Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tropicana Interlude with Lily Ho

Lily Ho's car races through the beautiful Singapore countryside and the actress then literally leaps out of her convertible roadster and rushes into the airport to greet Jian Ren (Jimmy Lin Chong). Lily Ho's Yong Lan scrunches up her nose in a cute gesture as the couple race to embrace again.

It's not mere starpower at work here as Lily is dressed in a shockingly bright yellow outfit and scarf and Jimmy is wearing a white sort-of-Nehru jacket. The rest of the people in the airport are just mere mortals, extras in ordinary gray clothes, as these two film deities glide through their world.

Perhaps I am being a bit dramatic but, really, this film is about starpower and not much else. Read on.

1969's Tropicana Interlude is like drinking a Pina Colada on a beach. I think I watched this the first time on a winter's day and it certainly made me feel better at the time.

Jian Ren is returning to his parents' ridiculously splendid mansion in Singapore and the guy can barely wait to jump into the pool -- something he does before even greeting his mother.

It seems that Jian Ren has returned from a trip to Italy with an intention of becoming a musician and not going into business with his family.

Of course, his father (Liu Kei) and mother (Ouyang Sha-Fei) disapprove.

Later that night, there's a garden party with Lily Ho's Yong Lan and the singing starts again, this time with the whole group of teenagers and young adults joining in.

I guess now's as good a time as any to say that Jimmy Lin Chong is annoying. Even for 1969, he's a bit insufferable. I don't think I'm the first one to compare him to John Davidson.

But for this kind of nonsense, he's okay. After all, it's Lily Ho most people want to see.

And during the pictured beach idyll -- where Lily Ho looks fantastic I might add but probably don't need to -- she tells the guy that she's going to get him a job as a tour guide for boss Sun (Paul Wei Ping Ao).

After playing some slimeballs, Paul Wei is pretty funny here, turning his general unctuousness into comedy for a change.

Jian Ren's first job as a tour guide is for Miss Dong Xian Yun (Essie Lin Chia), a schoolteacher in charge of a few teenagers including Lily Li as Li Ai Rong.

As Jian Ren takes the girls through a museum, it's clear that Li Ai Rong is going to be the petulant one and cause trouble for the tour guide.

For fans of the Shaw starlets, this film is like crack; Essie Lin, Lily Ho, and an uber-cute Lily Li; maybe it's a weakness of character on my part, but the more the teen acted like a bitch in her little cute 1960s outfits, the more I was totally smitten with her.

But, this was a film from a different era and a bitch in a frothy 1969 comedy is a far cry from the Kim Kardashians and Lindsay Lohans of today's world, eh?

So, after a cookout on the rocks on the beach, the gang goes swimming -- no waiting an hour after eating to swim? -- but Jian Ren is lured behind a big rock by Li Ai Rong. Lily Li reveals a two-piece bathing suit and tries to get the tour guide to help her button up the back. Then she's throwing her arms around the guy's neck but Jimmy Lin Chong is loyal to Lily Ho and so rebuffs the 19-year-old (though Lily Li is probably playing someone a tiny bit younger).

Soon, there's a big, comical fight in a nightclub and Jian Ren is in prison.

It's then that the comedy turns to the unintentional sort as the still sharply dressed Jimmy Lin Chong begins to serenade his fellow prisoners -- there's even a guy playing a harmonica somewhere! -- and they get all misty-eyed for home.

Even in 1969 Singapore, a guy thrown into the clink in a sky-blue polyester suit and white turtleneck sweater would get his ass beat pretty quick I think.

Enough of my comedy. He gets bailed out by his father who is not too happy at this turn of events and Lily Ho is there with the family at the jail in a new outfit.

Jian Ren takes Miss Dong and her teenagers to Malaysia and the sequence is delightful. Really, it's nothing more than a very blatant commercial to boost tourism in Malaysia but the cast manages to cover so many famous sites that it's hard to not appreciate the scene.

Tropicana Interlude is slight, silly, and dated but those are not necessarily bad things; it's a diversion from ordinary life for 90-or-so minutes and Lily's fashions are a retro blast.

And I'm sure someone out there likes Jimmy Lin Chong, right? Right?

Check out Brian's review of this film as well.

You can order Tropicana Interlude on DVD here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Time For Heroes: The Libertines Reunite

I've been waiting for this!

Yes, The Libertines have decided to reunite for the Reading and Leeds festivals in England this summer.

There are not many bands worth getting excited about but The Libs were briefly one of them.

Despite the fact that I don't like that shirtless look that Pete Doherty sometimes championed, I gave the band a pass because when they were on, they were genius.

And I'm not one for Doherty's whole Rimbaud shtick -- he seems to be overdoing the deranging of the senses-bit -- but the sometimes-street-poetry of his lyrics was offset constantly by Carl Barat's popsense.

They were like The Clash of Sandanista (1980) but harnessed (by producer Mick Jones of The Clash!) into something focused and sharp and direct.

Always sounding like they just picked up their instruments minutes before plugging in, they managed to make anthems that were smart, catchy, and life-affirming even if they sounded like the last yelps of a guy drinking himself to death in a rundown bar.

Well, maybe more like the drunk breathing into your ear and trying to provoke a bar fight?

Sure, I think that both guys produced moments of genuine genius post-Libertines -- Pete with Babyshambles and "Fuck Forever" and "Deft Left Hand" and Carl with Dirty Pretty Things and "Bang Bang You're Dead" -- but they clearly need each other to succeed even more than the Gallagher brothers.

And, most importantly, even if they suck at the festivals and fall apart -- again! -- on a stage in front of thousands -- that falling apart business will be more real and human and memorable than a dozen other bands at that same festival; who the fuck will be talking about headliners Arcade Fire the next day when the Libertines proceed those Canadian art-rockers?

