It's hard for a modern viewer to turn off the ironic detachment and snark and simply appreciate something for what it is. And, even in those instances where one can turn off the 21st century penchant for ridiculing melodrama, it's still sometimes a chore to deal with the overwrought dramas of the past and still have them work.
That said, despite the sometimes maudlin nature of the drama, 1967's Susanna remains a masterpiece. The very artificiality of the mise-en-scene adds a hyperreality to the proceedings and the viewer is watching something clearly not naturalistic and so the sentimentality seems all the more appropriate and believable; by ramping up the emotionality, it becomes a kind of stylized modern drama and all the more powerful for the viewer -- wordless opera or the silent non-verbalized bits of a Gene Kelly dancing sequence turned into a drama.
Li Ching shines as the title character, a somewhat bratty and spoiled girl whose mother (Diana Chang) marries the father (Kwan Shan, real-life father of Rosamund Kwan) of her grade school rival Xiao Tong (played as a teenager by Alison Chang Yen).
When Xiao Tong falls for school boy Zhi Jian (played by Ho Fan), the rivalry heats up.
Up until now in the plot, Li Ching has played Susanna as a sort of lovable brat; the scenes of the teen Susanna lounging in her impossibly pink, huge bedroom are just girlish nirvana (at one point the camera pans out, our view taking in the balcony and then cutting across to Xiao Tong's all-blue bedroom); Li Ching with her plump cheeks and bob haircut is a delight even while causing trouble for her sister.
Around the midway mark, Susanna finds out that she has brain cancer and suddenly she becomes doomed and angelic! For the range of emotions alone, Li Ching deserved an award for assaying this part.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Li Ching actually underplays the role; while the film seems sentimental and a bit over-the-top and -- dare I say it? -- garish, the actress never resorts to cheap theatrics. She never seemed as annoying to me as Bette Davis did in Dark Victory.
When she takes to the Peak in Hong Kong to drop to her knees to pray to God for an extra few months of life on earth, I defy you to not be moved. This is exactly how you do sentimentality on screen and not have it turn into a kind of cheap mawkishness.
Susanna takes the lead in a school production of The Dream of the Red Chamber for charity and this gives her something to live for in her last few months on earth. She keeps her cancer from her parents and this secrecy drives the big moments of the film's plot in the second half of the drama. Additionally (as if that wasn't enough!), her mother is expecting a baby -- Susanna has been praying for a son to please her step-grandfather, played by Yeung Chi Hing, who wants a boy to carry on the family name.
Li Ching is just stunning in this film; there's a shot of her with her eyes closed in contemplation on the balcony of her house as the sun bursts through the clouds behind her and her parents call to her from the courtyard below as they exit the estate that just left me breathless; an image on a backlot every bit as gorgeous as anything in a Jacques Demy film.
In a scene like that, the very fact that the film doesn't look real only makes it more beautiful and emotional for me.
I won't ruin the film by elaborating the rest of the film's plot but I will say that for all the dated drama, all the layered-on schmaltz, the film worked! Considering the time that this was made, and considering other sentimental Shaw films like A Time for Love starring Lily Ho, Susanna is a masterpiece.
The music is fantastic as well, only getting a bit too syrupy in the inevitable finale.
Everything I like about the 1960's Shaw films in one film: comedy in the early scenes, glamour, drama, and even a few songs as well!
1967's Moonlight Serenade is a strange film and I can't say that I enjoyed all of it; a peasant musical with a rape and suicide subplot? No thanks.
The makers of the film seem intent on removing Li Ching's natural perkiness and they succeed in some ways; she has real gravity when confronting the film's villains late in the picture. But for this Li Ching fan, the film was a chore.
Li Chings plays the daughter of Yeung Chi Hing (who I just saw as the villain in River of Tears) and she's in love with farmer Chen Fing (who I just saw in another Li Ching film, The Human Goddess) and drama ensues.
Lee Kwan (from Guess Who Killed My Twelve Lovers and dozens of other Shaw films) plays a scoundrel/wastrel sort of character like he always seems to do, only this time the character has some shady agenda in trying to get Li Ching married to an old estate holder and generally badgering his sister Sixi (played by Li Ting). Li Ting committed suicide the same year that this film was released and awareness of that fact probably added a bit of weight to Sixi's predicament in the film.
Saddled with Kee Kwan's shiftless brother, and an infant after her husband died right after her wedding, Sixi is then raped by another family member of the estate holder's family.
The character even hangs herself like the real Li Ting did in 1967 as well. This blog post by duriandave has a link to a magazine cover of the late Li Ting.
It then remains for Jingjing (Li Ching) to solve the mystery, confront the bad guys, survive a murder attempt, AND reunite with her boyfriend in essentially the last 15 minutes of the picture!
I'll admit that I thought the film was too long and the emotions too varied; there were moments similar to scenes in Sweet and Wild, but there were also darker moments and the film doesn't have a lot of joy, despite all the romantic songs as the young lovers separately plan for their marriage.
You can order Susanna on DVD here.
You can order Moonlight Serenade on DVD here.
[Photos: Celestial Pictures/YesAsia]