It was not an unusual practice for Hong Kong’s powerhouse Shaw Brothers studio to participate in international co-productions during its heyday, and the result of that practice was often some fairly unique screen pairings. For instance, there was British horror icon Peter Cushing teaming up with kung fu badass David Chiang in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and the Sentimental Swordsman himself, Ti Lung, trading lines with American TV movie staple and Night of the Lepus star Stuart Whitman in Shatter. But the 1967 spy thriller Asia-Pol stands out in particular for being a potential wet dream for fans of 1960s Asian action cinema. This participation between Shaw and Japan’s Nikkatsu – the studio that trademarked its own distinctive brand of hardboiled action cinema during the late fifties and sixties – boasts two stars who have, respectively, come to represent more than any others the identity of each of those studios at that moment in their histories.
This is one of those DVDs that has been sitting around on my shelves for years, and it’s always on that list of “things I should just sit down and watch this week but then they never get watched.” Well, now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, my initial impression is that I shouldn’t have let it sit around for so long, but in a way I’m glad I did. I shouldn’t have let it sit around for so long because it was pretty fun; and I’m glad I let it sit around for so long, because watching it now, so long after the fact, it was like a visit from an old friend, provided that friend is “the way they used to make Hong Kong action films in the 80s and early 90s.” No CGI (well, no CGI fights), minimal wirework, actors who are better fighters than they are actors — man, I miss this stuff. Oh yeah, and Shannon Lee fights Benny Urquidez. In an exploding blimp.
1983 was an exceptionally big year for Hong Kong cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, Tsui Hark’s Zu, and Project A featuring the first major on-screen teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, all hit the screens during that year. So did Aces Go Places II, a sequel to the wildly popular Sam Hui-Karl Maka action comedy of the previous year. It was a good time to be the Hong Kong film industry. Things were up in the air to be sure, as they often are during a rebirth, but there was no getting around that this was a year of incredible, ground-breaking films.
This is one of those movies that, upon completion, I can’t wait to sit down and write a review of. And then, when I do sit down, all I can do is stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen as I wrack my brain mercilessly for some way to encompass in words the absolutely bonkers display of sheer lunacy I’ve just watched. This often happens to me when attempting to write about especially weird kungfu films, because as fans of kungfu films know, nothing — and that includes Alexandro Jodorowski movies — is quite as weird as a really weird kungfu film. With Jodorowski, one can at least ask oneself “what the hell was this director thinking?” then engage in all sorts of research and philosophical debate pertaining to the meaning of his films. Yes, they are excessively weird, but they are not undecipherable. With enough thought, you can attain some degree of understanding as to his purpose and message.
Above and beyond all else, kungfu films have always existed so that they can teach to us valuable life lessons. At their best, they are practically training manuals for how to live a healthy, productive, and socially relevant life. For instance, if your pupils are killed by a one-armed kungfu master, then you as a blind master of the flying guillotine should go about avenging their deaths by killing every one-armed man in the province. Far more potent than the moral litmus test, “What would Jesus do?” in the daily life of the average person is the question, “What would the blind master of the flying guillotine do?” And you know what he would do? Jump through a roof, throw the flying guillotine, and send a severed head rolling across the floor. Not surprisingly, this is often what Jesus would do as well, as far as I can reckon.
Kungfu films also serve as a road map for building rewarding, emotionally rich familial relationships, teaching us the most productive way (snake fist) to deal with conflicts within the family structure. The landscape of kungfu films is littered with films in which a son and a father, or a daughter and father, or two siblings, must struggle both against one another as well as together against a greater outside threat. This often manifests itself as some wholesome bonding activity, such as jumping from pole to pole over a field of knives, or trying to grab the chicken bits out of each other’s rice bowls. Visit any modern family or marital therapist, and you find that, nine times out of ten, they employ the same — or at least very similar — methods for working through the issues that complicate interpersonal relationships.
House of Fury is a more modern look at the nuclear kungfu family, and while its look and style have been updated for modern sensibilities, the core message at the center of the film remains consistent with the many that came before it: the family that trains in kungfu together will deal out swift kungfu vengeance together.
Anthony Wong stars as Yu Siu-bo, a somewhat boring practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. He delights in spinning outrageous yarns about his past adventures fighting ninjas and assorted supervillains, a practice which embarrasses his two teenage children, college-age slacker Nicky (Stephen Fung, Avenging Fist, Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops) and high schooler Natalie (Gillian Chung, one-half of the Hong Kong pop superduo Twins and star of The Twins Effect), both of whom assume their dad is just a world-class bullshitter. At least, they assume that right up until a wheelchair bound psycho named Rocco (your buddy and mine, Michael Wong) shows up hoping to drag the identity of a retired secret agent out of Siu-bo. Suddenly, the two siblings realize everything their father has ever told them has more or less been true, and now they’re caught right in the middle of a frenzied kungfu battle between their father and Rocco’s thugs. Luckily, this being a kungfu film, dad trained his kids well.