The Libertines "Boys in the Band", 2002 on Jools Holland's TV show...

The Shadow Whip with Cheng Pei-Pei

Apart from Cheng Pei-Pei's cute outfit, there's not much to relate about The Shadow Whip apart from the plot. A fun film but not really a significant one.

1971's snowscaped The Shadow Whip opens with a group of people on horseback traversing a mountainside. I'm guessing that this was filmed in Taiwan given the real snow, and not Hong Kong? Lee Kwan sings a song and within minutes Cheng Pei-Pei, looking magnificent in her red, fur-trimmed outfit, rides up to the guy as his horses are stolen.

Later, Wong Hap, the leader of the "serial trio," quickly gets into the usual wuxia inn brawl with Yueh Hua until Cheng Pei-Pei shows up. The fighting stops and explanations are offered. Yueh Hua introduces himself as Wang Jianxin and Cheng Pei-Pei reveals herself a student of a famous whip master.

Soon, Ku Feng is striding into Cheng Pei-Pei's guesthouse in an ominous fashion leaving Lee Kwan a bit spooked.

Tien Feng is the master who owns the guesthouse and Cheng Pei-Pei tells her uncle about being asked by Wang Jianxin about the Shadow Whip, Fang Chengtian. Take a guess who that really is?

And so on until the ending.

The good thing about The Shadow Whip -- besides its brief running time -- is the fact that the film was shot on a lot of real locations. Sure, there are the usual backlot scenes but, as this is set in a snowy clime, this necessitated a lot of real location work for director Lo Wei and his crew, apparently.

What would be ordinary duel scenes in another film from this era take on the added drama that goes with being in a real locale.

And, since the film is so short, it seems as if it's action-packed. The fight scenes are all a bit bloodier than in earlier Cheng Pei-Pei films. It's not quite a Chang Cheh film but it's a lot less acrobatic in nature than her other work.

There's really not much to write about The Shadow Whip as it's a slight film in many ways. That's not an insult but simply an acknowledgment that it's a product of a studio which was cranking out a lot of these films.

There are some interesting figures in The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study (2003):

"[I]n 1968, Shaws released 13 wuxia films out of a total of 29; In 1969, 17 out of 35; in 1970 (16 out of 34); in 1971 (24 out of 39); in 1972 (26 out of 37). These figures demonstrated that wuxia films had become the mainstay in the production line of Shaw studio."

So what remains interesting and admirable about something like The Shadow Whip is the speed and economy with which the product was generated.

But if you've never seen it before, you could just watch The Shadow Whip for the plot.

Read Brian's review here.

You can order The Shadow Whip on DVD here.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Marion Cotillard and Franz Ferdinand: Eyes of Mars

Wow, I'm seriously digging this. I don't know much about the actress but this is exactly the sort of pop I live for.

Unfortunately, the boys from Franz Ferdinand are not in the actual video.

There's a Sarah Nixey-ish vibe to the beginning of this track and then, at the 2:00 minute mark, it kicks into high gear and turns into something else entirely.

(Hat tip to Stereogum for the original news story.)

Marion Cotillard and Franz Ferdinand "Eyes of Mars"

Friday, March 26, 2010

New Frankie and The Heartstrings Video - Tender

Those Sunderland lads -- no, not The Futureheads! -- have done it again; new single "Tender" isn't out until 19 April but the video is on YouTube and it's below.

Now, the industrious reader of this blog could find some Frankie and The Heartstrings free MP3s 'round these parts if he or she was so inclined to look. That's all I'm saying.

The production of new single "Tender" by Mr. Pete Gofton -- he of Kenickie and some solo stuff like the splendid George Washington Brown (the poignant track "A Guess, Rewind" is conveniently the free download on that link) -- is impressive. The vocals and instruments are sharp and defined and those semi-retro backing vocals that pop-in near the end are quite nice. Word has it that the mix is by James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, The Klaxons, Florence and The Machine).

Badly produced indie has never been my thing and this track is damn good Brit indie done with a high degree of professionalism; I half-expected to see the boys in matching suits or something in that video!

There's an early 1980's Factory vibe there with a decidedly mid-1980s upbeat feel to the rest of the track.

You can check out the band's website for more information on the single.

Frankie and The Heartstrings "Tender"

Brothers Five with Cheng Pei-Pei

When I set out to rewatch a few Cheng Pei-Pei titles, it's ironic that one of my first choices was 1970's Brothers Five as the female star is not the main focus of the film. Still, this Shaw Brothers film from director Lo Wei is a lot of fun and it has a great cast apart from the lovely Pei-Pei.

The film opens with Yueh Hua coming to the aid of a man being beaten by a coach driver on his way to the Flying Dragon Villa, a place spoken of in hushed tones by the onlookers.

Yueh Hua fights off the driver and the guy flees leaving the carriage driver-less. Out steps the mysterious Yan Loi (Cheng Pei-Pei), daughter of a martial arts hero and on her way to Flying Dragon Villa herself. She gets Yueh Hua's character to drive her and off they go.

Gao Wei (Yueh Hua) fights off some more attackers and then Yan Loi explains her story. As it turns out, Gao Wei was on his way to meet the woman's father. The father is now dead and villain Long Zhen Feng is to blame. Gao Wei is the fourth in a set of five brothers who were raised separately and so on.

Basically, there's revenge to be had, you know? Typical wuxia plot set in the martial arts world. That's not to diminish it, just to save me time in typing out all the intricacies that don't matter unless you are watching the film.

Cut to blacksmith Gao (Chin Han) who is being bullied by some officials about an order for some swords.

In the same town, a typical wuxia inn scene turns into a fight with one of the brothers, Gao Zhi (Chang Yi from 1967's The Silent Swordsman), taking on some toughs.

As the swordsman goes up against a representative of the Flying Dragon Villa (Wong Hap), one could be cynical and say this film is not doing anything new. But that's not the point.

The action is fast and fun and well-staged and shot. Sometimes that's enough.

After these scenes, we finally -- a good 30 minutes into the picture -- see the Flying Dragon Villa as Blacksmith Gao (Chin Han) attempts to enter and batters a set of guards with his mallet/hammer. It's a blast of a scene and the real locations add a nice vibe. There's no music, a lot of wide shots, and plenty of action.

Yueh Hua's Gao Wei shows up and the battle continues. And then, Chang Yi's Gao Zhi arrives! It's all a bit silly but it's great fun for a viewer.

Brothers Five came out at the right time. It's not as insufferably heroic and macho as a Chang Cheh film, nor is it as stodgy as a few of the other mid-1960s Shaw wuxia titles. The use of a real outdoor location for the Flying Dragon Villa gate scenes helps immensely as it feels somehow different to watch this carnage -- Blacksmith Gao's hammer swinging, Gao Zhi's short blade parrying -- against a blue sky and green fields.

As the three brothers fight on, the old villain of the Dragon clan comes out. Sure enough, as you could guess, it's Tien Feng.

As the old master battles the brothers, Cheng Pei-Pei's swordswoman Yan leaps into the fray to beg for mercy for the brothers.

Cheng Pei-Pei leads the three fighters into the woods to rest and recuperate and hide from the Flying Dragon clan. The guys discover they are brothers, bond, and hatch plans for revenge.

Conveniently, Cheng Pei-Pei's Yan Loi has a fighting manual that will help the men defeat their enemies so she hands the five tigers with one heart manual off to the guys.

Later in the picture, the bad guys have captured another Gao brother, Gao Yong (Kao Yuan), who is trapped and injured on the top of the gate to the Flying Dragon Villa. Lo Lieh rides up with paper granting him entrance to the place. He accepts a challenge to fight the guy off the gate and, instead, climbs up and rescues the guy and rides off.

While the two are off recuperating in the woods in a similar scene to the three brothers earlier in the picture, the two discover that they are both Gao brothers: Gao Xia (Lo Lieh) and Gao Yong (Kao Yuan).

Somehow those two end up at the same place with the other three, who are training in the courtyard, and soon Cheng Pei-Pei arrives and you can see where this is heading.

Can you say bloody revenge? Finally, the five and Cheng Pei-Pei ride to the Flying Dragon Villa gate -- again! -- and this time, the real fighting will begin.

Sure, Brothers Five is a bit too long by this point but can you really fault any film with a nearly 15-minute final action scene? You want sword fights -- and a hammer fight -- then you get it here.

You can order Brothers Five on DVD here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with Cherie Chung

Thanks to the good, kind heart of a certain blogger and Hong Kong cinema expert, I now have Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on DVD! Having already seen the film on VCD, I'm now going to post a review of the DVD.

Suffer, readers, suffer!

I have been a casual fan of Cherie Chung for 9 years now; the current near-obsession with the actress didn't start until after I traded Last Romance (1988) for a handful of other DVDs to someone on the Asian DVD Guide forum page.

I thought by trading one DVD for 4 IVL/Celestial Shaw Brothers DVD that I was getting a good deal. And I did get some good stuff -- including The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970), The Twin Swords (1965), The Mighty Peking Man (1977), and one other IVL/Celestial Shaw Brothers DVD -- for the one 1988 Cherie Chung, Yonfan-directed film, but I still feel like I made a mistake.

To that end, I'm now trying to be a Cherie completist and batshit-crazy 1983 Twinkle Twinkle Little Star held a high place on my "to have" list.

When I say "batshit crazy" I don't mean that in a bad way; that whole "anything goes" vibe of Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s and 1990s (to some extent) is exactly why I got into this stuff in the first place.

And, structurally, this film is a total mess.

With credits inspired by 1978's Superman: The Movie, 1983's Twinkle Twinkle Little Star begins. A flying saucer lands -- scaring a farmer in a nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) -- and a crowd of scientists, cops, and onlookers shows up to inspect the craft. Two odd dectectives (James Yi Lui and Tam Nin Tam) also show up on a motorcycle.

In a deservedly famous scene, Cherie Chung enters the film -- supposedly this was her debut for the Shaw Brothers -- and causes a massive car accident as she stands over an air vent like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955).

The special effects are pretty good as the car crash is decently staged and, let's face, Cherie Chung is just spectacular. Honestly, this is one of the sexiest scenes I've ever seen in a mainstream Hong Kong film. I'll take Cherie being cute and funny over the "Amy Yip tease" any day.

When next we encounter Cherie she is at her miserable makeup counter job at a large department store when the magical big boss (David Lo Dai Wai) enters and the film shifts into a weird disco number with Cherie singing (probably not her real voice, I'm guessing).

There's more comedy with those two detectives -- the reference to The Deer Hunter (1978) did make me laugh -- and then it's on to a mad scientist (Leung Tin) who turns into a gorilla after accidentally injecting himself with some sort of serum.

Soon, the saucer returns and, in a scene that reminded me of Message from Space (1978), or Starcrash (1979), Cherie is taken up into the saucer for the sort of fx-lightshow that seemed like a big deal in that film era.

It's a shame that, even on a 2nd viewing, I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on once the one detective -- dressed as Cherie, I might add -- gets taken aboard the spaceship. I use the word shame because the interiors are really nice. The film looks great -- well, at least as good as parts of Alien (1979), a film that clearly influenced the look of these white spaceship sets.

Then the Darth Vader-like alien arrives and there's a lot of loud nonsense without any sign of Cherie Chung for long sequences -- she's back on Earth filming a watch commercial it seems.

