I don't know why they did it but it's a good thing that the Shaw team cast Ching Li and not Li Ching in this 1968 tale of schizophrenia as When The Clouds Roll By is a mini-masterpiece thanks to Ching Li's understated lead work.
The film opens in great retro fashion: As a Ventures-like band plays on stage, Ching Li's Susu Xiong enters a nightclub in a clingy red dress. With her slightly disheveled look, she's clearly meant to appear a bit of a temptress. Things quickly go wrong when she knocks over a man on the dancefloor. And then the doctors arrive with a syringe and she's taken home as the credits sequence ends and the film proper begins.
Despite some laughably bad rear screen projection as the drivers drive their cars, the opening section of the film features a lot of great shots of 1968 Hong Kong as Susu steals her family car and speeds off. As two doctors leave the airport, the characters meet at the end of this well-edited sequence.
Dr. Li Yifei (Yang Fan) and his associate Huang Tianfu (Cheung Pooi Saan) approach the lovely-but-distraught Ching Li on a hillside overlooking the harbor -- near the Peak it looks like.
A film like this -- about mental illness -- made in the past always seemed a bit dated. However, sometimes that datedness provides a new spin for the modern viewer, allowing him or her to see things with a fresh perspective. Despite the 1960s-feel of the thing, the zooms and quick edits make the buildup scenes of the film quite effective without being laughably old fashioned. And it doesn't hurt that the young and beautiful Ching Li seems realistically distraught and vulnerable without being silly about it.
Luckily the family is friends with hospital director Qiu Dongwang (familiar Shaw heavy Wong Chung Shun) and that provides Susu's father (Cheung Miu) with a handy source of information on mental illness.
Despite a few scenes in the hospital's mental ward that make the place look like Arkham Asylum, the film treats Susu's mental despair with respect and some understatement.
As Li Yifei begins to tutor Susu in English in preparation for her upcoming trip to America, the young doctor is clearly conflicted as he starts to fall in love with his student/patient. The viewer is treated to a nice set of montages as the two young people both narrate their feelings over scenes of their lessons and romance.
Complicating matters further is director Dongwang's daughter -- also Yifei's fiance -- Binbin, played by Violet Pan from Swordswomen Three. As Yifei learns of Susu's dead fiance, Jishi, his own fiance arrives back on the scene.
Seems Susu's fiance died in a plane crash where the only survivor happens to be the copilot, now conveniently in the mental ward where Yifei works.
Despite a bit of over-the-top action near the end -- a scene that feels wildly out-of-place and unrealistic given that one of the characters is a medical doctor -- director Doe Chin wraps things up nicely with a minimum of the kind of silliness this sort of thing could easily become.
The film fades out all too quickly but I was moved at the ending. The fact that Ching Li seems to be underplaying in the film -- and the fact that she's realistically pretty and not a total starlet -- made When The Clouds Roll By a film that I enjoyed quite a bit more than I expected to.
You can order When The Clouds Roll By on DVD here.
[Photos: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures]