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.