Monday, January 25, 2010

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.


YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

I recently watched "It's Always Spring" and was surprised to find that you rate it less than me. I wonder... if you were to watch that movie again, whether you'd like it more?

Re "Sun, Moon and Star": the first time I tried to watch it was with my mom who found the beginning few minutes too slow going and asked me to stop the film! Some years later, I watched it on my own and reckon that epic saga compares very favorably against the Shaw Brothers' rival "The Blue and the Black".

Brian said...

Well you know you are always an easier grader than I am. I would liked to have taken classes from you! Its a good film but sort of falls into the middle for me. SM&S's though is a classic in my mind. I can understand people finding it slow - it is! But the emotional impact over the 2 films is pretty potent.

Anonymous said...

I really like that second Li Mei song where she sings part of it in Japanese. Do you know what film it's from? In the early 60s Li Mei actually went to Japan and performed with the Takarazuka Revue.

Regarding the Cathay films, it's a real shame the DVD releases ended so abruptly. There are many I'm still dying to see, including their spy films from the late 60s. I've seen photos from some of them and was very surprised to see a very gaunt and tough-looking Kelly Lai Chen. Judging by that picture alone he looked like he could pull off a Bond-style role. I'll scan it and post a link for you.

Brian said...

Sorry no idea what the film is or whether it is even from a film. I don't think the Pathe booklet ids films (btw - I only have 1 Li Mei song, the other is Julie).

There is just so much out there. I was curious to see if anyone had put out a cd of Helen's music but could not find it. I know when I did the Its Always Spring review a few years back that I put in a link to some of her music and a radio interview but the link seems to have died. But in rummaging around the internet I came across 3 videos of songs from Calander Girl that starred Helen and Diana Chang, who I never realized worked for Cathay. The numbers are great though the quality of the video is terrible. This was one of the films I had really hoped would make it to DVD.

Then I came across 2 musical numbers of a Shaw Brothers Malay film from 1953 - Hujan Panas - and I am like - I want to see that film too! There is no satisfying us. Here are the 2 Youtube videos. I love the girl high school attempt to do Busby Berkely!

and a night club swirling skirt number.

Maybe YTSL will translate the lyrics!

YTSL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YTSL said...

Hi Brian (and Duriandave) --

It's too hard for me to clearly figure out what the kids are singing in the first video beyond "berjaga barisan" (i.e., "look after the line").

But the second video has Siput Sarawak singing a song that's largely telling the audience -- and husband ("suami") -- to admire how beautiful she is...

E.g., "pandanglah, lihatlah..." = "behold, look..." and "pandanglah, lihatlah rambut, tulang and matu ku yang indah" = "behold my beautiful hair, bones and eyes" and "jaga bentuk, jaga kulit, jaga rupah" = "look after (your) shape, look after your skin, look after (your) looks"! :D

Brian said...

Just from the title heading of the kids video I think it may be a Patriotic song? I was thinking maybe it was the Malaysian National Anthem but I guess you would know that! And I think in Ramlee's song he mentions Betty Grable?

Anonymous said...

Brian, did you see this Pathe 100 CD featuring the stars of Cathay? It includes three songs by Li Mei.

Yeah, I also heard Betty Grable mentioned in that P. Ramlee song. I love the way he mixes English into his Malay!

Brian said...

On my next order to Yes Asia! Though these days that is a rarity. Maybe I can find it in Chinatown. Btw - how do you insert a link in this thing. Mine never work.

Anonymous said...

You need to use the HTML code to create links.

Here are some easy instructions.

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