House of Fury is a family film in more ways than simply being about the evolution of the relationship between two children and their father (involving the “tall tale” characteristic that allows me to actually compare the themes of a film full of crazy flying ninjas and kungfu and Tim Burton’s Big Fish). For starters, the number of familiar old faces on parade is more than enough to counterbalance the presence of shining new stars like Gillian Chung and Stephen Fung. Anthony Wong is a welcome addition to any cast, and when he’s interested in his role, there are few actors in this world that are finer at their craft. He’s top notch as the good-hearted but drab Siu-bo, padding about the place, weaving spectacularly crazy adventure tales, and talking to a photo of his dead wife. He’s both comical and poignant without ever being overly saccharine. He plays the comedy and action as well as he does the loneliness of the character. Inhabited by Anthony Wong, Siu-bo simply feels like a real guy. When his secret comes out and he jumps into action, he’s just as much fun. His best friend and patient is the aging Uncle Chu, played by Hong Kong movie stalwart Wu Ma. We’ve seen Wu Ma for decades, and watching him in action) even if it’s heavily aided by wires and CGI) is great fun. He and Wong represent the older generations perfectly.
On the other end of the scale are Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung (and to a lesser extend, Gillian’s fellow Twins member and Twins Effect co-star Charlene Choi). Fung, like a seeming endless parade of pretty young faces that started way back with Aaron Kwok and continued through Ekin Cheng and on to Fung, has been regarded as the “hot new thing” that is finally going to salvage Hong Kong cinema from the doldrums in which it’s drifted for years, revitalizing the industry and returning to it the spark and magic that made the 70s, 80s, and first half of the 90s so memorable and beloved. He hasn’t fulfilled that expectation, but then, it’s not really fair to expect it of him. Of the host of hot guys who emerged at the turn of the century to become the somewhat unmemorable and interchangeable faces of the next Hong Kong new wave (which has also yet to really materialize), Fung was a fair enough performer, but he was always a little hollow and cardboard and unspectacular. It was hard, especially for fans who weren’t screaming teenage girls, to tell one hot new thing from the next, even when they were all collected together in movies like Gen-X Cops. Thus, when a director wanted to make a “real” film, they still went to the last men standing from the 80s and 90s — Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Simon Yam, and of course, Anthony Wong (Stephen Chow doesn’t make the list, simply because he’s always been sort of a whole film industry unto himself). Thus, especially for me, guys like Fung, Edison Chen, and Nick Tse continue to fail to make the same impression as the guys from whom they were supposed to inherit the mantle.
What Stephen Fung is to the men, Gillian Chung is to the women. As one-half of the pop megastar duo Twins, producers hoped she would carry the name recognition to become a movie superstar where so many other hopeful starlets have simply been swallowed whole, unable to become the next Brigette Lin or Maggie Cheung or, quite frankly, even the next Hsu Chi, or even the next Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Funny, isn’t it? Back in the 80s and 90s, Maggie Cheung was most often described as “irritating” or “insipid,” known as she was for little more than being the squealing, whining girlfriend in Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. And Hsu Chi? She was just some softcore porn nobody. And now? They’re two of the biggest, best respected actresses on the international scene. Who would have guessed it, watching Police Story or whichever the hell The Fruit is Swelling film it is that stars Hsu Chi?
While Gillian is no Hsu Chi, and she’s certainly no Maggie Cheung, she’s still a pretty solid performer with a lot of charisma. Handled properly, and should there ever be more than one good script every other year coming out of Hong Kong, she does indeed show the potential to become something more than a cute face that will disappear in a couple years. Stephen Fung — I don’t know. He’s still kind of a bore, and he still doesn’t exude much charisma. I have hope for him, but not nearly as much as I do for Gillian Chung.
As for Chung’s Twins partner, Charlene Choi, there’s really not much that can be said about her in this film. She has a very small role that doesn’t really give her much to do beyond tease Stephen Fung’s Nicky for a couple scenes.
I would be remiss, however, if I left my review of the cast at the above. That’s a lot of good actors doing good work up there. How can I celebrate them without screwing up my courage and looking at the performances of American-born actors Michael Wong and Daniel “Michael Wong for the next generation” Wu. Wu I first encountered in Gen-X Cops, and I was awed by how spectacularly awful he was. Daniel Wu originally went to Hong Kong simply to “get in touch with his roots,” get the feel of the place from which his parents came. An extended stay lead to some modeling work, and from there he found his way into film. He seems like a decent guy in interviews, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was really unbelievably horrible in Gen-X Cops. However, each subsequent movie in which he’s appeared has seen him improve in tiny increments, so that by the time we’ve gotten to House of Fury, he is merely bad. And if nothing else, Daniel Wu rolled naked on the beach with Maggie Q where as I simply watched him roll naked on the beach with Maggie Q. Wu was never sold as the next Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Jackie Chan, but if he keeps working at his craft, he could, at the very least, be the next Aaron Kwok or Leon Lai.
The same can’t be said for Wu’s countryman, Michael Wong, though Wong did have Ellen Chung naked and grinding away on him in one movie, so that caveat about our relative accomplishments still stands. Michael Wong has been plying his acting craft for a couple decades now, and in every film in which I’ve seen him, he has wowed me with his ability to never get any better no matter how much experience he has. It’s amazing just how consistent he’s been over the past many years. It’s a sustained level of badness of which Keanu Reeves could only dream. It’s absolutely astounding. He never gets better, but he never gets worse. Michael Wong is superhuman in his ability to sound like every role is his first role. And despite being surrounded by world-class veterans and promising young upstarts, Michael Wong manages to deliver the exact same bad level of performance he’s always delivered, doggedly refusing to let the presence of Anthony Wong cause him to accidentally step up his game.
I have no idea how Michael Wong has sustained his career for this long. He’s good looking, but not that good looking. He’s fit, but he’s not any good at kungfu and only marginally passable at performing other forms of action choreography. In all aspects of his acting career he is merely below average — so much so that he’s not even bad to the point of being funny. Well, no, sometimes he’s funny-bad (witness his anguished plea, “You’ve gone over to the dark side!” in The First Option), but mostly he’s just bad. And yet, the man has never gone wanted for roles. Usually they’re in B-team movies, but from time to time he manages to sneak into an honest-to-goodness movie like House of Fury. He must totally baffle his brother Russell (New Jack City and Joy Luck Club, plus a bunch of his own movies, as well as some television work). As for me, I embrace Michael Wong. I don’t really like calling anyone “the Ed Wood of…” but if ever there was an Ed Wood of acting, it has to be Michael Wong, and I love him for it.
Of course, all my love can’t make anyone think that Michael Wong is any good in House of Fury. He’s awful. He’s so bad he makes Daniel Wu look good, though he doesn’t make Daniel Wu in Gen-X Cops look good. You might think that Wong is trying to play Rocco as a cool, calculating, emotionless man consumed by vengeance and just failing at the characterization, but anyone who has seen Michael Wong in any movie before will simply say, “No, that’s just Michael Wong. He can’t act.” His soft-spoken monotone is made even worse by the fact that he’s surrounded by performers the caliber of Anthony Wong and Wu Ma, and even young Gillian Chung. Heck, even charisma-vacuum Stephen Fung seems positively animated and warm next to Michael Wong’s utterly bizarre performance as the wheelchair-bound Rocco. And in case you think that strapping Wong with a wheelchair means he’s not going to have a bad action scene, think again. Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (he of too many decades and too many credits to list) figured that the best way to get a decent action scene out of Wong was simply to film him in fast speed rolling around in his wheelchair. Sadly, director Stephen Fung (more on that in a moment) resists the natural urge to set the entire scene to “Yakkety Sax.”
The final piece of the main cast is this kid named Jake Strickland. I have no idea who this kid is (this is his first and currently only listed film credit), but I assume Yuen Wo-ping discovered him on some youth martial arts circuit and couldn’t resist throwing him into the film as Rocco’s son. As an actor, he’s not much, but then, what do you expect from a fourteen-year-old American making a foreign language film. He’s still better than Michael Wong (both he and Wong deliver their lines in English). The kid is really just here to twirl a staff and kick some ass, and in that sense, he’s surprisingly good. Hong Kong films have always had better luck with martial arts kids than American films — just compare any of the Three Ninjas to that little kid with the perfectly spherical head kicking ass alongside Jet Li in New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. It seems that being a decent kiddie kungfu performer doesn’t really have much to do with race (obviously), but instead has to do with whether your action director is Yuen Wo-ping or John Turteltaub. Jake Strickland looks fantastic in action, and his fight with Anthony Wong is priceless. Wong is torn between the fact that he doesn’t want to beat up a fourteen-year-old kid and the fact that this fourteen-year-old kid is kicking his ass and flipping around with a staff and running up walls, and it makes for a great fight scene. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Jake Strickland again, but he does a fine job here — and he has a great name for being either an action star or Hank Hill’s boss at the propane shop.
