Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jenny Hu in Till The End of Time

Even though Brian provided an excellent review of this film already, I'm adding my two cents since I reviewed some other Jenny Hu films last summer.

Till The End of Time opens, significantly enough, with a fairly modern feel; As we see Peter Chen play Chopin on a piano, the credits roll simply over his image and the camera pulls back to show that he is playing for a family in a modern household. No garish titles and blaring music to start the film but a naturalistic reveal instead.

An almost impossibly young-looking Lily Ho is in this scene as the fiance, I-Hua, of Chen's character. As Brian noted, she's pouty and what a pout it is! If the year of release for Till The End of Time was 1966, one can figure that they were filming this in 1965 and while the Shaw DVDs sometimes list Lily Ho's year of birth as 1953, most other sources say 1948 -- Paul Fonoroff in the interview on this disc says 1946 -- so the actress is 18 at most. Chen is 36 but he looks older so she is an odd, but voluptuous, choice for the part.

I won't belabor too much of the plot but the thing I do want to mention is the feel of the film.

By that I mean that I've seen a lot of musicals, including most of the major Shaw ones, and the film just feels different. I think it's a sense of things not being rushed. There is no manic vibe to the nightclub scenes with Jenny Hu's Hsueh Ling singing, and there's not a sense of any kind of antics with the supporting characters.

The amusement park scene unfolds with a minimum of melodrama and the transitions between moments feel very modern despite the very 1960s mix of real location-and-backlot with contract stars in the the center of every shot.

The third (?) song in the film opens as a Jenny Hu nightclub performance but then the montage becomes a scene of Jenny Hu and Peter Chen dancing in the same nightclub -- is this what the lovers are imagining? -- and then, amid scenes of starry nighttime skies and water rushing over rocks, the scene switches to an impossibly beautiful Jenny Hu in modern, simple garb reclining on the hood of a car and still singing -- is this an elaborate nightclub production? And then Peter Chen enters and talks to her as the song ends and we see that this is simply another scene of their courtship.

In one sequence, we are transported from reality -- at least the real world in the context of this film -- into imagination and then into reality again.

Without the sort of forced euphoria a lot of non-musical fans associate with film musicals, the film effortlessly integrates the music with the action; that transition is as much the story of the film as the courtship of the two characters.

The closest parallel is the feeling I got when I watched Li Ching in Susanna where the very unreality of the presentation, combined with an almost languid pace at times, made me feel more moved by the film than a simple, MGM-style musical from the 1950s.

Now, that's not to say that the film isn't terribly melodramatic in stretches; of course it is. But, rather, the way that Peter Chen is playing his part has none of his near-mugging you see in something like Guess Whose Baby is in The Classroom?.

And Jenny Hu is quite naturalistic. She's not at all like Li Ching in the melodramatic scenes and she remains almost stoic but still a warm screen presence; it's not a stretch to compare her to Grace Kelly in something like Rear Window: angelic beauty but a real down-to-earth quality shining through. Brian, I think, also compared her to Audrey Hepburn and that is there too.

If only I had watched Till The End of Time before I watched Guess Who Killed My Twelve Lovers and I might have responded differently to Jenny Hu in that film.

Later in the film, as the melodrama gathers steam, Hsueh-ling performs a song for a radio broadcast. The montage shifts from the recording studio to Peter Chen's Cho-ming listening at home and then back to Hsueh-ling, this time on a beautiful television set.

There's a strange tracking shot overhead as Hsueh-ling walks down the fake lawn past the flowers and then the camera pulls out wide to reveal the edges of the set with Jenny Hu in the center of it.

It's a marvelous image as we are seeing the fakery of the television show Hsueh-ling is the star of, while watching a very unreal 1960s musical shot on similar sets.

The viewer is just reminded that the presentation is unreal for a short second but the unreality adds meaning to the imagery in a way that a non-musical shot on a real location would not have.

The film, to me at least, is one of the masterpieces of the Shaws in the 1960s. I have now become a fan of Jenny Hu and am looking at the work of Peter Chen in a new way. There's real chemistry between the couple on screen and, if one is not distracted by the moments of high melodrama; the ending for example -- one can see a weird-but-pleasant mix of artifice and realism at work here.

I think one of the things that makes this film work -- and this is ironic given that it's a musical -- is the lack of music in key scenes. Without the typical kind of syrupy strings one associates with a Technicolor melodrama, the scenes have a natural rhythm; it's a weird mix of artificiality (sets, colors, clothes) and normality.

It comes down to this: if you removed the music, and the melodrama, the film would still be a resounding success as just the story of the courtship between Peter Chen's Cho-ming and Jenny Hu's Hsueh-ling.

That's pretty high praise coming from me; what Hollywood musical could I say that about? Sure, Singin' in the Rain might work as a minor comedy without all the musical numbers. And some of the better Deanna Durbin films would work without any of the musical trappings.

But it's a short list of musicals that work on other levels beyond the music.

Add Till The End of Time to that list simply for the performances of two of the most important Shaw stars of the 1960s.

Look for Lee Kwan as Cho-ming's newspaper reporter pal. Cheng Miu is in this as Peter Chen's father. And Ouyang Sha-Fei shows up in makeup as Hsueh-ling's beloved grandmother.

The DVD has an 21-minute interview with actress Celia Sie, and a 16-minute interview with Paul Fonoroff, as well as a 15-minute interview with film critic Po Fung.

You can order Till The End of Time on DVD here.

[Photos: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures]