If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?
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.