This is one of those films where I can't say that something was lost in the translation. Even the best subtitles in the world would not have made this thing more coherent for me.

Look for a young Tsui Hark in one scene.

Obviously, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is out-of-print on DVD but you can still order it on VCD here.

Every Issue of Spin Now Online

I'm not saying that Spin was a great magazine but they filled in a few years for me after I got sick of Rolling Stone, and after the demise of Trouser Press, and before I discovered NME and Melody Maker.

I can see that this will now be a surpreme time-waster, especially since you can embed by the page!

The first thing that caught my eye in this 1986 issue was a review page with The Minutemen and St. Vitus.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New Sophie Ellis-Bextor Video!

Go to Popjustice and see the new Sophie Ellis-Bextor video for yourself.

The single is called "Bittersweet" and it's released on 3 May 2010 (not sure if that date covers the US).

Captain America is The Human Torch

All I've got to say is thank God it's not Channing Tatum or that guy from the US version of "The Office"!

Chris Evans is not an entirely bad choice provided he's not a smart-ass in the role; Steve Rogers is not the smart-ass that Johnny Storm is.

So the guy who played The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four film is now Captain America which means how will the FF ever cross paths with the Avengers and Captain America? Stuff like the cover below might not happen.

Then again, there had been rumours that the Fantastic Four film franchise was on the verge of a reboot so that might not be an issue after all.

And if they add The Invaders into the Captain America film, it will mean that the guy who played the modern Human Torch will be acting next to some other actor playing the original World War II-era Torch, the precursor of the one in the FF -- I forget the whole backstory connection now.

Chris Evans as Cap is not an entirely bad idea. I have reservations but I'm happy that a Captain America film is now a reality.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Millionaire Chase (The Umetsugu Inoue Legacy)

There's so much fun to be had in 1969's The Millionaire Chase that the singing starts during the credits. Over a decidedly retro cartoon sequence, the three leading ladies start a song.

After that, we see Betty Ting Pei, Lily Ho, and Chin Ping dancing on stage as Peter Chen Ho enters the club. After ordering a brandy, he is joined by a singer, Liu (Angela Yu Chien). As he mentions plans for a trip to Southeast Asia, she reveals that her husband is coming. Peter Chen Ho is, naturally, disappointed and Lily Ho is jealous as she finishes the song.

Chin Ping's guy, Melon (director/actor Ho Fan), is dancing with another woman and Zhinan (Betty Ting Pei) gets the hiccups when approached by cute waiter Chin Feng.

Every Shaw movie should be as much fun as The Millionaire Chase. It's just so disposable and the three leads are so sexy and cute that it's a totally intoxicating time capsule of another era.

I mean, it's not an insult to say that you could watch this film without understanding Mandarin, or using the subtitles, and still get the basic plot and thoroughly enjoy the onscreen antics.

And, as with any Lily Ho film from this era set in modern times, the film becomes a kind of parade of hairstyles and cool outfits, the viewer being a bit delightfully surprised with each new "look" for Lily in each scene.

The film is so silly there's even a pie fight in the first 15 minutes!

Really, as a fan of this sort of thing I can barely contain my glee during scenes like the one where a bespectacled Lily Ho saunters into an airport to catch her Cathay Pacific flight and old men practically drool at her figure. Sitting next to Angela Yu Chien's old sugar daddy husband, Goo Man Chung, the starlet braces herself for the ride to Taipei where she plans to win back Peter Chen from Angela Chien Yu's clutches.

Chin Ping sits next to Paul Wei Ping Ao, a rich restaurant chain owner.

And Betty Ting Pei is trapped next to Cheung Pooi Saan, who she bores with stories of her plans to marry a millionaire.

As Angela Yu Chien takes a bubble bath, she calls Peter Chen on a convenient bathside telephone and hatches a plan to get Lily Ho's Yip Fang to divert her husband so she can spend time with Peter.

Soon enough, she's dragging the old man to a nightclub as Peter Chen and Angela Yu Chien show up nearby.

Of course, nice girl Chin Ping, the one who didn't want to marry a millionaire, ends up trapped by Paul Wei Ping Ao as the businessman reveals he's not all he's cracked up to be. He attacks the girl in a soundproof room! She's rescued just in time by waiter (?) Chin Feng -- how did he get from Hong Kong to Taipei? He wasn't on that plane with the rest of the stars was he?

Then, Goo Man Chung is hatching a plan to have private detectives catch his wife with Peter Chen Ho so that he can obtain proof of her infidelity, divorce her, and marry Lily Ho. So then, Lily Ho races off to warn Peter of the plan.

This all raises a very serious question: Lily Ho or Angela Yu Chien? Normally, I'd be with Lily all the way but, at least in this film, Angela Yu Chien is beyond adorable. With her sexy smile, bangs, and stylish threads, she's alluring and cute in a very 1969 kind of way while Lily Ho, still a young actress, gets saddled with the amazing outfits and hairdos of someone a bit older and more mature.

Then the girls are off to Japan. As was typical with most of these films, they were shot mainly on studio lots in Hong Kong apart from a few location shots. Actually, I was a bit surprised as The Millionaire Chase had one scene with Betty Ting Pei on a real Taipei location but, for the most part, it's a montage of locations and then onto the sets made to look like Japan, for example.

In a quiet moment at the Japanese hot springs, Angela Yu Chien asks Lily Ho to leave her husband alone and she'll return Peter Chen to her. Seems that Angela Yu Chien needs the old man's money.

Meanwhile, Betty Ting Pei is falling for her guy, and Lily Ho and Peter Chen Ho are having dinner at a Japanese restaurant. The sight of Lily Ho falling out of a royal blue kimono is worth the price of this DVD alone.

