Saturday, February 27, 2010

Li Ching in the 1970s: The Ghost Lovers and The Happy Trio

As the 1960s ended, and the 1970s began, Li Ching's fortunes were different. The 'baby queen' was older and the roles reliant on her 'cuteness' were not as forthcoming. Still, despite a role that seemed tailor-made for her film charms like The Human Goddess (1972), it seemed that she also had to play a lot of generic woman-in-waiting roles like in Have Sword Will Travel (1969).

1974's The Ghost Lovers opens with Song Lianhua (Li Ching) on her deathbed as a doctor attends. Her fiance, Han (Lam Wai Tu), the son of the local governor, has gone into town to get help. After being robbed, beaten, and left for dead at the side of the road, he's rescued by boyhood friend, Zhangniu (Korean actor Mu-yeong Kim who didn't do much for the Shaw studios from what I can see).

In the meantime, news reaches Zhangniu's town that Mistress Song and her father have both died. The Han family still owes a debt to the Song family. But there's an inheritance from Mistress Song and her deceased father that is set to pass to the Hans.

So at the Song household, numerous Mr. Hans, some impostors, show up. The family and servants devise a plan to weed out the impostors by having them each one-by-one visit the room where Song Lianhua's body lies on a slab -- I guess the ghost of the girl is going to identify the real Mr. Han? Or the guilt of the fake Mr. Han will come out in proximity to a dead body?

While the young Han wastes time with Zhangniu, worrying that he can't go back to claim the inheritance if he doesn't have the $1,000 he owes the Song family, his dead fiance is having a succession of people enter her burial chamber with one guy going so far as to disrobe a bit and lean in to embrace the corpse only to have her grab him -- I'm guessing that's supposed to be her spirit or ghost doing that?

No, it's her.

You see, after nearly 40-minutes of nothing much happening, Han meets Song Lianhua at night in a pavilion and the girl's wetnurse explains everything in one long bit of dialogue: the girl is sick and has never met her fiance until now. The girl's cousins, the Lians, have a plan to bury her alive to get her inheritance before she can marry young Han and he can get it.

So the wetnurse rushes the couple to wed that night, a sight which Zhangniu watches from a hiding place in the woods -- remember, the outside world assumes Miss Song is dead as that's part of the plan to fool the people who want her money.

Or something like that.

Now that Zhangniu is sure he's seen a ghost, he calls in Taoist (?) priests to drive out the spirits. Look for Shum Lo and Wong Ching Ho in these scenes. There's a bit of comedy and some attempts at scares but the whole thing is just a mess of a film by this point.

The director of this confusing film also did The Goddess of Mercy with Li Li-Hua but that was a lot better.

To her credit, Li Ching looks lovely despite the numerous night scenes on the Shaw backlots. And she at least tries to add some emotion to her role. Leading Lam Wai Tu is a bit leaden, to say the least.

Maybe the subtitles were lacking, or I simply don't know enough about Taoist and Chinese myths regarding ghosts and the afterlife, but I think part of the problem is that the film is at one minute playing scenes of apparent ghosts for horror and then abruptly switching gears into a love scene between what are meant to be passionate lovers. Neither scenes worked for me.

And the effort of trying to figure out what was the wetnurse posing as a ghost of Li Ching and what was really Li Ching's character got to be a bit much.

For Li Ching completists only.

The Happy Trio

This 1975 film is a weird but engaging mix of pathos and melodrama, comedy and music, with a lot of local Hong Kong flavor.

Countrygirl Ah Jiao (Li Ching) arrives in Hong Kong and meets Blockhead (Yeh Feng) in a city park. As the duo runs from a policeman for loitering -- seems Blockhead is poor and spends his time sleeping on park benches -- it's revealed that Ah Jiao is looking for a place to stay. Feeling pity for her, Blockhead takes her to his friend (Wang Sha) who gives her a place to stay in his very dilapidated apartment.

In a bit of confusion, the countrygirl is soon being forced to work as a prostitute in a "love hotel." Blockhead rescues her and she runs off.

After that adventure, a demolition/closure order is placed on the building where Ah Jiao, Blockhead, and the old man are living -- set to a snippet of the pilfered "Theme from 'Shaft'" I might add; did Isaac Hayes get some royalties for this?

The two men hatch a scheme to have Ah Jiao sing and soon -- in some badly dubbed montages -- she is singing for money on the street and the trio are finding a new place to live.

The one song -- "Aiyo" might be the title -- is sung at night with a backing chorus of sweeps and other men working in the street. It's a weird bit of film drama as, until now, the film has been set on clearly real locations and feels naturalistic. This scene, however, feels like a reenactment of a big budget musical number on a Hong Kong street: a bit over-staged and simultaneously natural and simple.

Add to this the unique pleasure of a star of Li Ching's talents playing on very real Hong Kong street locations and not Shaw Studio backlots or stages.

Soon, rich businessman Gao Zhi Ren (Tang Ching) pulls up after hearing the girl sing and offers to whisk her away. The businessman is accompanied by his female assistant (Ku Chiu Chin) which puts the girl a bit at ease.

In another bit of silliness, the countrygirl -- still wearing the clothes she's had on since the beginning of the picture -- is singing (again dubbed by Amina, I think) in Gao's disco era nightclub.

Gao's businessman buddy (Goo Man Chung) is impressed and -- finally! -- Li Ching is getting a makeover into a star.

This sort of montage is necessary in any of these rags-to-riches stories and, of course, the audience wants to see starlet Li Ching finally look cute, modern, and stylish.

Meanwhile, Blockhead and Uncle are back at home waiting for Ah Jiao's return. She does return only this time looking stylish in her modern blouse and pants and with a new haircut.

Li Ching's Ah Jiao has pictures taken by Gao in another delightfully 1970s-styled montage, with the girl driving off in the man's lime-green muscle car at the end of the scene despite never having driven a car before!

With more, blatant swipes from the Shaft soundtrack, the two men are soon working with a locksmith friend to pick a guy's apartment lock.

There's another disco-tinged montage as Blockhead sees Ah Jiao on television. We then see her in a variety of outfits being filmed for television in front of a lot of great locations in Hong Kong, including at the Peak.

Now that Ah Jiao is gone, the old man needs a new singer and he meets a streetwalker, Shan Shan, and attempts to teach her traditional Chinese song-and-dance on the rooftop. Blockhead finds a record from Ah Jiao -- now using the stagename of Diana -- in a record shop but ends up playing it for the old man and the hooker at the wrong speed. Luckily Shan Shan fixes that problem and, soon, Blockhead is dancing around the room with the record sleeve in his embrace. Later he has to explain to the observing neighbors that he's not crazy and then remind them that the singer is Ah Jiao.

The old man is soon arrested for harboring a juvenile (Shan Shan the streetwalker) and now Blockhead is alone. He plays Diana's record and recalls a simpler time when Ah Jiao brightened up the lives of the poor people in his neighborhood.

