Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sunset (The Umetsugu Inoue Legacy)

Ching Li and her two girlfriends are pursued up a hillside highway in 1971's Sunset. In the pursuers' sportscar is Paul Chun Pei, and while the opening of this film feels lighthearted, it's only the start of what will be a melodramatic work from director Umetsugu Inoue.

I had high hopes for this Umetsugu Inoue film mainly because it was so hard to find -- the longer I looked for it, the more I elevated it in my mind. I was slightly disappointed but the ending redeemed the film in a weird way for me. Read on.

When not chasing girls, Zhongkang (Paul Chun Pei) works as a mechanic and is revealed to be an orphan. The car Ching Li was in pulls up at his garage one day and out steps Julie Hu (Ouyang Sha-Fei), a world class fashion designer.

Zhongkang returns the car to Ms. Hu and meets Xiaoping (Ching Li) again. At first thinking the girl above his station, he soon finds that she merely works for Ms. Hu. The cute meeting of the two following the opening musical montage and girl chasing sequence adds a tiny bit of reality to the proceedings and the farce is toned down a bit.

By the time the couple meet in the rain for their afternoon date, the film feels infinitely more serious than it did in that opening scene.

The date goes from a meeting in the rain -- in slow motion -- to a ferry ride at sunset as the two leads disclose their respective sob stories: they're both orphans. The bits on the ferry are interesting as they involve real location shots of 1971 Hong Kong, though there are some studio shots mixed into the scene.

But what started promisingly soon turns messy as we learn that Zhongkang is not an orphan but is, rather, the distant black sheep son of a wealthy man (Tien Feng). There's then a farcical bit at a fashion show with Paul Chun Pei falling into dressing rooms as girls are changing -- like something out of another Umetsugu Inoue film; The Millionaire Chase (1969), maybe? -- and then the romance with Ching Li is back to the foreground of the action as the couple sing in front of a fountain.

There's a lot of potential in the setup of the film but it doesn't quite deliver. The location shots are nice and there's the germ of a realistic film in Sunset but audiences at the time probably wouldn't have responded to that sort of thing. As it is, director Umetsugu Inoue does feel like he is reining things in here and that's a plus as those broad strokes of his other films would ruin this kind of small story.

And an additional pleasure of Sunset is the chance to see Ouyang Sha-Fei playing a non-period role and someone her own age; the legendary character actress looks quite stylish as the fashion doyenne.

Look for Barry Chan, from 1970's Apartment for Ladies, as a nefarious guy out to date rape Ching Li after she gets mad at Paul Chun Pei.

[Spoilers Begin]

The ending of the film elevated Sunset into something special for me. I think even the least astute viewer could sense that the film was headed for a tragic ending. The whole vibe, despite detours into broad farce, is designed to be a love story of thwarted desire. And the very things that make the film dated and over-the-top, particularly to my perspective in the year 2010, are the very same things that make the film special.

I mean, there's a certain freedom at work in stuff like this when it's clear that the director is reaching for broad emotions and not trying to be subtle in any way. As Ching Li dies in a hospital bed, look at the way the closeups of her face -- shot in a different color scheme -- are intercut with the shots of the spectators around her hospital bed.

Then pay attention to the obviously fake -- and meant to be fake -- shots of her and Paul Chun Pei watching the sunset from a Hong Kong cliff. It's the mix of drama, melodrama, interior monologue, and imagination blending into one, long riff of high emotion.

The ending of this film, particularly Paul Chun Pei's final cries of "Xiaoping!" into the empty sky over the sea from a Hong Kong cliff, is operatic. The image of Ching Li that appears to Paul Chun Pei in that same final scene could seem silly or sublime depending on the jadedness of the viewer.

I found myself chuckling a bit but I was still moved; the 1970-styled melodrama got to me in the end even if the rest of the film didn't quite deserve a real response like that.

As viewers in 2010, we're sometimes too ironic and detached and when watching something as direct and unaffected in many ways as 1971's Sunset, we may find it hard to take the emotional content seriously.

At those moments, the very contrivance of the mise-en-scene -- those elements that seem fake, or theatrical -- adds to the punch; if Ching Li's death scene had been shot in any sort of realistic way -- a 1971 version of realism -- I would have been bored. As it was, the manipulation of the imagery and the dream scenes actually felt like director Umetsugu Inoue was finally -- finally! -- trying to inject a little directorial voice into one of his Shaw productions.

Those few, final moments -- and the earlier location shots on the Hong Kong ferry -- made Sunset feel slightly less cookie cutter than any of the other 17 films he made for the studio.

Sunset is not quite on the level of 1967's Susanna, but I think there were moments where it comes close.

[Spoilers End]

You can order Sunset on DVD here.