A drunk Chin Ping is badgering her boy Melon back at the club. Seems that Melon brought his other girl with him.

Maybe it's the result of Umetsugu Inoue wanting to show off his homeland, but there are a surprising number of scenes of the three girls in Hakone, Japan. It's a nice change from that usual backlot stuff.

But then there's more drama and song and comedy and another flight, this time to Bangkok.

But to focus on the plot is to waste your time. I mean, the plot is just a device to keep the film moving.

That said, The Millionaire Chase does have some energetic bits involving jewel thieves and a finale set in Thailand. Unlike Hong Kong Nocturne (1967), this film has little drama. Without Cheng Pei-Pei acting as a sort of maternal presence like she is in portions of Hong Kong Nocturne (1967), this film alternates between comedy and music; sure, there are some of the same class concerns as in the other films, but this time they are dealt with in a humorous fashion.

Frankly, The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study (2003) makes a bit too much of that class issue. The issues of marrying well, or finding a good spouse after having a fun youth, are not so much class issues as they are the issues that most young women -- and some young men - would have in 1969.

Those themes are always ways to highlight a division between young and old -- something this film explicitly takes on in some comedy bits between Peter Chen Ho and Lily Ho -- so as to deal with a new youth culture that was increasingly active and vocal in the late 1960s.

But, let's not read too much into this film. It's fun, full of beautiful people and beautiful locales, and there are some songs thrown into the mix as well.

I think it's worth noting that with the exception of the song sung by Chin Ping to Cheung Pooi Saan in the baseball stadium in Japan, all of the songs in this film are part of the stage show put on by the three female leads. The story doesn't really need any musical sequences, nor does it lend itself to that kind of lyricism where characters suddenly burst into song and dance off into the night.

I understand why Hong Kong Nocturne is the important film that garners critical analysis but let me be honest: The Millionaire Chase is more fun to watch.

It's empty, like a Twinkie, but you can't eat gourmet food all the time. Sometimes you just need a sugar fix.

Check out Brian's review of The Millionaire Chase here.

You can order The Millionaire Chase on DVD here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Blue Skies with Cheng Pei-Pei

Margaret Tu Chuan in a catsuit. Do I have your attention now? 1967's Blue Skies opens with Hong Ling (Margaret Tu Chuan) on stage in a kind of leotard with cat-ears. The woman is performing a Cyd Charisse-like number in a stage show, with pianist Peter Chen Ho down in the orchestra pit. An impresario (Cheung Kwong Chiu) watches from the audience. Stagehand Xiaoyun (Cheng Pei-Pei) helps the cast get offstage. What's funny is that, even though she is still at most 21-years-old, Cheng Pei-Pei looks older; perhaps the number of films she did for the Shaws between 1963 and 1967 makes it seem that way?

As she dances down the street, keeping in character, Peter Chen Ho and his friend join the girl for a street vendor-supplied late dinner.

The next day, Margaret Tu Chuan's dancer has a bit of a fit, with her choreographer (Tien Feng of all people) trying to keep her calm.

Soon enough, the star refuses to perform and Xiaoyun is taking her place on stage. Luckily the performance in question involves a kind of Middle Eastern bellydancer look so Cheng Pei-Pei's face is hidden from the audience and so no one can see that the star has been replaced by a stagehand.

You can see where this is going can't you?

The film moves at a languid pace with a lot of little behind-the-scenes bits that I enjoyed. Cheng Pei-Pei looked especially modern and stylish in her red skirt outfit with the white shirt. With her bobbed hair -- is it a wig? -- she is very perky and cute.

But anyone who's seen this film is sure to mention the weird -- even for 1967 -- "big headed kids" dance. The dance troupe, wearing large papier-mache kids' heads, dances to a kind of nursery rhyme. I'm not kidding when I say that this is the kind of surreal thing that looks like something that would give Tim Burton nightmares. Creepy and vaguely disturbing.

After that dance, the impresario from early in the picture gives Xiaoyun a diamond watch backstage. Look for Paang Paang, Yueh Hua, Carrie Ku Mei, and Lydia Shum in these scenes!

But Blue Skies is a must-see for any Cheng Pei-Pei for one reason: more than any other film, her ballet talents are on screen quite a bit.

When Peter Chen Ho stumbles home after seeing Xiaoyun get mobbed by autograph seekers, leaving him jealous and alone, the dejected man soon imagines himself in a dance sequence very reminiscent of An American in Paris.

And the dance sequence does feature a lot of ballet dancing from Cheng Pei-Pei. The 21-year-old clearly knows what she is doing and while she did put those balletic moves to good use in most of her best wuxia films, it's a blast to finally see her dance for real.

As the crew hits the road to Singapore, they stop at a theater -- a theater which bears the real-life SB (Shaw Brothers) logo I might add -- to perform a "beach" number. For those of you like me who think that these Shaw musicals resemble the American International "beach" pictures of America, this scene is for you. Add to that the sight of Paang Paang playing electric guitar, and a young Lydia Shum pretending to be afraid of diving into the water, and you've got a memorable dance number.

Cheng Pei-Pei and Yueh Hua prance around like Frankie and Annette for a spell and then it's back to the backstage drama.

Back home, Li Yannan is writing music and teaching his little niece to dance to what sounds like a rip-off of "Wooly Bully".

Even after watching it a 2nd time only a few days ago, I can't even remember how the plot is wrapped up. Inconsequential? Yes, but still fun.

If one said this film was contrived, hokey, and downright melodramatic, that would be entirely missing the point. Yes, Blue Skies is all of those things but, given the era, it is still remarkably affecting. Fans of Cheng Pei-Pei will be rewarded as she carries the film and Peter Chen Ho underplays a bit this time.