Blockhead soon tries to get himself arrested just to be back with his old buddy on the chain-gang busting rocks in the work yard.

The Happy Trio is an interesting film. Contrived? Yes, but also full of a lot of genuine heart and affection for Hong Kong locales and people. Predictable? Yes, but almost all musicals, Hong Kong-made or otherwise, that I've ever seen have been similarly obvious.

And, Li Ching is beautiful in every scene she's in, switching outfits in every one of them. The kind of down-to-earth but glamourous character she is portraying is exactly the sort of role she was born to play.

As the final song by Ah Jiao unfolds, it's hard to not get a little teary-eyed despite the film's silliness. There's a gentleness here that, while distrustful of progress, is very supportive of the local Hong Kong people. This is a film, unlike some of the Shaw titles in the 1960s, that seems clearly made for a hometown audience.

While I could have wished for even more Hong Kong locales in the film, I did enjoy The Happy Trio more than I expected and -- certainly -- Li Ching is just as wonderful and cute and charming as she was in her 1960s films.

Unfortunately, she wouldn't have as many of these sorts of roles as the 1970s further unfolded.

It looks The Ghost Lovers was one of those VCD-only titles and, unfortunately, that is out-of-print.

You can order The Happy Trio on DVD here.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Save BBC 6!

Following a few news reports like this one and this one, BBC 6 Music looks to be in danger of becoming extinct.

I don't know if someone from outside the UK can make a difference in any way but I know I get a few hits from UK music fans thanks to my infrequent music posts.

There is already a movement to save BBC 6 underway and if anyone can make a difference it's the guy who somehow got Rage Against The Machine to have the Christmas Number One in England last holiday season.

Check out while you can Kenickie frontwoman Lauren Laverne's wonderful daily show.

There are already a few Facebook pages and groups up and please join them as well.

Save BBC 6 Music Facebook Group

Save BBC 6 Music Facebook Page

Here's a clip of a band Lauren has championed; I'm sure there are thousands of aging music fans like me out there who now enjoy a band like this thanks to the digital efforts of BBC 6 DJs like Lauren and others.

Sometimes it takes a DJ who actually likes what he or she is playing to get a band some deserved exposure. The world needs more John Peels, really.

The Drums "Best Friend"

The Colourfield Back in Print!

Terry Hall from The Specials changed styles a bit and fronted the wonderful Colourfield in the mid-1980s. They only released 2 albums but they are both quite good, with the first, 1985's Virgins & Philistines being the essential one.

Second album Deception did contain a cool cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Running Away" which is also worth seeking out.

The good folks at Cherry Red Records have reissued the albums with a load of bonus tracks.

In fact, Virgins & Philistines has never been available on CD in the UK.

You can order the albums from Cherry Red, or -- not sure about iTunes but they might have these titles too.

The Colourfield on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing "Thinking of You" and "Faint Hearts"

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Blood Brothers (or, Why I Don't Like Chang Cheh Films)

I'm going to tackle Chang Cheh's The Blood Brothers today. Ironically, the two sites I rely on for my Hong Kong reviews -- and Hong Kong Cinema - View From The Brooklyn Bridge -- both feature reviews of the film written (apparently) before the IVL/Celestial DVD was released and written by persons other than the main people behind those sites. There are links below to those reviews.

I've watched 115 or so Shaw Brothers films and I'm still not entirely a fan of Chang Cheh. I know why his films are important. I know what stylistic changes he brought to the wuxia and martial arts genres but I don't entirely enjoy the films and that's what matters to me.

So I sort of put off watching this famous title for as long as I could.

1973's The Blood Brothers opens with an exciting mix of action, punctuated by freeze-frame moments, and the actual film credits.

Half-screen images of the cast appear:

"David Chiang as Chang Wen Hsiang
Ti Lung as Ma Hsin I
Chen Kuan Tai as Huang Chung
Ching Li as Mi Lan.."

As the shackled-but-still-smiling David Chiang is brought into the Ching Dynasty court, in what seems a quintessential moment for the actor, the story proper begins.

The ministers (Cheng Miu and Wong Ching Ho) look down in judgment as Chang Wen Hsiang begins recounting how he murdered royal minister Ma Hsin I.

As Chang writes his confession, the scene shifts back to 9 years earlier when Chang and his godbrother, Huang Chung, were roaming the countryside as bandits.

In the first extended sequence, as Huang Chung and Chang Wen Hsiang practice their martial arts on a verdant hillside, against an impossibly blue sky, they are approached by Ma Hsin I. The stately Ti Lung battles the two bandits and, eventually, as the music swells the two take the money offered by the man after besting -- but not killing -- him in battle.

It's a scene of arrogant men trying to prove their worth, quite simply. I can see why a lot of people don't get off on this machismo. It's the difference between John Ford and Sam Peckinpah; they both made Westerns but they both also had wildly different views on humanity.

If Kurosawa was interested in the human moments amid the bloodshed, then Chang Cheh is interested in how the human moments lead to bloodshed. Or how natural male egoism fuels violence.

Still, there's a delight in those moments of bloodshed that is decidedly the opposite of Kurosawa, to compare two directors of Asian period epics.

Chang Cheh would have filmed the ending of Sanjuro in an entirely different manner, it goes without saying.

I know it's silly to compare the two but it's easier for me to use this method to figure out how to articulate what Chang Cheh is doing that I don't like and why, when others use similar-styled violence, it works for me.

After Ti Lung's Ma Hsin I gives Chen Kuan Tai's Huang Chung and David Chiang's Chang Wen Hsiang the kind of longing look young lovers give each other, the three are partners, ridding the land of other gangs of bandits.

This scene didn't work for me and it's so rushed in the film as to be a bit forced -- part of it is just spoken as Chang Wen Hsiang continues to write his confession.

But, no matter, the three are "blood brothers" and that's what the film's about.

A raid on the mountaintop stronghold of bandit leader Fan Mei Sheng provides a great, if not entirely thrilling, sequence. As you watch David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Chen Kuan Tai battle their way into hordes of extras, you do get a sense of seeing something special; this is clearly an "important" scene in Hong Kong cinema.

I never lost myself in the moment the way I do routinely with any Cheng Pei-Pei wuxia film.

However, my pure enjoyment of that scene was followed by the laughable -- and rightly so -- scene where Ching Li's Mi Lan moons over a sweaty handkerchief after Ti Lung has wiped his face with it -- going to so far as to wrap a flower in the rag!

I'm sorry -- and I know this film was made nearly 40 years ago -- but this was just ridiculous. I've watched a lot of Shaw period action films and, while they are dated and unrealistic, there was never a moment as flat-out silly as this one.

It's hard for me to enjoy a film with characters this...cartoonish. Where's the humanity that makes them real and relateable?

What audience member, with the exception of perhaps a 10-year-old female Ti Lung fan in 1973, would have reacted with a straight face to this kind of stuff?

