry into the film industry, she was able to get into high profile films (quickly becoming a favorite of the UFO film production company) – first in 1992 with Days of Being Dumb and Handsome Siblings. But it was in 1993 when she broke through as a star with He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father and especially in Ces’t La Vie Mon Cherie where she reduced audiences into slobbering quivering masses of jelly. This was also her first teaming up with Lau Ching-wan and the two actors would go on to co-star in a number of films over the next couple of years. In 1994 Anita appeared in 13 films, 9 films in 1995 and 6 films in 1996 as her production numbers began a sharp decline. Compare this with her output in all of the 2000’s - 8 films thus far as she has shifted her work load to television.

Some of her other classic films are From Beijing with Love (1994), He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994), The Chinese Feast (1995) and Hu-Du-Men (1996), but there are many others of all kinds that she appeared in. Such as the enjoyable action films, A Taste of Killing and Romance (1994), Crystal Fortune Run and Thunderbolt (1995) or comedies like He & She (1994), Tricky Business (1995) and God of Gamblers 3 (1996) – and dramas like Crossings (1994), Golden Girls (1995), Tragic Commitment (1995) and The Age of Miracles (1996). She was really quite the phenomenon and I can’t think of any actress since who captured the affection and attention of a city like she did if only for a few brief years. Maybe The Twins but of course there were two of them.

Here are a bunch of pictures of Anita – 1,  2,  3

And two reviews of films that were among her more obscure ones in 1994. Probably for good reason!

Tears and Triumph
Director: David Lam (Girls Without Tomorrow, Gigolo and Whore 1 & 2)
Year: 1994

Not long after the box office success of Ces’t La Vie Mon Cherie, Anita Yuen and Lau Ching-wan were paired up again in this film but without quite the artistic or financial success. This is a very talky family drama that never allows itself to soar emotionally and keeps its narrative to a slow dense crawl. It is a poorly written script that may have worked better on a Hong Kong soap opera than on the big screen. What makes one stay with it though is simply the easy going chemistry between the leads and the fresh faced loveliness of Anita with more delectable close-ups than Big Mac servings at your local McD’s.

Ming Jun (Anita) is a single (pre-marital as the subtitles put it) mom who has managed to work her way up through the corporate structure to being a division head with the respect of everyone. In flashbacks we see that her old boyfriend Se-cheng (Frankie Lam) did a runner as soon as he found out she was pregnant because he feared this would tie him down and hurt his career. Then one day her boss (Wai Gei-shun) gathers everyone together and tells them that the company has been sold to the wealthy Xie family and that they will all have two new directors, the son and the son-in-law of the family. Ming Jun is soon introduced to the son-in-law and she is shocked (though the audience less so as this film turns into co-incidence central) to see her old boyfriend who managed to marry into the Xie family and has his sights on running it one day. He is your basic scumbag – first he tries to talk Anita into becoming his mistress with a house way out in Stanley and then sets her up for a fall within the company by planting evidence of criminal wrongdoing on her.

In the meantime though the son Shi-wen (Lau Ching-wan) shows up and takes about a nanosecond to fall in love with Ming Jun. Who can blame him really? And nothing deters him from her – not the kid, not the charges, not finding out who the father is, not the family’s disapproval – nothing – because he is a boy in love. The family though is a snake pit as it turns out - Shi-wen’s mother is a second wife (Hui Fan) and the first wife (the legendary Pak Yan) wants the control of the company to go to her daughter (Tamara Guo) who is married to the scumbag. The talk comes faster than bullets in a John Woo film and I was having a hard time keeping up with all the backstabbing – but throughout Anita shined like a firefly on parade. Others appearing here are Cutie Mui Siu-wai as Anita’s buddy, Donna Chu as the doctor and co-incidentally Shi-wen’s sister and Chung King-fai as his father.

I was surprised to see that Shi-wen's house had an entry very much like mine.

My rating for this film: 5.5

When Anita and Lau Ching-wan first kiss in dramatic elevator fashion, the music playing in the background is this terrific song from Faye Wong.

The Wrath of Silence
Director: Frankie Chan (Burning Ambition, Outlaw Brothers, Fun and Fury)

The one thing about Frankie Chan films is that he likes to keep things moving and he does that at light speed in this totally nutty totally illogical psycho serial killer crime tale. I think Chan’s theory of film making is that if the movie never slows down the audience can’t catch it and thus realize they have a rat instead of a fox in their hands. But taking that into account, this fruitcake of a film has some scenes of pure adrenaline pleasure. It also has some pedigree. Frankie Chan was perhaps best known as a martial arts actor (Prodigal Son), also as a composer (Ashes of Time and a ton of others) and then as a director of mainly B action films. He brings along his co-composer of Ashes and Chungking Express Roel Garcia to write the music for this one. Doing the action choreography is Mars of the Jackie Chan School. And then in the cast he has Anita Yuen, Takashi Kaneshiro , Ha Ping and Maggie Siu. Not bad at all. Even Jackie Chan makes a cameo of sorts in a Bo Bo Tea commercial. Of course on the other hand Emily Kwan is doing her horny suspect beating cop bit – generally a solid hint that the film leans to the trashy side.

Anita Yuen plays Mei, a beautician to the dead, who is clearly on the edge of cracking up as she sews up their injuries by candlelight and converses with them because they can’t gossip. She is following in the footsteps of her dead mother in this career choice, but it has made her a social pariah as no one wants to be close to someone who touches the dead for a living. At home, life isn’t much better, her younger sister (Helen Au) is mentally challenged and as irritating as any actress could make her, but Mei feels very protective of her and had promised their mother to take care of her. Mei has turned their apartment into this bizarre convoluted maze of moving walls and hidden closet doors in order to sometimes keep her sister under control – and it turns out to be very handy later on. She is seeing a psychiatrist – Patrick Ko (Takeshi) – who uses close dancing as therapy and analyzes how Mei reacts to his pelvic thrusts – not a therapy I am familiar with. He also keeps a sharp knife out within the grasp of his patients – not probably recommended either.

A horrific serial killer is on the loose in Hong Kong. Pal (Tan Lap-man) likes to take them to rooftops, beat them up, rape them, kill them and throw money at them for servicing him. He also keeps cockroaches in his pocket and lizards and tarantulas at home. Hopefully, none of you are dating someone like this. Yes, your typical bug-eyed maniacal grinning Hong Kong psycho. His next victim is Mei’s sister and though the audience is sort of glad she is gone, this is the final crack in Mei’s psyche and she goes into killer mode. The problem is that Patrick was on the scene and tried to stop the killer to no avail but everyone thinks he is the serial killer. Mei isn’t about to wait for the cops and tries killing him with everything in sight – knife, poison, axe and to top it off she happens to be carrying a cross-bow. Eventually though the truth is revealed to her and she teams up with Patrick’s lawyer cousin (Maggie) to take on this demented force and the final fifteen minutes is a frantic cat and mouse whirlwind of swirling walls, twirling blades, near escapes and total ferocity. It is a great finale and Anita looks surprisingly nice in loco mode.

My rating for this film: 6.5