You can order Blue Skies on DVD here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Raw Courage with Cheng Pei-Pei

I originally watched most of my Cheng Pei-Pei wuxia films in a few marathon sessions about 3 or 4 years ago so they all tend to blur together in my mind. However, the one that I remembered as being the most fun was 1969's Raw Courage. And the good news is that the film held up for me on a second viewing.

In a precredits sequence, Ming Emperor Jianwen entrusts his infant son to Shangguan as enemy troops overrun the palace. As the baby is whisked away, the Emperor has his men set fire to the palace.

Shangguan Hou (director Lo Wei himself) and his Black Dragon Society suffer a sneak attack from a rival clan. The injured leader entrusts the transport of the infant prince to the Taiyuan Temple in Quanzhou to his daughter Xiuyi (Cheng Pei-Pei) and Zhenxiong (Ng Fung).

As the East Sea clan of Pan Ai Lan and Tien Feng overruns her Black Dragon clan fortress, Xiuyi and Zhenxiong escape into the night with the baby. They are soon attacked but assisted in their fight by a kindly beggar played by Yeung Chi Hing.

Soon, the duo are crossing paths with farmer Niu Er (Yueh Hua) and sneaking across the border disguised as farmers.

Mrs. Bai (Ouyang Shafei) takes in the couple, assisted by funnyman Lee Kwan playing a street beggar who sometimes speaks in riddles.

Soon, master Feiyun (actually Yueh Hua's farmer Niu Er) is assisting the duo in their mission as Mrs. Bai loads up the horses and supplies equipment.

The short sequence with the trio trying to cross the border is a lot of fun. As Cheng Pei-Pei hides in a coffin with the baby, the guys try to carry the burden past the gate. A guard dog starts barking and soon Yueh Hua and Cheng Pei-Pei are showing why they were action stars. Troops of extras pour down the hill and the fun begins.

The trio comes into contact with a kindly old man (Goo Man Chung) who may not be trustworthy.

Eventually there's another massive battle and heroes and villains reveal themselves and so on.

It would be downright silly to recount every plot twist and turn of Raw Courage as the whole point of this thing is the plot; once you know what happens, it is slightly less compelling, I must admit.

However, the success of Raw Courage for me is that it's a genre picture and nothing more. That's not an insult; the film is what it is and it's a lot of fun. Most of the pleasures come from the fast-moving plot and while the film probably didn't break any new ground for wuxia films, it remains accessible in a way that a Chang Cheh film is not.

This might not be Cheng Pei-Pei's best wuxia film but it's the most fun, as far as I'm concerned.

Brian's review here sounds a bit more jaded than mine perhaps.

You can order Raw Courage on DVD here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lovers' Rock with Cheng Pei-Pei

On 2nd viewing, I loved Lovers' Rock (1963) a bit more than I did the first time I watched it. Cheng Pei-Pei's screen debut could be one of the best Shaw Brothers films as far as I'm concerned.

As the The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study (2003) notes: "Shaws' market was never limited to Hong Kong. It made films set in Taiwan...It had identified very early on a broader Chinese audience, and positioned itself as a provider of 'Pan-Chinese' popular commercial entertainment."

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 1963's Lovers' Rock opens with one of the greatest sets of images in any Shaw Brothers film.

As the camera reveals a fishing village, with choral music on the soundtrack, the camera pans down and rests behind a group of silent villagers. The music stops. There is silence.

The camera, at slightly below waist level, then pans down the crowd and reveals the worried faces of the people. The film stock is not too garish and the Technicolor seems a bit subdued for this era.

The way the faces of the crowd are filmed reminds me of Steven Spielberg as this kind of shot was a favorite of his, used in many films, notably Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977).

The crowd's worry is unwarranted as the fishermen return, including Da Gui (Wong Chung Shun).

As a bus rides the steep cliff highways of Taiwan, we see an impossibly young (17?) Cheng Pei-Pei in a window seat, her hair high, and a string of pearls around the lime-green front of her cheongsam.

Qiuzi (Cheng Pei-Pei) arrives at her town as Da Gui fends off the advances of his regular girl, Feng (Wen Ling)

Her arrival in the town -- the montage of her many male admirers rushing out to the street to catch a glimpse of the girl -- is just a pure delight. Cheng Pei-Pei's tomboyish spunkiness is exactly what the scene needs as Li Ching would be too cute for something like this and Lily Ho too sexy. Cheng Pei-Pei is the girl-next-door and her sexiness in this scene is a bit funny too -- like a typical 17-year-old trying too hard to get some attention.

Qiuzi taunts Da Gui at the dock as the older man works on his boat's engine. There's a playful flirting going on but Da Gui seems reticent now that his woman has returned.

If there's one weak point to the film it's the decidedly of the era Chiao Chuang who plays Qin Yu, the young man from the bus scene earlier in the film, who applies for a job with Da Gui on his boat. With his Frankie Avalon-styled hair, the actor is entirely too pretty -- the makeup is quite noticeable -- and he seems totally unlikely to apply for any job in any fishing village. Qiuzi's father is in charge of a fishing association and he grants Da Gui approval to hire the young man.

So the first day out and the young man gets sick but he persists in trying to be a fisherman. Da Gui informs him of an upcoming boat race in the New Year (?) festival and the two are soon bonding over that.

There are upbeat moments during that sequence which remains almost documentary-like in the way the festivities are presented.

And then later, in a rain-soaked scene of bitter realism, a dead fisherman is brought back to shore while Da Gui leaves the village apparently for good.

It's almost as if this film was made by two different people as the interior scenes look and feel like typical Shaw titles from this era while the outdoor scenes -- a lot of them at least -- are sometimes subdued and naturalistic in surprising ways.