So, by now, Ma Hsin I has taken over that mountaintop fortress and completely charmed Chang Wen Hsiang and Huang Chung, as well as Mi Lan. The men worship the leader like a god, according to Wen Hsiang's confession, and soon Mi Lan is also in the mortal deity's spell.

Ma Hsin I takes the civil service exam and joins the government of the Ching Dynasty while remaining in contact with his "gang" back home.

So when Huang Chung and Chang Wen Hsiang next see Ma Hsin I how do we know he's changed? Why it's the ole villainous mustache! Even in 1973, this was a bit of a cliche, wasn't it?

It's like watching David Hasselhoff play his evil twin on a Knight Rider episode.

Luckily, Ti Lung doesn't ham it up but the device is still a distraction.

The trio are partners again and, in a montage, we see them roaming the countryside battling bandits and emerging victorious quite easily; only Chen Kuan Tai presents a believable martial figure in these scenes as David Chiang bests his opponents with a little too much ease.

But despite the triumphs in this man's world, Ti Lung's Ma Hsin I still longs for Mi Lan.

That's really all of the plot that I need, or care, to relate.

I think The Blood Brothers succeeds -- when it does succeed -- largely on the strength of the leading trio of David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Chen Kuan Tai. No way this would have worked with Jimmy Wang-Yu in any of the three leading roles!

Still, intellectually I know why The Blood Brothers is important but I had more fun watching The Twelve Gold Medallions and I'm not ashamed to admit that, unpopular though such a sentiment might be with certain HK fanboy elements.


Here's a review from written before the film was remastered and reissued on DVD.

And Brian's site has a review as well.

The DVD features interviews with David Chiang (14 minutes) and Ching Li (10 minutes) and both have English subtitles.

You can order The Blood Brothers on DVD here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hong Kong Rhapsody (The Umetsugu Inoue Legacy)

Since I'm down to the last 4 Shaw titles in my "unwatched" DVD collection, I think I'm going to start to rewatch a few films and post some new reviews.

And, as director Umetsugu Inoue died recently, it seems only fitting that I start with a few of his 17 films for the Shaw Brothers studio.

(I'm using the Western-style version of his name as most news reports have used that.)

Brian's review of Hong Kong Rhapsody (1968) provides some background on the late director.

The 1968 film opens with some nice shots of Hong Kong at night -- it looks like Wan Chai, specifically Hennessy Road, to me -- where Li Ching shows up in overalls, her face dirt-streaked, in search of Peter Chan (Peter Chen Ho). Chan is backstage with the delectable Angela Yu Chien.

(Another aside: check out duriandave's site for a lot of great information on the actresses in this film.)

Chen is a playboy magician, making false promises to Angela Yu Chien and then having the woman hide under his couch while he makes similar promises to showgirl Helena Ma.

The film briefly turns into a "Three's Company"-style comedy with the magician Chan having a hard time pleasing the girls, all while Li Ching waits outside his dressing room door.

Li Ching assists Magician Chan with his show and the act is soon interrupted by the angry showgirls and what look to be gangsters demanding money.

Add to that, Chan's been evicted from his place and has nowhere to spend the night.

In a contrived bit of business, Li Ching and the magician take refuge in an abandoned mansion; a mansion with electricity and furniture -- how abandoned can this place be?

As Peter Chen bathes, there begins one of the film's funniest musical sequences, as the poor musician first dreams of being a Roman emperor with attendants, and then a Chinese nobleman, until, finally, the scene morphs into a modern musical number with bright pastel colors and city backdrops.

(I think Irene Chen is the girl on Peter Chen's right arm in this scene. I have been on a bit of an Irene Chen kick lately. And the time period would make sense for it to be her.)

After Li Ching bathes, she reveals to Peter Chen's character that's she's really a girl as she's been masquerading as a boy up until now -- a plot point that makes no sense, even in this contrived fantasy, as she was such a crowd-pleaser in the magic act that it seems unlikely that the crowd saw her as a little countryboy in overalls.

This is the sort of film where, when Chen walked in on her in the bath, her hair is wet and then, when she enters the bedroom seconds later, her coif is immaculately styled.

Now that he's aware that Hsiao Ping (Li Ching) is a girl, Peter Chen imagines her falling into his arms in what is probably one of Li Ching's sexiest scenes. Through some creative editing and camera placement, the actress enters the bedroom in a succession of outfits with different makeup styles to match.

That leads into yet another song utilizing the two actors and a few doubles shot from the rear to pose as the other Li Chings in the scene.

In another great sequence, Peter Chen and Li Ching travel in some very real Hong Kong locales to invite his old friends -- including Peng Peng -- to a big dinner party in the new house where the magician will unveil Li Ching.

When you watch a Shaw Brothers musical, you get a bit tired sometimes of the studio sets so any moment that takes place in a real location tends to catch a viewer by surprise.

Watching by this scene, you're struck by the unrecognized artistry of director Inoue; I mean, not to make too big a deal about it but this set of scenes full of local Hong Kong flavor was directed by a Japanese director-for-hire. It only makes you wonder what Umetsugu Inoue could have done with more time and money.

It's a fantasy version of Hong Kong much like the prefab Paris in An American in Paris and one wonders how much was tailored for local audiences and how much was aimed at overseas Chinese?

When Lin Chin-Fui (Yeung Chi Hing) shows up, the party promptly turns into a fete honoring the old man without Peter Chen at first knowing that Lin Chin-Fui is right in front of him.

Rewatching this now, 7 years after I first saw it, I feel like I have a new perspective as I now recognize these actors from a dozen different films each.

Allyson Chang Yen, Chen Hung Lieh, and Paul Wei Ping Ao are now somehow trying to convince the rich Lin Chin-Fui of their good intentions as they show up at his mansion. The kids, members of a local dance troupe, are the family of the old man and somehow he's convinced that Li Ching is his granddaughter.

In yet another inventive sequence, Peter Chen sees Li Ching singing as he holds his brandy snifter up to the light in the bar. The scene shifts to a musical sequence with Li Ching descending from heavenly heights on a levitating throne as Peter Chen dances with both Angela Yu Chien and Allyson Chang Yen.

So, the old man somehow thinks Li Ching is his granddaughter and, as this makes him happy, Allyson and Chen Hung Lieh make a case to the girl and Peter Chen to continue to visit the mansion. But Li Ching admits she's not the granddaughter and that sets up more contrived drama.

Li Ching goes to stay with Allyson Chang Yen and Yeung Chi Hing -- notice I gave up on keeping track of the character names as the subtitles don't help very much there! -- and she's to learn how to be a performer from Allyson's dance troupe buddies -- never mind that she's already been singing in Peter Chen's nightclub act!

More than other Umetsugu Inoue films, this one feels sloppy in the plot department; what there is of one, feels contrived and rushed, with plot points not totally adding up to a coherent whole.

But, who's watching stuff like this for a tight plot?

The largely abstract final musical segment features Lily Ho in the "red" sequence, Chin Ping in the "blue" sequence, and Margaret Hsing Hui (seen recently by me in A Place To Call Home) in the "yellow" sequence.