The rest of the action is a pretty good mix between old style kungfu, wire-fu, and a little CGI enhancement here and there. Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung are not accomplished martial artists, and from time to time you can tell that, but most of the time, Yuen Wo-ping poses them and flings them about pretty well. Their fight with Josie Ho and the rest of Michael Wong’s thugs is a stand-out moment, as is the finale (in which, among other things, Stephen Fung also faces off with Jake Strickland). Anthony Wong, of course, is no martial artist either, but the man has been around long enough to have picked up the tricks of the trade, and he looks good in his few action scenes. Even elderly Wu Ma gets in on the fun. For years, I railed against the tendency to cast non-martial artists as kungfu masters, then mask their lack of skill with wire tricks and flashy editing — a trend that was largely championed by Yuen Wo-ping (with plenty of help from Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark). In my old age, I’m getting soft, or simply accepting that the days of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao are over — even for Sammo, Jackie, and Biao. House of Fury delivers fantasy kungfu but it does it well, and from time to time, it allows itself to be a throwback, if not to the glory days of Sammo Hung choreography, at least to the solid, no-wires choreography that made Yukari Oshima and the girls with guns genre so much fun.
Now comes the funny part. Although I continue to be unimpressed by Stephen Fung as an actor (calling him a hot young thing really isn’t fair — he’s only a year or two younger than me), I was surprised to see that as a writer and director, he’s surprisingly accomplished. I have no idea hos much of House of Fury was directed by Fung, and how much was the work of his mentors Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan, but the fact is that Stephen, for whatever amount he directed, showcases a steady hand and the ability to let the film’s story speak for itself, rather than piling on lots of irritating flashy editing and intrusive directorial tricks. Surrounded by such talent (as well as Willie Chan, another producer on this film and cohort of Jackie Chan), Stephen Fung may not emerge as the next Jackie Chan in front of the camera, but he has an excellent chance to emerge as the next Jackie Chan behind the camera. There are definitely some signs of the old Jackie and Sammo directorial styles, which were also influenced by the directorial work of Lo Wei (who directed Wu Ma, among others like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee himself. Although House of Fury boasts the wirework and CGI that seems to be part and parcel of modern kungfu films, the direction itself is surprisingly down to earth and reminiscent of the good ol’ days.
Fung also co-wrote the script, along with Yiu Fai-lo (previously the screenwriter for the dreadful Jackie Chan flop Gorgeous and the even more dreadful Andrew Lai horror disaster The Park). Given how dreadful Yiu’s previous scripts are, I have no problem attributing the bulk of the work on the script for House of Fury to Stephen Fung. As a guy in his early thirties who no doubt grew up a fan of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, this is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect him to write. However, we’ve seen thanks to countless gigabytes of fanfic that being a fan of something doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good story about it. Fung’s script, on the other hand, is well-written, well-paced, and surprisingly…I don’t want to say complex, really. Touching? Maybe that’s it. Let’s just say it’s good. The homage to Bruce Lee exists in the title and in some of Anthony Wong’s fight choreography, but other than that, it doesn’t play much of a role in the story. At this point, though, fans of Hong Kong cinema should be used to gratuitous Bruce Lee gags and imitations. It’s almost as if Stephen Fung wanted to make an 80s style Hong Kong action film and knew that he couldn’t do that without throwing in some random Bruce Lee allusions.
Bruce Lee nonsense aside, what Fung has done is write a very good modern-day reinvention of all those old “quarrelling kungfu family” movies that were made in the 1970s — right down to a “sitting at the table” kungfu fight over bits of chicken. Although being a fan doesn’t make you a good writer, a good writer who is fan enough to throw in obscure homages like that makes for a real treat. The relationship between the family is also well-written. The whole “discovering the secret past” thing isn’t anything new, but Fung executes the story well. The central theme seems to be that the older generation shouldn’t be dismissed, that they have plenty to teach us, and sometimes their rambling stories are true, or at least interesting. As an avid listener to my grandfathers’ stories about World War II — many of which seem as embellished as Siu-bo’s stories about fighting ninjas that can vanish into thin air — I understand and fully appreciate the message at the heart of Fung’s cracking good kungfu movie. It seems especially apropos in a film that owes so much and pays such close attention to the films of the generation before. In fact, to stick with the analogy about my grandfathers and World War II stories, it’s easy to see the films of the 70s and 80s as “the greatest generation.” Whenever anyone talks about the Golden Age, they inevitably point to these films. The next Jackie Chan, we say. The next Tsui Hark (if only Tsui Hark could be the next Tsui Hark). The next Chinese Ghost Story or A Better Tomorrow. And amid all that are the new films and new actors, largely dismissed, often disdained, living in the shadow of the greatest generation, looking at them with a mix of awe, contempt, and envy and the knowledge that they will never live up to but will always be compared to those films.