Lovers' Rock is simultaneously very dated, very much a product of its era, and also a bit forward looking. There are so many good, solidly naturalistic scenes on the docks -- scenes without music usually -- that I feel that the film is almost a masterpiece.

And the film fades out in a mix of real location and soundstage in one of the great endings of any of the Shaw films I've seen. I won't spoil too much of the plot apart from saying that the ambiguous and open-ended way that the film ends is just wonderful and the type of thing I live for in a good movie.

I'm glad I watched this film a 2nd time and a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed it again.

You can order Lover's Rock on DVD here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

New Rose Elinor Dougall Single Plays Here!

Next to the new Sophie Ellis-Bextor, the album I'm most looking forward to this year is the debut solo CD from Rose Elinor Dougall. The ex-Pipettes singer has shown another side of herself as a performer with the 4 solo singles she's released to date. It's not that I don't love The Pipettes but they alternated between humour and nostalgia and Rose seems to have found a few other emotions to highlight in her solo work.

Following "Another Version of Pop Song", "Start/Stop/Synchro", and "Fallen Over", "Find Me Out" is yet another mini-masterpiece. Let's just say that fans of the first Portishead LP, Black Box Recorder, and early 1970s UK folk will be happy. Mixing a modern production sheen with a retro wistfulness, Rose has mellowed out a bit on this track.

The spacey Joe Meekisms of "Start/Stop/Synchro" have been smoothed into little bleeps behind her clear, crystalline voice. The song is simple and does not overstay its welcome. It's lean and direct, hinting at something more without belaboring the point.

It's very English in the same way that The Sundays' "Skins and Bones" was, even if there's not a jangly guitar to be heard anywhere in the mix.

And, as a fan and armchair scholar of UK pop, I'm a bit stunned at how complete and well considered each single has been so far; her 4 solo singles are as strong as most albums I've heard in the last few years.

Rose is not trying to sound like her old band -- there's not a trace of the Pipettes' sound unless you count that wistful quality which you can hear on the bridge of "Judy", or on "A Winter Sky" -- nor is she trying to be different for the sake of being different.

You can play the song below and then order it on a variety of formats as the 3 May release date approaches.

For now, check out Rose Elinor Dougall on the web:

Rose Elinor Dougall website
MySpace page

Rose Elinor Dougall - Find Me Out by dancetotheradio

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Free New Tracey Thorn MP3!

Tracey Thorn is back.

Okay, for some of you of my generation there may be a moment's hesitation upon hearing that news so let me explain.

Everything But The Girl's 1984 debut was the sort of album my friends and I gravitated around in 1986 or so. The US debut version was a bit different and the original UK version, Eden, was the sort of sublime English pop that appealed to those of us who were already hooked on Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, and The Blue Nile. It was easy to find on import CD or LP in the D.C. area provided you were shopping at a decent store.

And it was the sort of shared secret that one didn't dare lay on just anyone; not so much a badge of hipness but a signifier of a certain mindset.

That album paved the way for my love of The Sundays, for example, despite not sounding much like The Sundays, but the Englishness was what I was drawn to.

Around that time, I stumbled across the seminal Pillows & Prayers compilation which contained work by Everything But The Girl, as well as solo tracks from both band members (Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt). It also featured a track from Tracey's Marine Girls project.

So, albums like Idlewild secured the band a listening audience in American indie/college rock circles, and gradually Everything But The Girl became a tiny bit more polished.

After having a surprise dance hit with a remix of 1994's "Missing", the band briefly changed styles for two albums and probably gained some new fans.

However, I'd be lying if I didn't say I was not a fan of those two albums.

So, in another surprise, Tracey Thorn is not only back but she's back on American indie label Merge Records!

And the good news is that she sounds fantastic!

My first reaction to this new track, "Oh, The Divorces!" was that Tracey sounded a bit like June Tabor.

It's an older and fuller version of that same English girl who wowed us on tracks like "Frost and Fire".

I can't wait to hear the full album, titled Love and Its Opposite, and it's out in America on 18 May 2010 and 17 May 2010 in the rest of the world.

For now, check out Tracey's Merge page and feel free to download this lovely song.

Download an MP3 of "Oh, The Divorces!" by Tracey Thorn.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Song of Orchid Island with Cheng Pei-Pei

Now that I'm caught up on my Shaw Brothers DVDs, I'm going to do something that I've wanted to do for some time: rewatch a few of the best titles and review them. In a way, it feels like work but when I ask myself what I want on my blog, one of the answers is "more Cheng Pei-Pei film reviews!" so...

I should note that due to the lingering winter weather last week, I wanted to start with something tropical to put myself in a springtime frame of mind, so I settled on 1965's Song of Orchid Island and then learned of the death of Paul Chang Chung.

I heard the news from various sources, including from a few Facebook friends, but had trouble finding any confirmation of it online. Here's one link translated via Google.

So,enough morbidity, on to the review.

Paul Chang Chung, of The Black Falcon (1967), stars as Dr. He Weide who is sent to Hongtouyu ("red-headed island"), now called Lanyu ("orchid island"), southeast of Taiwan, where his father has been studying some apparently deadly red worms.

Upon arrival at his hotel room, Dr. He is accosted by his fiance, Dana Bai (Lily Ho), who seems a bit annoyed with the doctor -- apparently the relationship has hit a rough patch.

Say what you want about the restoration process used on the Shaw Brothers titles, but this film looks amazing. As the small boat carrying Dr. He and some associates lands at Lanyu, the blue skies and green cliffs just overwhelm the viewer. As native girl Yalan (Cheng Pei-Pei) uses the telescope of a Western priest (Alfred Giger) to spy on the ship arriving at her beach, the natives rush out in their outrigger canoes to greet the visitors.

With her dimpled smile, long lustrous hair, and tan skin, Cheng Pei-Pei is the impossibly perfect island girl that only the movies can create.