Whether it's the result of a rushed production schedule or by artistic design, the way the film just suddenly jettisons plot in favor of a nearly 15-minute dance sequence is admirable.

It would be a cliche to say it's "pure film", or something like that, but there is a kind of freedom at work here one would never find in a crime thriller or a martial arts picture.

Hong Kong Rhapsody is never more than the sum of its parts, or something like that. Taken as a whole, it's a mess.

But, as an example of the starpower of the Shaw Studios, and a lesson in how to gently experiment with style in small stretches, the film works. Peter Chen is funny; Li Ching is quite simply too cute to be real; and you get some sexy bits from Angela Yu Chien and Lily Ho -- what's not to love?

You can order Hong Kong Rhapsody on DVD here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Vermilion Door with Li Li-Hua

Li Li-Hua, from The Goddess of Mercy, stars in this drama set against the backdrop of Peking Opera. Following on from YTSL's very informative review, here are my thoughts on 1965's Vermilion Door.

Li Li-Hua plays Mu Guiyang, a Peking Opera star who entrances a warlord, Ruan Shaowen (Cheng Miu).

Mu Guiyang is already in a relationship with her costar Wu Yuqi (Kwan Shan - Rosamund's Kwan's father!).

Mu Guiyang is spirited away -- dragged, rather -- by the warlord and forced to dine with the man.

After she leaves during an all-too-ominous thunderstorm (bad stock footage), she reunites with her fiance, Wu Yuqi, who is arrested by armed troops the next day.

General Ruan's assistant, Ji Xiaoxiong (Yeung Chi Hing), arrives with a bribe just as Mu Guiyang learns of her fiance's kidnapping. Li Li-Hua's acting in this scene is quite nice. A bit dated perhaps, but her range of emotion is so clearly conveyed by her changing expressions that it feels like a fresh moment.

Mu Guiyang goes with the assistant in the hope of freeing her fiance. Escorted through a jail like something out of a Universal film of the 1930s, she finally sees her fiance being tortured as she peers through a door.

It's worth noting that the sets in this film are magnificent. General Ruan's mansion looks amazing and you get a small sense of it in the picture above. I'm sure that the Shaw Studios probably reused these sets -- or they were being reused from an earlier film.

So, the general agrees to free Wu Yuqi and then proceeds to attack Mu Guiyang in a scene straight out of silent film. As the music swells, Cheng Miu actually approaches the cowering Li Li-Hua with arms outstretched like the Frankenstein monster!

Now, I'm the first guy to like stuff from the 1960s that seems a bit dated, or over-the-top, but this was still too obvious for me.

But, given the era, and the wide audience who would see this film, the broad strokes are probably necessary. After all, opera, Chinese or Western, has the same kind of broad emotional moments so it's only fitting that a film set against that opera backdrop have the same kind of moments.

In a mix of subtle moments and histrionics, the couple reunite, a tearful Li Li-Hua simply nodding to signal to her fiance that she was indeed raped by the general.

Still, the lover is supportive and the couple marry in a quick montage of happy moments.

Mu Guiyang confronts General Ruan with the news that she is pregnant in an impressive sequence from director Law Chun. In a series of very wide shots -- that set is amazing! -- the couple discuss things in what almost looks like a filmed play.

Then, there are alternating shots of Li Li-Hua and Cheng Miu, each pushed to the edge of the screen, Li Li-Hua to the left and Cheng Miu to the right, with the rest of the frame in those shots more or less empty.

As the discussion progresses, those shots get tighter and then we pull back far away for a crane shot where the couple appear almost specks on the floor of the general's mansion.

It's almost as if the director is trying to rob General Ruan of the joy he's expressing at having a baby. There's no music as the scene slowly fades out, the silly general shouting his joy at impending fatherhood to no one in particular.

A family friend (Cheung Kwong Chiu) switches the babies in the hospital so that the real baby is taken home to Wu Yuqi and a fake baby -- where did this spare kid come from!?! -- is presented to the General.

Or is the other baby her baby with the general? I was not quite sure.

General Ruan disfigures the face of Wu Yuqi. Wu Yuqi goes to hide in the country while a newspaper headline recounts how General Ruan died in the war with the Communists.

Now, flash-forward some 17 years and Ivy Ling-Po is playing the daughter, Mei Bao.

Funnyman Lee Kwan makes an appearance as Mu Guiyang goes to the countryside to find her daughter and husband.

Having only seen Ivy Ling-Po in huangmei films, or in The 14 Amazons, it was interesting to see her in a relatively naturalistic drama, for lack of a better term. Her wig in these scenes is not very realistic and that was distracting.

As these bits of drama unfold, the news reaches Wu Yuqi that the Japanese are going to invade. I did like the fact this in this scene, and in the earlier one with the news of General Ruan's death, it seemed like an effort was made to place the larger drama within a historical context.

As Ivy Ling-Po sings a Peking Opera song about the enemy approaching, it has a further meaning as we now know about the Japanese troops marching through China.

So while the films feels a bit soap opera-ish in moments, the Peking Opera references, and historical notices, are the bits that elevate it into something more.

I shouldn't discuss the plot any more -- I've probably given away too much as it is -- but while the film sometimes seems overwrought, and dated, and full of highstrung emotions, that's not to say that the film is not well-made.

Given the era, and the intended audience, I can say that I'm sure the ending was tremendously moving.

It would be unfair of me to nitpick too much from a 2010 perspective.

Fans of Li Li-Hua will be richly rewarded with this film.

You can order Vermilion Door on DVD here.

[Photos: Pictures]

Friday, February 19, 2010

Silver Sun's 1st Album Back in Print on!

You know, this is one of those posts where I'm posting for someone out there like me who LOVED this album in 1997 or 1998 and needs to get it back.

Well, it's still rare/out-of-print. And you can't find it via Amazon's search function.

HOWEVER, I found the expanded (!) version for MP3 download on Amazon via the MP3 search function!

Only $8.99 for this power-pop masterpiece and a load of b-sides and demos!

You can get it on in the US here.

Somewhere out there, another power-pop/Britpop junkie like me is a tiny bit overjoyed at the prospect of rediscovering this gem!

"Julia" by Silver Sun

The Primitives Put The Sound Of Springtime Into My Heart!

I decided in the car this morning that this song was what I needed to put me in a Springtime mood.

I'm sick of snow.

I'm sick of the Olympics.

I'm sick of the Academy Awards and Oscar season.

I was sick of football way before the Super Bowl happened.

It's near the end of February which means that Spring-like weather is only about 4 weeks away -- though it has snowed here in mid-March!

Still, this gem from Coventry's The Primitives makes me feel better.

And this was a clip I had not seen before until today.

So enjoy!

"Out of Reach" by The Primitives

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Linda Lin Dai in Diau Charn

There are a lot of ways to approach something like Diau Charn (1958). You can watch it as a historical epic or as an early huangmei success for the Shaw studios.

