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.