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.