And, of course, you can watch it with the knowledge of Lin Dai's short life weighing down on you. But, much like I do when I watch a film with my beloved Jean Harlow, I find myself forgetting all that baggage about the lead actress' life and, instead, just so thoroughly enjoy the work of the actress that I almost forget all that tragic stuff outside the film.

duriandave at Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema has a lot of great posts on Lin Dai, like this one, and they help explain her appeal to a modern viewer.

And it's worth noting that this is the first period piece I've seen her in.

And I'm certainly not an expert on huangmei diao. Or Chinese literature, legend, and history.

So the only way I can watch this is as a studio production intended for a mainstream Chinese audience in 1958 (some sources say 1956, but most others say 1958 so that's what I'm going with).

Okay, on to Diau Charn.

(I'm using the name Diau Charn, even though it's most likely supposed to Diao Chan, since Diau Charn is the title of the film. And it's what's in the subtitles.)

In 190, during the Han Dynasty, the wicked warlord Dong Zhuo burns the capital, and the residents, including Diau Charn (Linda Lin Dai), flee in terror with their families. It is here that the story opens.

As Diau Charn mourns her parents in song -- throwing herself over their bodies -- I was struck by how modern the scene felt. Yes, this is a 1950s film but even a novice viewer like me can see modern acting techniques at work.

The presentation may be familiar and stagey -- that's probably what audiences expected with this classic story on film -- but Lin Dai doesn't move like those actresses in other huangmei films; she's decidedly modern. I was a bit surprised with the subtlety of her acting in that scene, though I'm sure some viewers will see it as typically "old fashioned" and of the 1950s.

Diau Charn makes her way to Zhang An city with the rest of the refugees. She soon joins a singing troupe of the reportedly kind Minister Wang (Yeung Chi Hing).

It's nice to see Yeung Chi Hing playing a good character; less than 10 years after this and he'd be typecast as a villainous sort in scores of films.

Diau Charn senses the good Minister Wang's distress and sings a solo song that basically asks what she can do for her country -- how can she help the Han Dynasty return to glory?

Minister Wang overhears and soon has a plan for the lovely Diau Charn to sow dissension in the court of Dong Zhuo.

(I'm hoping duriandave knows the name of the actress who dances an amazingly revealing -- for 1958 or now! -- kind of fan-dance in the court in the subsequent scene!)

Minister Wang helps General Lu Bu (Zhao Lei) repair a headdress and thus gains the man's trust and also admittance into the court as Lin Dai's Diau Charn waits behind a screen.

Director Li Han-Hsiang's camera zooms in on the actress behind the screen in what is probably one of the best moments of Lin Dai's onscreen life.

The actress goes from girlish, to confident, to shy, to seductive, to coy in seconds; she even adjusts her hair in a nice modern movement before playing submissive when Lu Bu finally catches sight of her behind the partition.

An amazing little bit of film that explains wordlessly every charm of the late actress; she does more in a few seconds than most actresses could do with pages and pages of dialogue.

It's similar in some weird way to what happens when watching a James Dean film. As a viewer, you bring this baggage with you about the performer's tragic and all-too-short life, so you look at the performer on screen in a certain way.

But then, that backstory fades from your mind, and you are looking because the performer is quite simply the most exciting thing in the film and you wait for him or her to come back in front of the camera.

Director Li knew what he was doing; the camera is not zooming in because the story requires it, or because the character is saying something special; he's zooming in because Lin Dai is a star and she's bringing to life a character and historical figure that probably everyone in the audience in 1958 knew.

Add to this a modern feel as the camera moves about in many of these scenes -- another touch I didn't expect to find in a 1958 film like this.

So Diau Charn accomplishes her mission: creating tension between Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu. She effectively has the warlord trying to protect her from Lu Bu after provoking him into an emotional moment, and she's clearly won the heart of the general already.

Warlord Dong Zhuo takes the maiden to Meiwu, away from General Lu Bu. Diau Charn sings her solo song amid the golden columns and longs for Lu Bu, thinking of her time with him at the Phoenix Pavilion. Meanwhile, Lu Bu, at the Phoenix Pavilion, is alone and singing a similar song of his real affection for Diau Charn.

Minister Wang confronts Lu Bu and tries to persuade him to think of how history will remember him, how he owes his service to the Han Dynasty. And how, after all, Warlord Dong Zhuo did throw a spear at him the last time they were together!

Now, Lu Bu gathers his troops and plans to fight the traitorous warlord.

After Dong Zhuo is killed by the spear of Lu Bu, Diau Charn faces her greatest challenge.

Minister Wang grimly informs the happy girl that she now must "uproot everything" -- meaning kill Lu Bu since he was once partners with the traitorous warlord -- Dong Zhuo had gone so far as to treat Lu Bu as his son.

I'll not ruin the film with any more of the plot in case there are other Lin Dai fans out there who don't already know this story.

Speaking as a modern film viewer in the year 2010, Diau Charn was much more enjoyable than any number of Ivy Ling-Po huangmei films.

I know that the subject matter is different and all that; I'm just talking in very, very general terms at the moment as someone who sat down to watch this because he liked Lin Dai's modern roles and came away thoroughly enjoying her work in a period piece.

A period piece with singing no less.

The DVD has a 5-minute segment on remastering and restoring the Shaw Brothers library and Diau Charn figures prominently as more than 70% of the negatives were damaged. I know there is some dispute as to the techniques employed in the restoration of these Shaw titles so I'll leave it at that.

The DVD also comes with 4 postcards of Lin Dai.

The bonus VCD is more than an hour long and features some amazing black-and-white newsreel footage of the late star's Jardine's Lookout home taken shortly after her death.

The newsreel footage has English subtitles but the remaining 2007 segments do not.

Still, one doesn't need subtitles to be moved by the sight of Lin Dai's home, preserved as it was at the time of her death.

The lengthy interviews with Cheng Pei-Pei and Petrina "Bobo" Fung do not have English subtitles either.

The black-and-white, Shaw Brothers-produced (?) "Tribute to Lin Dai" from 1964 does have English subtitles, luckily.

There are some wonderful newsreel scenes from the premiere of The Last Woman of Shang (1964), and there are a good two dozen Shaw stars in the arrival scenes, only some of them announced on the narration from the newsreel.

And there's also footage of Shaw starlets arriving for the photo exhibition on Lin Dai, proving that these actresses were not just angels on the screen -- they were/are human after all!

For a goofy movie fan like me, it's like seeing Rita Hayworth in a newsreel greeting soldiers or something.

(I was so excited with this footage on the bonus VCD that I took a picture using my computer's webcam since I don't have my DVD player hooked up to my computer!)

Li Ching arrives at the exhibit, there in the front...

You can buy Diau Charn -- presumably still shipped with the postcards and special bonus VCD? -- here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

We Love Millionaires (R.I.P. Umetsugu Inoue 1923 - 2010)

According to this 15 February 2010 news article -- translated into English via Google -- Japanese director Umetsugu Inoue died of a brain hemorrhage.

