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.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Wonder Woman: Amazons Attack


Really, this graphic novel was a great read up until the ridiculous, continuity-preserving, tie-in-serving conclusion!

After a string of lackluster recent DC titles, I was so thoroughly enjoying this title that I almost couldn't believe it. DC sometimes succeeds and this book captures their strengths perfectly: completely larger-than-life characters -- sometimes god-like ones -- dealing with epic-sized events in a heroic manner.

If Marvel characters tell us a bit about ourselves as human beings through the various superheroes or mutants as proxies, than DC heroes seem to give us characters to emulate, or admire from a distance -- role models.

The great thing about this book is that I never once felt confused and it was easy to pick up and a joy to read. The writing by Will Pfeifer is almost as good as Gail Simone's work on this title. Almost.

And the painterly work by artist Pete Woods is beautiful. The colorist was great too -- forget the name now -- and the slight softening of the colors worked; this reminded me a tiny bit of Scott Kolins' work but not quite as sharp.

The ending, however, just about ruined this book for me. Just a totally stupid final twist ending. The deus ex machina stuff I can handle -- Wonder Woman is the product of Greek godhood, after all -- but the last "reveal" just made me feel like I had wasted my time reading the rest of the book.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sword of Swords with Jimmy Wang-Yu and Li Ching

I may have to turn-in my fanboy card for saying it, but I am getting bored with Jimmy Wang-Yu.

Yeah, Master of The Flying Guillotine was pretty cool in a silly way, but I can recall now how, when I was watching a marathon of Cheng Pei-Pei wuxia films, I simply couldn't enjoy the bizarrely bloody The Golden Swallow. Yes, it had been directed by the great Chang Cheh, but where the other films felt a tiny bit light -- thanks to Pei-Pei's nimble ballet-infused prowess -- this film suddenly felt very heavy and oppressive.

The difference for me as a viewer was as stark as that between John Ford's She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch; both Westerns with minor thematic similarities but both worlds apart in tone and delivery.

Which brings me to the 1968 production of Sword of Swords. The one good thing I can say about this film is that it stars quite a few familiar faces from other Shaw wuxia epics: Tian Feng, from Cheng Pei-Pei's Raw Courage, and Huang Chung Hsin, from Cheng Pei-Pei's Dragon Swamp, play villains here; look for Yeung Chi Hing, from Jenny Hu's River of Tears and Ouyang Sha Fei, from Li Ching's Sweet and Wild, both wasted here.

As for Li Ching's role: she's simply here to get beaten -- more than once -- and thus spur Jimmy's character to revenge.

Additionally, the film was directed by Cheng Kang, who is the father of legendary action choreographer and director Ching Siu-Tung.

Jimmy Wang-Yu plays the nearly stoic member of a brotherhood at odds over possession of the mysitical Sword of Swords which seems to have the power of wind if wielded correctly (as shown in an early, silly scene).

The film is a set of scenes of Jimmy refusing to fight, or hiding the titular Sword from the baddies, only to be beaten, have his family beaten, his house burned, and get blinded in the process.

Of course, he's the hero so even though he's got blades in his eyeballs (!) and he's stabbed and it's snowing, he doesn't die but simply freezes for a spell before being revived by a kindly poor woman.

The film wasn't playful or witty enough to be interesting (like a Tsui Hark wuxia film), or have an interesting story to tell (like a King Hu film).

Even though this film was not directed by Chang Cheh, it felt like a Chang Cheh film so, if you're a fan of the guy's ultra-violent and uber-male films, I'd say you'd like this.

As for me, maybe I should rewatch those Cheng Pei-Pei films again?

You can order the DVD here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Four Cherie Chung Features

Yes, my current Cherie Chung phase continues! It is so much fun to almost rediscover this actress. I first saw and loved Cherie in Peking Opera Blues and it's quite wonderful to see her in earlier roles displaying a similar wide-eyed perkiness, not to mention some others where she lights up the screen with quite a bit of sensuality.

(Now, if I could only find the Celestial re-issue of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I would be really happy!)

I have a few non-Shaw Brothers Cherie films in my library that I've yet to watch, but this time I tackled 3 more from that studio, as well as one of the recent re-issues from early in her post-Shaw career.

The Flying Mr. B (1985)

Director/writer Wong Jing provides this Kenny Bee/Cherie Chung vehicle with action choreographed by Leung Siu Hung, who worked on the recent Ip Man. Kenny Bee plays Mr. Shi, a high school teacher who stumbles upon a "superman" pill that's been concocted by fellow HS teacher, Zhu, played by HK cinema regular Kent Cheng. Add to this mix, Cherie Chung as Ms. Cheung, a sexy sci-fi novelist (she's always at the HS so I'm not sure if she's meant to be a teacher as well -- typical Wong Jing narrative laziness).

