Friday, April 9, 2010

King Drummer (The Umetsugu Inoue Legacy)

Manager Huang Zhen Li (Lily Ho) is credited with discovering hot drummer Golden Arm Charilie (Chen Hung Lieh from Come Drink With Me) and Paul Wei Ping Ao conspires with a rival manager as dancer Julie (Angela Yu Chien) looks on. That, more or less, is the opening of 1967's King Drummer.

When Golden Arm Charlie doesn't show up for a TV gig, manager Lily Ho gets Ling Yun, a guy she saw drumming on oil cans out in the boondocks the night before.

Sun Zhi Qiang, the Thunderbolt, is a big hit on television and manager Huang (Lily Ho) is pleased.

I'd venture to say that it's not just the Thunderbolt's drumming that is a hit but dancer Julie's sultry on-stage go-go girl vamp as he plays; Angela Yu Chien is the definition of sexy.

As Lily gives up on Golden Arm Charlie and focuses on her new discovery, the Thunderbolt, Ling Yun is hatching plans with brother and bandmate Yang Fan who tells the drummer about his intended composition called "Hong Kong Symphony" which will capture a day in the life of Hong Kong. The guys' mother, actress/director Kao Pao Shu, doesn't approve of a life in the music business.

I loved the montage of Ling Yun practicing drumming with bandmate and pianist Cheung Pooi Saan and manager Lily Ho. A good montage is always a pleasure, especially one set in the 1960s and featuring such charismatic Shaw performers.

By the time the drama turns to the inevitable beef with rival Golden Arm Charlie, a viewer can overlook the dated aspects of what's going on onscreen. I mean, it's all a bit silly and very 1960s but it's still affecting.

On live television the Thunderbolt goes up against Golden Arm Charlie, their drum platforms moving forward as the camera pans around, and zooms in at odd angles. The executives are watching in their offices and Lily Ho is anxious in the control room. The histrionics hit a pitch as Ling Yun's injuries cause him to drop a drumstick and the guy looks finished until he makes a snap decision and picks up the microphone and starts to sing. He's a hit and the executives are happy as is Lily Ho.

There's more drama with Paul Wei Ping Ao as Ling Yun's character has promised the guy that he'd help him win over Lily Ho and so on.

After a night out, Ling Yun wakes up in Angela Yu Chien's bed and the audience knows the downward spiral section of the film has begun. Will the drummer wise up and realize his love for Lily Ho? Will that "Hong Kong Symphony" penned by his brother get performed? Will mother Kao Pao Shu approve of his musical career?

After rewatching a few Umetsugu Inoue Shaws titles, I'm starting to see how limited the director's approach was. Despite bringing a modern -- for the era -- sheen to the Shaws musical product and propelling the form forward, the films are either light or dark.

It's either a melodrama with musical scenes, like Hong Kong Nocturne (1967) or this film, or it's a comedy with musical bits like The Millionaire Chase (1969) or We Love Millionaires (1971).

The director was cranking out product at a fast pace for a studio that was working like an assembly line in many ways. Those are not pejorative statements but simply reflections of a different era and way of thinking in the film industry.

If Umetsugu Inoue managed to put any personal auteur-like stamps on his films, it would be a surprise.

And I think that is part of why I enjoy these Shaw titles as they remind me vaguely of a studio like MGM in the 1930s where the producer dictated product and the director of a picture didn't seem intent on doing more than just his job.

As King Drummer is a remake of Umetsugu Inoue's earlier Japanese film, Man Who Causes a Storm maybe it's worth pausing for a moment to analyze this pivotal scene.

As The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study (2003) states:

A noteworthy point about King Drummer is its use of television as a stylistic and narrative device....Thanks to the small television screen, Zhiqiang has an instant following, which leads to the first major drum showdown. Television, despite its size, helps Zhiqiang achieve overnight fame. On live TV he manages to upstage his rival Charlie even though he has been injured in a fight. Rather than trying to outdrum Charlie, he simply grabs the microphone and starts singing his rough signature tune. For us, this is a better, catchier tune -- scored by the Japanese Hattori Ryoichi -- than the original, salty Japanese hit sung by Ishihara. It sounds like a work song sung by a longshoreman, while the latter is more streetwise and percussive. In this scene, Inoue switches between the diegetic colour and black and white TV screen, with reverse shots of happy, dancing young people. His enemies also see King Drummer's victory on television. Unlike the original Japanese film, Inoue accentuates the cinematic edge with more handheld shots and close-ups. At the film's climax, television is the medium through which Zhiqiang is able to witness his brother's triumph in the concert hall. The climax of Man Who Causes a Storm simply has Shoichi listening to his brother's symphony on the radio...Inoue here makes use of television and radio as both plot detail and as aesthetic mediation, setting off the greater dramatic involvement and colour of the widescreen.

I'd venture to say this film is probably essential viewing for any fan of Lily Ho or Umetsugu Inoue even if it's not entirely as lighthearted and freewheeling as I remembered it being from my first viewing.

You can order King Drummer on DVD here.