Sunday, May 31, 2009

Linda Lin Dai Double Feature

The Lotus Lamp

1964's The Lotus Lamp was Linda Lin Dai's next-to-last completed film before her tragic suicide. According to the information on the Celestial DVD, it was completed and released on the one year anniversary of her death.

That information hangs heavy over any viewer of the film and it adds an extra layer of pathos to the scenes of yearning Lin Dai so successfully portrays in two (!) separate parts in this huangmeixi epic.

Lin Dai and Li Ching play fairies (goddesses, really, by our Western perceptions) who journey from the heavenly realms to earth where Lin Dai's Lady San falls in love with a young male scholar (played by Cheng Pei-Pei in her first screen role).

The union is frowned upon by Lady San's brother (played by Shaw stalwart, Tien Feng, still fresh in my mind from his villainous turn in Sword of Swords). He traps Lady San under Mt. Hua, and the scholar is left to flee to earth with the child in tow.

He and the infant are taken in by a kindly couple and the boy grows up not knowing his mother. It's a real measure of Lin Dai's acting charms that the nearly 30-year-old actress successfully plays a boy of 15 or so. She certainly doesn't look the part, but she does capture his youth in her motions and demeanor.

When the couple's real son and Lin Dai accidentally kill a local magistrate's son (played by a glasses-less Lydia Shum!), Lin Dai is now cast out into the wilderness in the hopes of finding her celestial mother.

Watching something like this, I realize how little I know about Chinese cinema. My experience with huangmeixi is so limited at the present moment that I'm just thankful this film had 4 great Shaw actresses in it to keep me focused and a bit less confused.

I'm sure this thing played like gangbusters at the box office in 1965 for a variety of reasons: Lin Dai's performance, for one, and the Technicolor spectacle of seeing fare such as this on a big screen being another.

Look for Lee Kwan (also fresh in my mind from various features, including the Jenny Hu-starring Guess Who Killed My Twelve Lovers) as the Sky Dog sidekick to Tien Feng.

And Allyson Chang Yen is in this too.

The DVD has a 15-minute documentary on the Shaw huangmeixi films but the thing didn't have English subtitles to identify who the on-screen experts were. And there's a 5-minute mini-feature on Lin Dai (also on the below DVD), a storyboard sequence, and three songs from the film, playable separately.

Les Belles

Brian has a real review of Les Belles here, but here are some thoughts from me:

1960's Les Belles was probably another of the first non-martial arts Shaw Brothers films that I watched. I had the VCD back then but finally got the DVD recently.

The film was my introduction to the very MGM-style musicals of the Hong Kong studio. Not only that, it starred the wonderful Lin Dai and the ingratiating Peter Chen.

Peter Chen plays Ya Min, the son of the female owner (played by Kao Pao Shu, later a director for the Shaws) of a theater troupe, and Lin Dai plays Lan Lan, an aspiring actress/dancer sent to seek employment at the studio.

The duo had done films together before at Cathay studios -- like the smaller scale, Cinderella and Her Little Angels in black-and-white -- but this film really captures what made each such a special performer.

Not only that, but the super sexy Fanny Fan plays Lan Lan's best friend in the film. duriandave's site has a lot of good posts on Fanny Fan and you can find them here.

This was an early DVD release in the Celestial/IVL series of Shaw re-issues and, as such, the quality is not great: at times, the film appears cropped despite the letterboxing; the picture gets blurry frequently; and the songs do not have English subtitles.

That said, the film is still mainly a delight thanks to the various musical sequences, especially the international flavors montage.

The plot combines elements of old MGM musicals as well as a bit of The Shop Around The Corner: seems both Lan Lan and Ya Min are answering personals ads without knowing the other's identity.

The sequence where Lin Dai arranges her first meeting with her pen pal is a lot of fun, especially the part where she imagines what the guy *might* turn out to be: psychopath, pervert, or old man. Her play-acting in this scene is exceedingly cute without being sickening.

And the virtually wordless final sequence where the two finally attempt to confront each other is a gem! If the rest of the film is a tiny bit stagey and sometimes a bit too long, this final stretch delivers perfectly with a very modern kind of subtlety that seems (gladly) out-of-place in a 1960 studio feature.

And the fact that the final third of the film is set in Japan is a weird bit of prefiguring as the best musicals at the Shaw studios ended up being directed by a Japanese director later in the 1960's and early 1970's (Inoue Umetsugu).

Look for director King Hu in an acting role here: he's the guy on the phone with Peter Chen in one small sequence.

The DVD of The Lotus Lamp is out-of-print but you can order the VCD here.

You can order Les Belles on DVD here.