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.