Also central to the plot are the two fathers, Siu-bo and Rocco, and different ways in which they have raised children adept at kungfu. Siu-bo trained his children hard, but there’s a tenderness to his training as well. He does it because he knows one day someone might come for him, and by default them, and they’ll be better off if they can defend themselves. For the most part, however, they are allowed to be regular young adults who regard their father as a bit of an oaf. Similarly, Rocco has trained his son in the martial arts, but in his case, it’s to use him as an instrument of attack. And Rocco’s son is an interesting juxtaposition to Nicky and Natalie. Where as both Nicky and Natalie are involved in active social lives (he works at a marine park, she is involved in school plays), Rocco’s son is a shut-in who knows little beyond his PSP and staff fighting in the basement. He’s like one of those anime otaku who collect martial arts weapons, except that he can actually use his.
Something that makes the script more complex than it might otherwise be, however, is the relationship between Rocco and his son. Rocco isn’t necessarily a heartless villain. He’s in a wheelchair because he was a special ops sniper assigned to assassinate some terrorist leader. However, an agent for the Hong Kong secret service needed said terrorist alive for a different assignment, and in order to prevent Rocco from killing the man (Rocco was working for the United States), he attacked and crippled him. Now all Rocco wants is revenge on the man who paralyzed him — and Siu-bo happens to know who that agent is. So it’s not like Rocco is simply evil — and we see this when, after he’s nearly killed in the final showdown, his son drops his staff and runs to protect and plead for his father’s life. Obviously, Rocco isn’t a complete dick, and the scene is nice even if Jake Strickland and Michael Wong are both bad actors.
House of Fury finds a way to embrace that as it reconcile its young protagonists with their father. With new and old talent both in front of and behind the camera, House of Fury is more than just a lot of fun (though it is certainly that); it’s the closest we’re going to get, in my opinion, to mixing the past with the present. It’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s plenty enjoyable in the same gee-whiz way that the films of the 80s were., with al the same ham-handed goofiness and melodrama that people seem to forget was so omnipresent in those films. Sure, it doesn’t best the best of the 1980s. It’s not Dragons Forever or Project A. But if more new films were more like House of Fury — fast-paced, action-packed, a blend of legit kungfu choreography and special effects, but also full of good humor and heart — then maybe we wouldn’t miss the past and bemoan the future quite so much.
Chor Yuen’s mind-blowing Magic Blade is a prime example of something I’ve always appreciated about kungfu films. You see, there are certain things that, while deemed horrible in real life, are perfectly acceptable and even admirable activities for the hero of a kungfu film. I’m not talking about the obvious will-nilly killing of anyone who offends you in some way. No, I’m talking about, first foremost, the stamp of approval kungfu films put on beating up senior citizens. Outside of an Adam Sandler film, no one is going to cheer for a hero who beats grannies and tries to skewer them with elaborate bladed weapons. Even street thugs who don’t give a damn about anything won’t stoop so low as to mess up someone’s grandma. That’s why grandmas can get in between two jackasses waving guns at each other and send them home with tail between legs using nothing but harsh words and an umbrella or oversized pocketbook or maybe an oversized copy of The Bible.
This classic from the vaults of Hong Kong’s illustrious Cathay Studios begins with a shot of Golden Age screen icon Grace Chang shaking her bon-bon to a Latin-flavored mambo number while wearing cute, checkered capri pants. It’s already one of the best movies ever made in my book, as anything that gives us Grace Chang in classic 1950s form-fitting fashion is an ace. Not that I’m one to judge a movie solely on the merits of its leading lady’s rump nor on its inclusion of what is still, in my opinion, the paramount of women’s pant technology. You know me. I’m a classic guy with classic tastes, and while booty shorts and flares may be alright for some of you, I’ll take the more demure and alluring look of capri pants, a nice cocktail dress, or one of those cheongsam dresses any day over the vulgar obviousness or careless sloppiness of today’s fashion. But that’s just me, and like I said, you can’t judge a movie purely on it’s willingness to cater to my retro taste in both male and female fashion or my longing for a return to the days when we wore clothing that actually fit us.