Here's another news story from Variety that places the director's death on 11 February 2010.

Director Inoue had a long career but he will be remembered by people like me as the director of the best Shaw Brothers musicals. His filmography lists his many wonderful films. I recently watched, enjoyed, and reviewed The Yellow Muffler and Whose Baby Is In The Classroom?, and a lot of those other titles were some of the first films I purchased and enjoyed when the Shaw Brothers reissues started up in 2003.

As I didn't have this blog back then, I didn't review them -- I've been too busy catching up on all unwatched titles in my collection for the past year.

According to The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study, Umetsugu Inoue came to Hong Kong in 1965, having signed a contract with the Shaw Studios to make 100 films. He made 17.

The musical ones seem to blend together in my mind and they all have the "organic" progression that The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study also mentions.

But this quote serves to highlight some important things about his work as a director:

"[The style] is often cheesy...Inoue is a studio director through and through, who does not let ideas or artistic effects distract him. The formula he represents is something of a departure for Hong Kong cinema, but not a radical one...Inoue's facility, plasticity, and nocturnal environments are supposed to appeal to a younger, more cosmopolitan, and uninhibited audience."

I think this is why, when I watch something like We Love Millionaires, that I am completely happy; there's no message, no subtext, nothing but pure studio product being pumped out to please kids.

You can see a studio trying to appeal to kids in 1971 -- sometimes failing, probably -- and you can see a time capsule of the era too; heck, the girls in We Love Millionaires seem to have new outfits in every scene! So much for being poor department store employees!

(Maybe they were stealing merchandise from the stock room?)

The difference between these pictures and something like Beach Blanket Bingo -- and I'm just hypothesizing here -- is that the AIP picture feels like something that even in 1965 was meant to appeal to an audience of kids younger than the characters on screen.

Inoue's films, on the contrary, feel like they are meant for girls at home in Hong Kong wanting to dress like Lily Ho.

They are just as corny in many ways but they are fun because you can see a Western style filtered by a Japanese director into a Chinese commercial product.

So, today, as a way of remembering the legacy of director Umetsugu Inoue, I'm going to rewatch 1971's We Love Millionaires and see how it holds up.

Opening over great scenes of a bustling Hong Kong, circa 1971, We Love Millionaires begins in great fashion. The cute Yili (Irene Chen) gets virtually crushed getting off the ferry. The poor girl loses her glasses and then her shoe and ends up running to work with one wrong shoe.

Cut to Lily Ho working a perfume counter in a large department store. With her beehive hairdo, she is a picture of 1970s sexiness. No wonder the old male customers are smitten with her.

So the three girls -- Nancy Ho (Lily Ho), Lin Yili (Irene Chen), and Bai Luhua (Korean actress Chui Chi Suk) -- give up their jobs in the large Hong Kong department store and set off for Japan in order to find rich husbands.

They board the cramped boat at Hong Kong harbour and promise to return in first class.

The girls are desperate and so use a popular bestselling book, We Love Millionaires, to guide them as they prepare for arriving in Japan to fulfill their dreams of finding rich husbands.

Sun Peishan (Lee Kwan) picks up the girls at the dock in his dilapidated car. Yili reads a letter from her fiance, Lishan, announcing that he's found another woman.

En route to Lake Biwa, the girls are passed by a bus carrying guys from Kobe University. As Bai leans out of the window to ask for a song, the guys are soon bursting into one -- complete with backup singers; where are they hiding? -- on the bus in a scene reminiscent of any number of American International "beach" pictures.

The car breaks down and within seconds rich and handsome Gao Lang (Ling Yun) pulls up in a new car to whisk the girls away, with Nancy blabbering to the guy that the girls are the daughters of bank presidents and other industry leaders back in Hong Kong.

Nancy plans to have the trio stay with her rich uncle on the shores of Lake Biwa until it turns out that the man is simply housesitting and not living in his own fancy mansion.

The uncle puts the girls up with the warning that they will have to leave when the tenants return.

So the trio sets out to turn heads at the pool. Poor Yili (Irene Chen) has been badgered into not wearing her glasses so, while walking sexily down by the water, she falls in.

Nancy (Lily Ho) soon discovers that Gao Lang is not a rich guy after all but just a college student.

There's a lot of silliness -- but wonderful 1971-era silliness -- as the girls attempt to find their men. Bai hooks up with a musician from that university bus, Lily's Nancy is pursued by Gao Lang, and the perpetually clueless Yili has an older jeweller after her.

There are thieves after that older jeweller as well. The jeweller is smitten with Yili, especially when she removes her glasses since she then looks like his dead wife.

Bai is serenaded by the band leader -- again! -- as it seems like that character is always singing the same song, while Lily's Nancy is being wooed by the cocky Gao Lang.

Meanwhile, Sun Peisahn (Lee Kwan) is plotting to rob the jeweller's hotel room.

There's a great moment where the girls debate returning to Hong Kong and Lily Ho's character, seeing a trumpet-soundtracked montage of the crowds from the beginning of the film, decides that they will stay and try to find husbands in Japan rather than return to that!

It would be foolish to try to recount more of the plot as -- of course -- it ends with more music and more Technicolor manic nonsense.

A proper review of this would list Lily Ho's outfits and hairstyles over any other pluses of the movie.

After all, this film, disposable at the time, now works as a nice, innocent little 92-minute ride into 1971 Hong Kong youth culture...even if the majority of the film takes place in Japan and was helmed by a Japanese director!

Check out Brian's review here.

You can order We Love Millionaires on DVD here.

UPDATE: Here's a funny scene from the film, originally posted to YouTube by duriandave of Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Why The Captain America Movie Will Be A Failure

(If you are a Republican, you should stop reading now. If you are a Conservative, then you'll probably be okay even though I'm gonna fly the Liberal flag proudly for a moment.)

I dread a Captain America movie. Just dread it. The World War 2 exploits of Captain America will not be a problem; it's when he gets to the modern age that things get complicated.

This story today about Marvel apologizing to the Tea Party movement just infuriates me.

I grew up on the Captain America made popular by Jack Kirby in the mid-1970s (see below). This Captain was a man-out-of-time and he represented an almost childish form of American idealism.

Somehow, those values -- albeit slightly left ones -- have now been branded liberal as if Captain America is the extreme character now, and not a representation of the American ideal -- an ideal that is both Conservative and Liberal actually, when you take the time to examine the way Captain America/Steve Rogers behaves in our modern age.

But what really set me off was this absurd quote from the Tea Party group's leader/founder:

"'When I was a child in the '60s Captain America was my favorite superhero,' he said. 'It's really sad to see what has traditionally been a pro-America figure being used to advance a political agenda.'"

Okay, time to rip this guy a new one:

1) If he was a fan of Cap in the 1960s, then what's the problem? Captain America has always been more or less the same idealist -- maybe liberal -- that he was then. America has changed but Captain America remains a kind of idealistic do-gooder.

Captain America is not so different now; Mr. Tea Party, maybe you changed?