Wong Jing plays Liu Ben, a 29-year-old HS student (though he dresses like a teacher) who seems to hang out with the adults more than the students despite having a crush on a female student which sounds a bit creepy now that I think about it.

Pat Ha Man Jik plays Kent Cheng's love interest. Pat was exceptionally good in the semi-gritty, semi-melodramatic Shaw film My Name Ain't Suzie but here she's not given very much to do.

Kenny Been takes the pill and flies and beats up criminals and so on. Then there's a long, semi-funny stretch of the film where Cherie and her editor conspire to prove that this "flying man" is indeed Mr. Shi.

The film takes a turn into Disney's Flubber territory when the HS basketball team attempts to use the pill. Mr. Zhu runs out of the pill and it's up to 29-year-old student Wong Jing to make the winning basket in the big game in slow motion (I'm not making this up!).

The best part of this sequence is the presence of Nat Chan as a rival school's sneering coach.

Then, it's on to a ridiculous finale where Cherie is once again menaced by the same goofy gangster and his goons only to have the school students and Mr. Shi save her. In an echo of E.T., dozens of 10-year-old boys furiously ride their mountainbikes down Hong Kong streets and into (!) the gangster's house, crashing over stairwells even, to save Cherie.

Overall, the film feels more coherent than My Darling Genie, but that's not saying much. Cherie and Kenny are charming -- especially in a very dated music video-style sequence where they sing about their love for each other.

Hong Kong Playboys (1983)

Another Wong Jing spectacle! Sanjuro has a real review here but here are a few of my thoughts on the film:

First off, I can see why Alexander Fu Sheng was such a hit. He's not as ruggedly handsome as David Chiang was. And his pudgy face, earring, and floppy bangs made him look like just enough of a "regular guy" to not be a threat to the guys in the audience as well as a plausible romantic icon for the ladies in the crowd. He's like a better looking, less spastic Jim Carrey.

Alexander plays Sheng, a charming rascal and inveterate playboy, living in a state-of-the-art (circa 1984) remote controlled house -- love the wine glasses on the robotic rolling table on the rollerskates! -- who is the king of picking up the ladies. Sheng's mother shows up unexpectedly with her nurse Ah Mei (Cherie Chung) in tow. Any of us with a thing for a girl-in-glasses have our wishes granted with this film 'cause Ms. Chung wears glasses for a large section of the film. And the more the producers try to make her look plain, the cuter she looks.

The film is largely episodic as Sheng, romantic rival Valentine (played by Patrick Tse-Yin), and the bumbling Lolanto (Nat Chan) attempt to outmaneuver each other in the pursuit of various women in a series of bets.

The lack of pretense felt refreshing in a weird way. The film is so lighthearted as to be largely inconsequential, like a late-era episode of TV's Three's Company when the show wasn't as sexual.

Of course, as the film nears its conclusion, with only minutes to spare, the contrived plot getting Cherie and Alexander together kicks into high gear. Cherie really isn't the star of this film and it would have been a better film if she had been one of the women the rivals were romancing.

As it is, she is cast against type with little to do for a large section of the proceedings. Her best scene is a sequence where she and Alexander play strip poker and a drinking game only to go crashing down a secret passageway to Sheng's lavish marble bathroom, landing in slow motion in the tub. This scene is actually funny in a way that prefigures Stephen Chow comedies but with a nice gentleness to it that I liked.

Look for Enter the Dragon villain Shek Kin as the triad boss father of one of the ladies.

It's worth noting that this was obviously one of the first Shaw re-issues on the Celestial label and it's nonanamorphic letterboxed with a grainy picture and sometimes poor subtitles.

Maybe It's Love (1984)

This film is an ambitious failure from first-time director Angela Chan, who also directed Anthony Wong's first film, My Name Ain't Suzie. The blame is shared by writer Lillian Lee, who wrote the wonderful Green Snake for director Tsui Hark and Rouge for director Stanley Kwan (not to mention the very strange A Terracotta Warrior starring Gong Li and director Zhang Yimou and directed by action choreographer Ching Siu-Tung).

Maybe It's Love is not a *bad* film, just a very strange one, with tones that vary wildly.

HK stalwart Elaine Kam and Shaw star Ku Feng play a bickering Mainland couple recently emigrated to Hong Kong -- I'm guessing this is set in the New Territories due to the sparseness of the country landscape. When we first see Elaine's character she is gazing in envy at a picture of Brigitte Lin (!) on the cover of a movie magazine while lusting after a young Chow Yun-Fat on a TV series. Clearly, her husband can't satisfy her and soon she is taking refuge in the arms of hunky postman/kung fu teacher Ken Tong.


