Friday, April 24, 2009

2 Shaw Musicals: The Yellow Muffler & Sweet and Wild *UPDATED*

The Yellow Muffler

If my research is correct, 1972's The Yellow Muffler was the last Shaw Brothers film (maybe the last film, period) directed by Japanese director Inoue Umetsugu. The director previously helmed some of the very best of the Shaw Brothers musicals, including: Hong Kong Nocturne, Hong Kong Rhapsody, King Drummer, and The Millionaire Chase, to name but a few.

Before I rewatched The Yellow Muffler I had considered this film a lesser musical in the Shaw library -- and it is in some minor ways -- but it held up remarkably well on this second viewing.

I first saw this film about 5 years ago on VCD at a time when I was hesitating about which Shaw re-issues to purchase on DVD. That was before I became aware of the limited runs on some of these titles, how Celestial/IVL were only doing one initial pressing of these marvelous DVD's. There are probably a good two dozen titles that I wish I had purchased on DVD when I had the chance and now it's too late as those titles are long out-of-print.

Luckily, The Yellow Muffler is not out-of-print and that may be due to the film not having a single big name at the center of the film. Certainly, Betty Ting-Pei is a well-known Shaw starlet but her fame for me and many other fans comes from the distinction of being Bruce Lee's lover (?) on the night of his death.

But she is an enjoyable screen presence even if not quite the young ingenue; that role is served by Irene Chen Yi-Ling as the middle daughter of this story; Irene also provided for me the sole bright spot in the Jenny Hu-starring Guess Who Killed My Twelve Lovers.

I think the third and youngest sister is played by Ellen Pan (Ai Lien Pan) but I can't verify that.

The romantic lead of the film is played by Paul Chun Pai, brother of David Chiang and half-brother to actor/director Derek Yee.

And the gruff, stern, and yet somehow lovable stage magician father is portrayed by Goo Man Chung in a really delightful part.

Shaw regular Pang Pang also pops up as a cafe owner (part of the fun of these Shaw films is spotting the regular cast of supporting actors!).

If the musical numbers are not quite as memorable as those in other Shaw musicals, they are at least well integrated into the plot, with the majority seeming to spring out into an alternate universe of what the characters are thinking or imagining or dreaming. The best musical bits involve the three sisters on stage trying their hand at performing despite their gruff father's protestations not to enter the life of show business.

There's a subplot where the father seems to lose his sight and I'm not exactly spoiling anything by saying that he gets his sight back (in a manner of speaking) in time for the big musical and emotional finales.

The whole "hey kids, let's put on a show"-plot involving the Paul Chun character and his friends at the studio -- the Yellow Muffler being the symbol of their club -- is fun. And there are some nice jokes at the expense of the director in the film which I venture to add are somehow references to the real director's experience being a Japanese director on a Chinese film set.

Certainly, not the Shaw's best musical but by no means the worst. Fans of Betty Ting-Pei's wigs alone will have a fun time watching this release!

Sweet and Wild

Sweet and Wild is a weird film for me. It's a musical but it is sort of a huangmei-styled musical but with a distinctly modern-vs.-traditional approach to the integration of the songs into the larger plot.

I think this may have been Li Ching's only film in 1966, apart from a cameo in The Knight of Knights, and it's fun to watch the spunky 18-year-old take charge on the screen. She really is a delight in this film even if the style of the musical presentation sometimes baffled this viewer!

The title sequence begins with Li Ching running toward the camera, almost ready to jump off the screen, only to point to the title cards as they flash on the screen.

In a weirdly confusing plot for such a short film, Li Ching's country girl gets nearly stripped (!) by a bunch of city guys after a fairly upbeat back-and-forth song, and then is practically attacked by an old patriarch of a family in a case of mistaken indentity that seems to get more confusing as the film's 87 minutes progress.

Ouyang Sha Fei is good as a female matriarch and Shaw regulars pop-up all throughout the film: Ling Yun, from King Drummer, makes for a surprisingly steadfast and understated romantic male lead; and Kang Wai, future husband of Jenny Hu and future father of Terence Yin, makes for a very effectively slimey villain.

I feel like I would have probably enjoyed this film more if I knew more about huangmei opera but, as it is, it was still a pleasant film thanks largely to the young and very charming Li Ching.

You can order The Yellow Muffler on DVD here.

You can order Sweet and Wild on DVD here.

[Photos: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures].


Big thanks to duriandave and ebay seller cyk5391antiques for the awesome magazine cover featuring the lovely Irene Chen!

(I feel like I'm encroaching on dave's starlet territory here, but he's the one that hipped me to this cover!)