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Eastern bellydancer look so Cheng Pei-Pei's face is hidden from the audience and so no one can see that the star has been replaced by a stagehand.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.