Ken Tong's character is lusting after rich girl Cherie Chung who lives on what appears to be the only mansion estate within miles. Cherie spends her time being the kept woman of various successful businessmen. She also practices aerobics quite a bit and the film is nearly a lecher's paradise as the camera zooms in on Cherie's leotard-clad body.

Of course, what was sexy in 1984 now seems silly as the music and outfits remind one of that Travolta film, Perfect.

Add to this a Rear Window-inspired plot with a young girl with a prosthetic leg who seems to have observed a murder across the street. The girl is the product of an abusive home (hence the leg) and is now living with her disbelieving grandmother. The grandmother works as the maid for Cherie Chung's character.

When Elaine Kam's Mrs. Wang goes missing, and the girl thinks she saw her murdered, it's up to the kid to solve the crime.

(I should take a breath after relating the convoluted plot up to this point!)

The film suddenly and awkwardly shifts tones and turns into a kind of Chinese version of The Goonies with Marble and her little friends in the village trying to solve the crime. What started as a pretty steamy tale of adultery, envy, and betrayal now is a kids' film!

The literally cliffhanger ending is just so silly that whatever drama there was is quickly forgotten.

There are elements of a *great* film here and the director and writer certainly crafted an intriguing love triangle in the film's first third. For a few minutes, I felt like I was watching a film on the level of Hong Kong Hong Kong, but as soon as the murder plot kicked in, and the kids dressed up like pirates (or something) trying to solve the murder, I realized this thing was a waste of time.

Yes, Cherie looks amazingly hot in her early scenes, and Elaine Kam is quite sultry for a change, but overall the film is a mess.

Moon, Star & Sun (1988)

Director Michael Mak (who directed the serviceable Butterfly and Sword which seemed to be a good introduction into the modern wuxia genre for a few friends of mine)directed this soap opera about the lives of three girls working at the China City nightclub in Hong Kong.

I was pleasantly surprised with this film as it is not quite the Cat. III exploitation fare that was typical in the 1990's (PR Girls, for example) but a rather sympathetic and only moderately prurient look into the lives of these club hostesses.

Shaw sexpot Hu Chin plays the club madam, Margarita, who essentially buys Maggie Cheung's May character. May is a virgin at the story's start and so is quick to earn a big chunk of money for her family and Margarita.

The scene of Maggie's slow motion deflowering at the hands of a sumo wrestler-sized white man is a bit too over-the-top to be as shocking as it's intended but the viewer gets the point at how quickly May is soiled by her new life even while the life brings an opportunity to pay off her family's debts.

Cherie Cheung plays Gigi whose husband is in prison for some financial crime. Gigi charms her customers -- look for Shing Fui On from the classic-and-yet-ridiculous The Blue Jean Monster as one of the most persistent ones -- only to deny them sex, intending to keep herself pure for her incarcerated hubby.



I think any viewer can see what's coming and Gigi suffers the worst fate of the three girls. But Cherie does get one great scene near the end when she unleashes a blistering, room-clearing tantrum in her hubby's new hair salon after catching him with a young woman on his lap.

But the real star of the film is Carol (Do Do) Cheng. Carol plays Porsche, the older, less popular hostess, quick to take a drink and start a fight. The part won her a Golden Horse award and rightly so; she manages to take what is essentially a stock figure in this sort of saga and make it a real character.

It would have been easy to play this part a bit tougher or a bit more melodramatic, or with a bit more sadness, but Carol really nails it. Porsche is realistic, jaded, and -- at least in the context of this story -- strong; when her dreams are dashed she literally laughs it off, unlike the characters of Gigi and May.

It's really remarkable how realistic the film feels (despite the music and slow motion sequences). Having seen a few Cat. III films -- and some similar Shaw titles from the 1970's -- I can say that the film really seems understated in many ways.

Certainly it is melodramatic, and bad things happen to the women, but all of the events in the plot are there to serve these three well-written characters.

Not a masterpiece but certainly better than dozens of other films of this genre.

The DVD is the recent FortuneStar re-issue and it looks decent in most places except for a few bits where the film seems herky-jerky. The subtitles are not perfect but probably better than on the original DVD.

You can order The Flying Mr. B on DVD here.

You can order Hong Kong Playboys on DVD here.

You can order Maybe It's Love on DVD here.

You can order Moon, Star & Sun on remastered DVD here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Comics Roundup


I've been reading a lot of graphic novels/trade paperbacks lately and I'd like to highlight a couple of titles that illustrate how comics are sometimes better and worse than the ones I read as a teen.

First, the better.

Marvel's Spiderwoman is not what I would call a first tier character. Despite her prominent place in the recent Secret Invasion plotline, she doesn't really draw attention the way Wolverine or Captain America do.

Given that, it is an enormous testament to the writing talents of Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed that they have turned this character into such an interesting one. In fact, if you had told me when I was a 13-year-old that books featuring Spiderwoman and Ms. Marvel (Reed's excellent run on that title) would be so much fun -- and so good! -- I would have laughed.