2) The quote implies that Captain America, by virtue of criticizing the Tea Party people, is somehow now not pro-America -- they are pro-America but Captain America is not anymore? This is a classic Right Wing tactic to smear the other guy as being the one out-of-step and radical.

3) "...being used to advance a political agenda" -- Okay, every agenda is political in some way.

So, the question is not "Is Captain America political?" Of course, he is; it's an absurd question to even ask.

The question is why is what was normal behavior for this character 30, 40, and 50 years ago now somehow so far left of the mainstream as to be extreme?

When did "liberal" get to be such a bad word?

All this boils down to the "on the other hand-ism" that is sure to plague any film version of Captain America set in modern times.

In an effort not to lose any fans, Captain America will be blanded out so that his values are so fuzzy-wuzzy as to be nothing more than flag-waving.

If the Captain America film is like Iron Man, I'll be happy. That film managed to make a little tiny statement as it revealed a character changing from one worldview to another, the irony here being that Tony Stark was always a bit right wing -- especially during the Marvel Civil War a few years ago.

There's room in the Marvel Universe for both Liberals and Conservatives; let Cap be Cap, even if some people see him as this extreme liberal figure.

Red River with Nick Cheung and Zhang Jingchu

I'm surprised that the guys at have not already tackled this, so here goes with my review of Red River (2009), the reteaming of Nick Cheung and Zhang Jingchu from the acclaimed The Beast Stalker. As readers here are aware, I was quite pleased with that film.

So, what about Red River?

The film opens in Vietnam in 1973. A young girl, Tao, loses her father in a war-related accident and we then flash-forward to 1997 somewhere on China's border with Vietnam (the subtitles don't reveal where). Tao is now an adult, played by Zhang Jingchu, and she's sent to work at a massage parlor. In a nice shot, she and her girlfriends/coworkers look down from their balcony to the busy street below where we meet Nick Cheung's Xia, a karaoke stall operator.

The next morning, as the camera pans through Xia's apartment, we hear Chinese opera playing on the stereo, and we see pictures of traditional Peking Opera performers on the walls. Xia is paying a prostitute her fee after a night's work despite reminding the girl that she said she loved him the night before. Nick Cheung brings a lot of vulnerability to this scene and it's quite refreshing after his violent and psychopathic turn in Election.

At the massage parlor, Tao works as a maid and, in a poetic bit of film business, ends up servicing Boss Sha Ba (Shaw Brothers legend, Danny Lee) after the other girls are afraid to. Boss Sha Ba bears the wounds of his fight against the American troops, including a metal leg and scars and shrapnel wounds. He leaves pleased after an apparently non-sexual massage from the dim Tao.

The madam of the place, Shui (played by Hong Kong cinema mainstay Loletta Lee), sends Tao out for food and lets the girl keep some of her money from Boss Sha Ba.

When next we see her, she runs into Xia when hiding during a police shakedown of the massage parlor. Due to a similar mole on Xia's forehead, she thinks he is her father -- or at least calls him "Papa" when seeing him for the first time.

Soon, in another bit of nice, but somewhat contrived, film business, Tao is singing at Xia's karaoke stall and her voice is so good that Xia is next buying the girl's services from Mamasan Shui, who offers the caveat that Xia needs to take care of the girl's food and lodging.

She also warns that Tao is still a virgin, which is not surprising since the audience is already aware that the girl is a bit slow mentally.

Soon, Xia is charging money to passersby to sing with Tao at his street-level karaoke stand and his business is booming -- low level hoods stop on the street to pay to sing with the sweet and smiling girl.

You know, this kind of film is exactly why I like watching films on DVD!

The scenes of Nick Cheung and Zhang Jingchu practicing karaoke -- if I only knew the songs they were doing!-- on a rooftop overlooking the Chinese countryside are so good and precious that it actually helps me enjoy the film if I hit "pause" and run to the bathroom or go get a soda as it feels like I'm prolonging the magic of the story.

And I say that because as a viewer this is the kind of film where I just dread the ending; I know I'm going to see Tao's kind heart crushed by circumstance, or something like that.

I should also note that the film is borderline melodramatic, though still naturalistic in its presentation of these moments, and the lack of an intruding soundtrack helps the viewer in the enjoyment of the unaffected drama between these two lonely characters.

And it doesn't hurt that Nick Cheung is playing a relatively nice guy. And Zhang Jingchu is just marvelous -- almost comical without reducing Tao to a bumbling stereotype of a character.

Tao is not a magical retard like Forrest Gump, nor is she some shambling collection of acting tricks like Dustin's Rainman; she's just a bit off, somewhat slow and perhaps emotionally dazed following her father's death.

But then, Xiao Yue, Xia's former lover, is back in town. Xia reveals how he lost the woman, his former partner in a Yunnan Opera troupe, in an amazing sequence that borders on the histrionic but, given my affection for the two actors involved, becomes spellbinding and simple and real.

Piecing together clues from the film, the viewer learns that Xia is of the Yao minority from somewhere in the Kunming Province, a fact that will be central to the plot later on.

After a comical misunderstanding, the couple are apart with Tao seeking refuge with Danny Lee's Boss Sha Ba and Xia longing for his former employee/housemate/partner.

But, not long after seeing proof of Boss Sha Ba's wickedness and the frightened Tao is making her escape. Xia gets beaten up as the guys who work for the Boss look for Tao and her old mamasan, Shui, doesn't seem to know where she is either.

A lonely and now dejected Xia makes his way to the countryside for a wedding celebration in his old village.

Needless to say, without surprising many viewers, Tao joins Xia in schlepping his karaoke equipment out to the countryside for the traditional festivities in Kunming Province.

I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot. I can't say I was totally surprised as it unfolded -- surprised in small ways maybe. This is the type of film where you get the feeling of how things will progress.

And if I was going to seriously critique the film, I'd say that it's a bit too forced in the "big" moments of the plot. As I prefer a kind of naturalistic storytelling -- when I'm not watching mainstream Hong Kong features, or old Shaw Brothers costume dramas and musicals, that is! -- and Red River would have been a minor masterpiece without those bits of high drama that propel the story forward.

As it is, the addition of those moments is why I hesitate to recommend the film for everyone; a cynical viewer would have points to make that I couldn't exactly argue against.

Still, if you like these two performers -- both at the peak of their careers -- you will be richly rewarded by spending 99 minutes with them here.

I would have been happy if the whole film had been just about the couple's courtship, with or without the other stuff.

And it's worth noting how much Loletta Lee and Danny Lee do with so little. That's not to say that their parts are underwritten but, when compared to a similar role assayed by Tony Leung Ka-Fai in Lost in Beijing, Danny Lee is masterfully underplaying his "villain" role; Boss Sha Ba remains human and not a "bad guy" stereotype.

Loletta Lee still looks great and she has one great scene with Nick Cheung that reveals a bit of her character's vulnerability.