Luckily, the film that follows the rump-shaking opening is a wonderful, breezy affair from the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. It was a time when the silver screen was ruled by the likes of Linda Lin Dai and the subject of this particular movie, Grace Chang. Grace was the reigning queen of Cathay Studios, one of the greatest and most respected studios in the history of Asian film. Few and far between were the films that didn’t feature Grace singing, dancing, and flashing her million dollar smile at the camera. She was the total package – a wonderful singer, a unique beauty, and an utterly captivating actress. Unfortunately, the bulk of her work – and indeed the bulk of Cathay’s films in general – were unknown outside of Asia. They disappeared after their initial theatrical runs, and only a few ever showed up on any home video format. When the rare film did make it to video or DVD, it was almost always without subtitles. Thus, some of the most important films and names in Hong Kong’s impressive cinematic history remained virtually unknown to new viewers.
In 2003, however, fortune smiled on fans of classic cinema from around the globe when Panorama Entertainment inked a deal to release a slew of old Cathay films on DVD complete with English subtitles. Though the deal was less trumpeted than Celestial’s similar deal to tap the hitherto hidden history of the Shaw Bros. Studio for home consumption, it was certainly no less historic or important. And while the fact that most of the Cathay films are dramas, musicals, and comedies in black and white means that western Hong Kong film fans (traditionally very action film oriented) will be paying less attention to them than to the Shaw Bros. releases, any film buff worth his or her salt knows that just because a film isn’t in color and doesn’t feature a shirtless Ti Lung getting stabbed in the belly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. For fans of filmmaking from the glorious decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the tapping of the Cathay well is a glorious event.
It’s fitting that Panorama’s Cathay releases are hitting the shelves the same time as the Shaw Bros. releases. They were, of course, the primary competition for the Shaws (and both studios shared some major stars, including the impish Peter Chan Ho and the regal Linda Lin Dai), and their history is similar to that of the Shaw Bros. Like Shaw, Cathay had its roots in Southeast Asia. Studio founder Loke Wan Tho began making films in the late 1930’s when his family began establishing theaters in Singapore. As was often the case at the time, companies who made movies usually also owned their own theater chains (a practice that is coming somewhat back into vogue with the establishment of UA theaters in America. It never really went out of vogue in Asia). Loke’s theaters were state-of -the-art, and after the close of World War II he cemented a deal to distribute British Rank films in South Asia. In the 1950’s, Loke moved the business to Hong Kong, purchased a studio lot, and formed MP & GI, which would later change its name to Cathay.
As with the Shaw Studios, Cathay was keen on seeking out and developing new talent, then signing them to exclusive contracts. While the Shaws initially had a good balance of male and female superstars that, during the 1970s, eventually became primarily male-dominated thanks to the popularity of Shaw kungfu films, Cathay was always a woman’s world that was known for a stunning array of actresses who easily overshadowed their male counterparts at nearly every moment. Cathay built its success around a core group of female stars that included Linda Lin Dai, Jeanette Lin, Julie Yeh Feng, Lucilla You, Betty Loh Ti, Li Mei, and of course Grace Chang, among others. Cathay films and stars were highly regarded by critics and fans alike, and the studio exhibited a consistently high quality in the vast majority of what it produced. But, as we all know, nothing gold can stay, especially eras.
By the mid-60’s the studio began to decline. Loke died in a plane crash in 1964, and the Shaw Brothers productions began to eclipse those of Cathay. The Shaws simply had more money to throw into their projects, and they lured away a number of Cathay’s biggest stars, chief among them Linda Lin Dai. By the end of the decade, the Cathay Studio had lost nearly all direction. Whimsical romantic comedies and dramas, especially in black and white, were no longer as popular as they had once been. Cathay was sold to a young upstart studio that would eventually do to the Shaw Bros. what the Shaws ultimately did to Cathay – drive it out of business. That upstart studio was Golden Harvest, the eventual home of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan.
But there for a while, no one could match Cathay in terms of star power and picture quality. And if your studio has to have a poster girl, you can sure do a heck of a lot worse than Grace Chang. It doesn’t take long to immediately fall in love with her and start putting her name atop your list of favorite actresses. There’s something special about her, something unique. She’s not a classic beauty, but that makes her beauty all the more memorable. Her popularity is, instead, driven by her undeniable charisma and overpowering charm. Where Hollywood (and indeed Hong Kong) was full of sultry sirens and bombshells, Grace Chang was the woman you could always trust to be your friend, to be dependable and friendly and down to earth. You could also count on her to sing you a song. Unlike many actresses who were featured prominently in Hong Kong musicals, Grace could belt out her own tunes.
Grace was born in 1934 in Nanjing but grew up in Shanghai. It was there, in what was far and away the mainland’s most cosmopolitan and swinging city, that she trained in Peking Opera. After the tumult of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, Grace and her family moved to Hong Kong in 1949. She made her film debut in Seven Sisters (1953) and joined MP & GI in 1955. Her film and singing careers soared after that, and she quickly became one of the top stars of stage and screen. Her singing talent even garnered her an appearance on America’s Dinah Shore Show. She married in 1964, and like most Hong Kong actresses, her marriage heralded her virtual retirement from show business. She still makes occasional appearances though, and she’s left us a tremendous film legacy that new fans are only just now beginning to discover.