Spiderwoman: Origin collects the Bendis/Reed story arc revealing the origin of Jessica Drew/Spiderwoman. The art by The Luna Brothers manages to make what is basically a simple backstory into something approaching a spy thriller -- I felt like I was reading some kind of printed storyboard of a Hollywood action pic. Now, that might not appeal to everyone, but I found this collection an unexpectedly thrilling read. Not quite as deep or engrossing as that Ms. Marvel run by Bendis, but still the type of thing I read cover-to-cover in one quick sitting.

This kind of collection would not have been possible when I was a teen. Back then, Frank Miller's cinematic run on the Daredevil monthly was revolutionary -- I can recall just being stunned at how different the storytelling technique was -- how it felt like watching a great noir-ish film when reading those books.

And Matt Murdock was a character I previously didn't care about.

Nowadays, that sort of filmic technique is common. Gone are the wordy, lengthy exposition panels and they've been replaced by page-turning action scenes that flow -- sometimes wordlessly -- and thus manage to convey the same sort of information to the reader.

Sometimes this style works but sometimes it doesn't -- it can allow a writer and artist to spin their wheels for an issue or two at a time and the reader just sits there thinking: "What happened? Where's the plot?"

And, so, over to DC Comics.

I picked up Justice League of America: The Second Coming mainly due to having just read Volume 1 of this tale (though that was a letdown) and I felt somehow obligated to at least see where this story went.

What started as a thought-provoking story in Volume 1 about where to house super villains (echoing real world debates about Gitmo, and similar to parts of Marvel's Civil War series), soon turned into a stale tale about Vixen's loss of powers and her appropriation of her teammates' powers. The story plods along without much surprise or drama until she and her fellow superheroes are trapped in some mystical realm by Anansi, the spider-like tempting spirit of African folklore.

You know, Marvel can do this sort of "mystical realm" jazz with ease and somehow DC just seems clubfooted when they try to do it; this thing read like a weak Dr. Strange story from the 1980's!

Despite a gorgeous Ed Benes cover, his art in the interior wasn't quite as thrilling (maybe I've been spoiled as I've been finally reading his run on Birds of Prey with writer Gail Simone). Benes still has the goods but it's just not enough to keep me entertained.

I like Dwayne McDuffie's writing -- especially on the TV versions of this title -- but this is yet another title penned by him that just didn't click for me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"What A Waster" - The Libertines Return!


The big news of the week for me, apart from being delighted every time a new picture of Shu Qi at Cannes is released, has been word that The Libertines, according to the NME, reunited in London over the weekend (well, at least three of 'em were involved).

The Libertines were the last great British band. I can't think of another UK band with such promise to appear since their arrival.

The mix of 1977-era punk with Morrissey-worthy lyrics and an Albarn/Davies-Englishness-worn-on-the-sleeve made the band -- or at least their singles -- quite endearing to me.

And the thing about the band is that their rambling, shambling racket always promises a bit more than it ever delivers. But, occasionally, that racket did deliver and the lyrics and music of Pete Doherty and Carl Barat provided a rush that few other bands could.

It's worth repeating that I am a big fan of the great single and The Libertines certainly delivered on that front; heck, I'd go so far as to say that "Don't Look Back Into The Sun" is one of the 10 or 20 best UK singles released since The Clash unloaded "White Riot".

I dutifully purchased all the Libertines spin-offs and while each one had a moment or two of absolute greatness -- Babyshambles' "Fuck Forever" or "Albion" or Dirty Pretty Things' "Bang Bang You're Dead" -- the writing was the old wall: these two guys needed a reunion as much as the fans did.

Listening to those records was like listening to McCartney's "Band on The Run" and Lennon's "Mind Games" back-to-back and pretending you were hearing side two of Abbey Road.

So, while Doherty can still deliver greatness -- if one is willing to sit through otherwise mediocre albums: Babyshambes' "Deft Left Hand" and "1939 Returning" from Doherty's recent solo album -- I say it's time for these two lads to get their shit together and write something as half as good as this song.

Thank God for YouTube!

The Libertines "What A Waster", May 15 into the morning of May 16, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

New Sophie!


The new Sophie Ellis-Bextor video has leaked to You Tube and I had to post it (even if the quality is a bit off in some places -- maybe that's an effect?)!

The video is linked below and hopefully a higher quality clip -- or maybe some TV appearances? -- will soon be posted online.

I am not sure if this is going to be on her next album; I think the whole idea of a Greatest Hits release has been shelved for now.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor (feat. Freemasons) "Heartbreak Made Me A Dancer"

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Another Li Ching Double Feature

Susanna

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!

Moonlight Serenade

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]