As Cheng Pei-Pei's Yalan rings the bell to call the natives to church on Sunday morning, chieftain Bada (Wong Chung Shun) shows up on the shore to face off against his rival who happens to also be the father of Yalan's apparent fiance (Wong Hap).

But it's not just tribe-vs-tribe rivalry but rather Christian faith vs native tradition at war here. The locals speak of anito, a term that seems to refer to demons or spirits at work on the island, and it's not long before Bada is out to beat the priest at his own game and build a structure taller than the church's belltower.

Director Pan Lei could have added a bit more to these scenes because, even on second viewing, it still feels like there's something missing between the scenes of Bada arriving and arguing with his local rivals and his sudden decision to build a tower and then the scenes that follow.

As the perfect Cheng Pei-Pei runs barefoot on the beach gathering flowers, Bada sneaks up on her. They tussle and he promises to make Yalan his bride after he is chief.

Of course, as Cheng Pei-Pei is also a fighter, she fends him off and escapes.

So Dr. He dons traditional native garb in an attempt to relate to the locals on their level. However, his demonstration of spear-throwing skill and precision involves a bit of fishing-line-enabled trickery.

Soon, Dana (Lily Ho) arrives on the island in what is clearly a plot device to get the rivalry for the doctor's affections in motion.

But it raises a good question for this Shaw Brothers fan: Who would I choose in 1965? Lily Ho or Cheng Pei-Pei?

I don't think there can be any good answer to that question but I think I'd fall on the Cheng Pei-Pei side of that argument.

Cheng Pei-Pei is slightly tomboyish but her balletic training is readily apparent in her movements on screen. Just like how you can see that training at work when she is brandishing a sword in Come Drink with Me (1966), you can also see that education as a dancer shining through here as she skips across a tropical beach against green fields and blue skies.

So Dr. He warns Dana and her friends about the almost microscopic red worms that plague the island, how they can drive a person crazy; good thing his clinic is doing booming business on the island -- though it seems that most of his patrons are native women.

Yalan works as a nurse for Dr. He as Father Giger oversees the operation. And shortly after that we see Father Giger reveal over dinner how Yalan was a 6-year-old orphan when she arrived at his mission.

And the next scene shows Dr. He bonding with the headband-wearing Yalan who sings a simple song while gazing out at the sea.

These scenes are not that important, or should I say that the director doesn't do much with those bits of information.

I can't say that the transitions between scenes in this film are handled well -- it always feels like something has been cut -- but the scenes themselves usually play out without too much rush.

By that I mean that this film could have been turned into more of a romance, or a silly comedy, or a more dramatic picture even, but, instead, it's a somewhat languidly paced little film without much point.

There follows a nice scene as Yalan and Dr. He kiss in a cave with the waves crashing outside. The kiss seems a bit more passionate than most that one would see in films of this era.

And, in the comedy of Yalan learning to kiss in the Western fashion, she tells the doctor to close his eyes and she removes her top (we don't see anything, of course). But when the Dr. He turns away and tells her to get dressed -- that he wants to treat her as a "civilized" person -- she runs away and doesn't seem to hear his final declaration of love for the girl.

In a rushed bit of late-stage plot development, Dr. He volunteers to go to the other side of the island to his father's old cabin and Yalan offers to guide him. As Wong Hap's character is infected with the red worms, the doctor is looking for a clue that might cure the man.

Of course, there has to be some more drama as the 88-minute film nears its conclusion and there is as Bada jumps the doctor as he enters the cabin to see the skeleton of his father.

There's a fight and all that but, let's face it: this is not a film one watches for a plot. In fact, the plot is downright weak here but the scenery and photography are both exemplary and Cheng Pei-Pei is a natural beauty.

The mix of impishness and a girlish sexiness is such a unique mix that I venture to say that no other Shaw starlet of the mid-1960s could have possibly played this part.

And if this review sounds a somewhat critical note, that's not to say that I didn't enjoy the film.

For what it is, it's an immensely fun and pleasurable film from a bygone era set in a gorgeous locale.

For a simple nearly 90-minute escape from reality, I can think of no higher praise for any Shaw Brothers spectacle from this era.

You can order Song of Orchid Island on DVD here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Remembering John Belushi

I'm not going to get all heavy, or turn into Mr. 1970s Nostalgia Guy but...I feel very lucky to have grown up when I did. There's a lot of stuff from my childhood that I feel strongly about that is still just shit (pretty much any Hanna Barbera cartoon from that era; Happy Days after the first 2 seasons; a lot of disco; and so on).

But some stuff really deserves the fond nostalgia.

And as a fat kid who was raised by divorced parents, one set of grandparents, and the television set, the arrival of John Belushi on "Saturday Night Live" was something I remember vividly.

Saturday nights meant all the great CBS shows, like "All in the Family" and "The Carol Burnett Show", then local monster movies on Channels 20 and 45, and -- eventually -- "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "SCTV" in syndication.

But at 11:30 it was time for "Saturday Night Live".

It's also worth noting that as a fat guy it was especially sad and scary that John Belushi died one day after my birthday in 1982 and John Candy from "SCTV" died on my birthday in 1994.

Okay, enough of that. Here are some of my very favorite pictures of John Belushi from Judith Belushi Pisano's wonderful 2005 book, Belushi.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards -- in a Peter Tosh t-shirt? -- Ron Wood, Bill Murray, and Belushi backstage at SNL around the time the Some Girls LP was released...

A hospitalized Belushi doesn't disappoint...

On the set of 1978's Animal House...

John Belushi with Gilda Radner...

For the time, this was ridiculously funny...

Wearing a Black Flag shirt when it actually would have meant something...

The expression I am wearing on the inside all the time...