Mambo Girl, the first of Panorama’s Cathay DVD releases (and chronologically, the earliest film), is an excellent way to get to know the work of both the studio and Grace Chang. Although for the most part it’s a breezy musical comedy, unlike most films from that particularly light-hearted genre, it has a darker, more serious current running through it that allows it to make a social comment without seeming too heavy-handed. As the story of the making of the film goes, Grace was performing for troops in Taiwan and had them so enthralled with her mambo dancing that they started calling her Mambo Girl. Scriptwriter Yi Wen was then inspired by her popularity to write a quick little film around the name. Another story, as told by Grace herself, maintains that the idea for the film came during an evening at a nightclub where Cathay founder Loke was so impresses with her dancing and singing that he decided a movie should be made. Whichever version of the story is true, the fact remains that someone somewhere saw Grace singing and dancing and simply had to make a movie for her where she could do the same.
Grace stars as Li Kia-ling, the celebrated Mambo Girl as she is known on campus. She’s the all-American (or All-Hong Kong, I suppose) gal who gets good grades, always treats her fellow students with equality and respect, and is a vastly talented singer and dancer. I guess they don’t have students like this anymore. They’ve sort of gone the way of those 1950s scientists who knew everything about history, geology, astronomy, physics, and handling various handguns and rifles. I suppose its students like Grace Change who grow up to be those professional know-it-alls like John Agar, though I have a hard time imagining John Agar busting out the mambo moves. Kia-ling’s life is pretty good. Aside from being the sweetheart of the campus, she has a cool little sister and a father who owns a toy store and, when neighbors come by to ask them to turn down the mambo music, tells the neighbors to take a hike. Rather than being the movie parent who attempts to crush the musical dreams of his child, he encourages her at every step and is just about the coolest movie dad you could hope for. Her father is played by Liu Enjia, probably one of the best male leads at Cathay and one of their only men to not be overshadowed by the ladies. He’s a big, fat jolly guy, after all, and it’s hard to overshadow big, fat jolly guys. He was Cathay’s go-to man whenever they needed a solid father figure, and he’s best known for his roles here and in the successful cross-cultural comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth.
All the boys at school fawn over Kia-ling, chief among them Peter Chan Ho. If you watch enough musicals and comedies from either Cathay or the Shaw Bros., you better get used to Peter Chan Ho. He seems to star in dang near every one of them, and for a relatively average looking guy, he’s managed to romance everyone from Grace Chang to Linda Lin Dai to Cheng Pei-pei. I really wish I had this guy’s agent. Peter’s a ubiquitous fixture in the musical films of the 60s and 70s, and he’s a pretty likable guy who emanates an everyman kind of charm. He’s not always believable in his roles, especially when he plays a lady killer kind of character, but he has a certain underdog charisma about him that, while not nearly as magical as Grace’s, makes you root for the guy. When Peter and the boys aren’t studying, and they rarely seem to study, they’re following Kia-ling around and urging her to sing and dance. You know the scene. It’s been in countless musicals, and in the background is always a guy I simply know as Tennis Racket Lad. If you ever seen a musical comedy set at the beach, a college campus, or a summer resort, then you’ve probably spied the Tennis Racket Lad. He’s the guy in the chorus of nameless friends who, when song and dance breaks out, always has a tennis racket which he pretends to strum like a guitar. I’ve seen Tennis Racket lad in at least a dozen films, and I’m sure he shows up in a dozen more.
Kia-ling’s life is turned upside down when her little sister discovers the older sibling she idolizes is in fact adopted. When she confesses this to her best friend, who also happens to be incredibly jealous of Kia-ling’s popularity with the boys, the girls, the teachers, the janitors, and everyone else in Hong Kong, word gets around to Kia-ling’s friends, and eventually to Kia-ling herself. Although her rival tries to make it a point to insult our darling Mambo Girl, none of her friend seem to care. She’s much too charming, and her adopted parents are so cool anyway. Kia-ling, however, is upset by the revelation and wants to seek out her real mother. Along the way, she will discover the true meaning of family, and there will be many musical numbers.
Running just under the surface is a message about the many Chinese people finding themselves in Hong Kong, especially after the revolution and Mao’s increasingly totalitarian (and deadly) handling of the country. Multitudes of Mainlanders suddenly found themselves separated from their motherland and seeking shelter in the arms of Hong Kong. Seeing parallel between Kia-ling and the Mainland immigrants, between her choice of biological mother or adopted parents versus mother China or the adopted homeland of Hong Kong, doesn’t take a genius. But it does, as I said, lend the film a deeper quality than one usually finds in these sorts of films. Most people, however, are not going to seek out a musical comedy called Mambo Girl in hopes of gleaning insight into the mental state of Chinese people seeking to make new lives for themselves in Hong Kong. For a movie like this, what it has on the surface is just as important, if not more so, than what lies beneath. And the surface of Mambo Girl is a pure delight. Grace’s performance is wonderful, and the music is catchy and enjoyable. As one would guess from the title, much of the music is infused with a Latin vibe, something that was very popular with lots of pop music from the era. Grace’s mambo numbers swing, though the lyrics are just about the squarest things imaginable. I doubt Yma Sumac or other mambo legends belted out words like, “You’re a lucky girl. We call you the Mambo Girl. You are the sweetheart in your family. You are the queen in the school.” Not exactly lyrical spiciness to go with the beat, but the infectious tunes will stick with you regardless of how corny the words may be.
The musical numbers are nothing lavish. They’re fairly well grounded in reality and most take place in nightclubs, sporting fields, or people’s living rooms. The dances aren’t extravagant either, but instead look like something an actual person might do. Well, make that an actual person who knows how to mambo and cha-cha. If I was the “actual” person, it’d look less like a dance and more like some old man having a seizure. The fact that movie embraces these modern dances and modern modes of dress so energetically is also a mark of distinction. Many films of the era reflect old fashioned mores regarding singing and dancing, especially as a way of life. How many movies are there where a woman falls upon hard times and is forced to eek out an existence as a nightclub singer, a profession that garners her much attention but no respect? Kia-ling’s parents, on the other hand, break from tradition by enthusiastically supporting their daughter’s talents and preaching the benefits to mind and body of having some good, clean fun. It is another way in which her adopted parents symbolize the new, modern Hong Kong and new, modern ideas. By contrast, Kia-ling’s real mother is the type of lonely torch-singing forlorn woman we see in so many other movies. A product, if you will, of outdated thinking and ideals.
The supporting cast does their best to keep pace with the leading lady. Liu Enjia is wonderful as her father, Peter Chan Ho is likable as her boyfriend, and Kia-ling’s real mother is suitably tragic in true melodrama form. For an interesting Shaw Bros connection, future Shaw empress Mona Fong (who was one of the major players as a producer at Shaw Bros, and quite possibly as powerful – if not more powerful – than the brothers who lent the studio their name) makes an appearance as a singer in a nightclub Kia-ling visits in search of her real mother. The real shining star among the supporting cast is Kitty Ting Hao as Kia-ling’s younger sister. She’s cute and energetic, and her performance is superb. Tragically, she was one among many of the Cathay stars who had a rocky life and ended it via suicide. She died in Los Angeles in 1967 at the age of twenty-seven. Similar sad stories seem to plague far too many of the Cathay women.
Despite that somber footnote, Mambo Girl is an energetic, fun, pluck-at-your-heartstrings musical that will win you over solely with the charm of its leading lady. It’s a refreshing change of pace for people who know Hong Kong cinema primarily through kungfu films and more modern actioners. Mambo Girl takes the conventions of the Hollywood musical and integrates them seamlessly with Hong Kong sensibilities. Ultimately, you can’t feel sad watching the movie, especially when the time rolls around for the big musical mambo finale. Relatively low-key in comparison to other musicals, even other black and white ones, it’s a quality, retro romp that just might have you reaching for the nearest tennis racket.
When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.
Stanley Tong sucks. I don’t make such sophisticated statements without some degree of deliberation and thought, and after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m left with no alternative than to pass judgement on this Hong Kong director, and my judgement is that I could never see another Stanley Tong film in my life, and I wouldn’t be all that upset. Any number of things about his work annoy me, but first and foremost is his ability to make even the most dynamic stars uninteresting and dull. I mean, this is the guy who had Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Lo, and Yuen Wah together in the same film (Police Story III: Supercop) and made them all disappointing. Oh sure, Michelle did the stunt where she jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train, and that was cool and all, but ten seconds out of a ninety minute film hardly justifies the tedium. What kind of fool puts Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah in the same film and doesn’t think to stage a fight scene? Or Jackie Chan and Ken Lo? Or Jackie Chan and anybody? He might as well not have even been in that movie. Tong went on to make Rumble in the Bronx, one of the most ludicrous of all Jackie’s films but at least it was fun and Jackie fought a hovercraft. Tong then redeemed himself slightly with the above-average Police Story IV: First Strike. But then he made Mr. Magoo, and it was all over.