The DVD features a 1-hour, 5-minute "making of" segment that is essentially behind-the-scenes footage of the film production. No English subtitles, unfortunately.

And there's a 5-minute press conference/premiere segment as well. Again, no English subtitles.

You can order Red River on DVD here.

[Photos: YesAsia/]

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty

A mildly intriguing Cat. III feature from 1984, An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty is an interesting, well-shot failure -- in its 97-minute version, at least.

From reading other online reviews of this title, it seems as if the film has been severely edited and, as the Shaw Brothers reissue version is even shorter than the version YTSL watched and reviewed, I think it's safe to say that the film has been cut dramatically.

So, from what I can gather from the edited film that remains, Patricia Ha Man Jik's Yu Yuan-Gi has left a Taoist monastery to become a courtesan.

In a nice, almost wordless sequence, she dives into the water in her satin gown, and rises to be greeted by the sword point of Alex Man's Tsui Pok-Hau's blade. Alex was quite effective in Hong Kong Hong Kong and his good looks help in his role here.

There's a pretty steamy scene on Tsui Pok-Hau's boat but it's strangely unerotic. Well-shot and carefully framed, the scene felt a bit clinical to me.

Then, following some battle scenes with the rogue swordsman, Yu Yuan-Gi returns to the Taoist monastery.

I will admit that it was quite hard to get a grip on the plot as I watched the 97-minute version of the film.

It's an episodic take on the woman's life both inside and outside the brothel but we never get a sense of the character -- what she was prior to the alternation of the Taoist life and the courtesan's role.

Still, the visuals -- erotic or otherwise -- are beautiful at times and the DVD picture was anamorphic widescreen which was a nice touch.

Pat Ha was so good in My Name Ain't Suzie -- a film that transcended its erotic Cat. III origins -- as well as in a small role in The Flying Mr. B, and there are moments when she conveys some emotion here. But, largely due to the editing or direction of the film, it's apparent that she either was in the film because she was a young actress who had to do a Cat. III film to get her career started, or she was in the film and it was a real dramatic feature that was severely butchered into a much shorter, erotic psuedo-exploitation picture.

The direction by Eddie Fong is assured and seems reminiscent of a Yonfan film for some reason. Fong wrote the script for A Fishy Story, an altogether different kind of Hong Kong cinema classic.

Unfortunately, An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty is listed as out-of-print on both DVD and VCD.

[Photos: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Black Falcon with Jenny Hu

With bongos playing on the soundtrack, and a girl in a negligee fleeing down a dark street in a pre-credits sequence, 1967's The Black Falcon opens with a bang -- literally, as Tien Feng shows up, shoots the girl in the belly, and steals a reel of film from her.

As Brian noted in his review, the film is a clear James Bond pastiche but that's not to say that it's not fun on its own as well.

Turns out that the murdered girl was carrying film that implicated the shadowy Black Falcon gang in a series of crimes and the heads of a insurance union call in a detective (Paul Chang Chung) to crack the case -- his superior leading him to Jenny Hu's character with an instruction to "date her" or "marry her" -- whatever it takes to find our whatever it is she knows about her missing father, a man who may be the head of the shadowy Black Falcon group.

A Black Falcon head henchmen (played by Wong Hap) dispatches his three best assassins from his secret lair, the assassins being played by Ku Feng, Tien Feng, and another older actor I didn't recognize under the makeup.

With peppy music on the soundtrack, the impossibly cute Julie Tan (Jenny Hu) sets out in her red sportscar, little knowing her life is in peril. She meets Detective Zhang in a hip nightclub where the rest of the kids are dancing to a manic instrumental cover of The Coasters' Yakety Yak.

Ku Feng's killer runs Zhang off the road but the idiot "bad guys" don't check to see if the hero is really dead. Surviving an impossible crash, Zhang -- like James Bond -- never dies, it seems.

Soon, the old bespectacled assassin sets up a meeting with Julie Tan and informs her that Zhang is really out to get her father.

With a surprising bare breasted model posing in this scene, Jenny Hu is approached at her art studio by two of the killers in advance of Zhang's arrival.

Zhang figures out the plot, shows up, and in a so-misogynistic 1960s touch, karate-chops Julie Tan in the neck in order to knock her out and take her out of harm's way.

The old assassin -- who looks quite a bit like a character from the TV cartoon series, The Venture Brothers -- is drugged by a woman at a strip-club-kind-of-club and Zhang shows up only to be met by the very same woman who drugged the killer.

At the 41-minute mark, Margaret Tu Chuan makes her first appearance as the assumed head of the Black Falcon organization. Sitting in a mod set, in front of a black falcon emblazoned on the wall, and with her lackeys entering to deliver news of Zhang's escape, she oozes venom and allure -- the Dragon Lady stereotype come to life in glorious and garish fashion.

duriandave at Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema has done an exemplary job of educating me about Margaret Tu Chuan. Check out this wonderful post and look up his others on the stunning actress.

As Julie Tan and Zhang make their escape to a lush hotel (!) in Macau, there follows an amazing scene for Jenny Hu fans.

Now, having seen the actress in Till The End Of Time, as well as in River of Tears and Guess Who Killed My Twelve Lovers, I guess I was not expecting the actress to be so incredibly sexy in an early role like this; it's just such a moment of obvious 1960s cheesecake, that I was very surprised.

(Though that still is from an earlier scene of the actress changing outfits in her studio.)

The couple has separate rooms and we see in the dim light Jenny Hu in a dangerously revealing kind of teddy-style nightie-and-panties set twist-and-turn restlessly in her bed. She gets up to join Zhang in his room in a languid stroll across the camera that must have made 1967 stagehands sweat profusely; she is simply physically amazing!

Wu Ma shows up as another killer who rounds up a series of his henchmen to pursue Zhang in Macau.

Zhang has been hiding in the bathtube of a voluptuous woman in a bathrobe and, before stealing her absent husband's boat to make an escape, we see the towel drop and Zhang move in like a lustful James Bond. "Hey," I wanted to scream at the screen, "What about Jenny Hu?"

There's a great fistfight in front of the ruins of St. Paul's in Macau.

Check out this pic from my trip there last August.

This is right in front of the ruins facing the opposite direction. The fight scene would have been filmed right about here.

Soon, Margaret Tu Chuan's Miss Hu is being appointed official head of the Black Falcon gang. In what looks like a debutante ball gown, she looks down on her minions from her throne -- I half-expected her to let out a Dragon Lady-like cackle.

There's more action and when next we see Margaret Tu Chuan she's in a bubble bath -- relaxing after taking charge of her villainous minions? -- wearing the same high hairdo. She reaches out of the bubbles to answer her phone to hear news of Julie Tan's capture and then she next tries to seduce Wong Hap's character. Such a Swingin' Sixties scene!

The ending felt hurried to me for some reason but the whole film moves along at such a quick clip that it's hard to fault the film for anything.

Not as much of a retro blast as Angel With Iron Fists, but still a gas.

You can order The Black Falcon on DVD here.

[Photos: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures]