Director Chor Yuen is probably today best known for the sumptuous fantasy wuxia films he crafted while under contract to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio during the seventies and early eighties. Indeed, titles like Killer Clans, The Magic Blade, and Clans of Intrigue, marked as they are by Chor’s unique ability to meld gauzy, haunted romanticism and state-of-the-art martial arts action within an immediately recognizable and alluringly narcotic visual style, present themselves as signature works, the result of a perfect marriage of director and genre. This makes it all the more surprising that these films were, to some extent, a lucrative tangent occurring well into a long directorial career stretching back to the late fifties, one encompassing equally prolific and accomplished work in the areas of social realism and romantic drama.
Still, a look at one standout example of the director’s early ventures into action cinema, The Black Rose (Hei mei gui), reveals an imprint that is just as clearly recognizable in his later, beloved work for the Shaws. For even at this relatively youthful stage in his career, working within the tight budgetary constraints of the Cantonese language film industry of the sixties, Chor demonstrates a sensitive stylistic touch that suffuses this irresistible pulp confection with a palpable sense of elegance, glamour and romance.
With The Black Rose, Chor performed an innovative trick of genre alchemy, taking the female-centric swashbuckling of early wuxia cinema and the populist heroics of Chinese folklore and placing them in a contemporary urban setting. Perhaps inescapably, the film also pays service to the then pervasive influence of the Bond films, as well as to the campy pop art aesthetic that would find its most visible expression a year later with the Batman TV series in the US. Appropriate to its tale of daring masked avengers, The Black Rose also seems to owe a debt to the Republic serials of the forties — not to mention other American studio product of that time. Made in 1965, it has the look of a Hollywood film from twenty, even thirty, years previous. And this is to its distinct advantage.
Being the product of a Cantonese film industry geared toward turning out product quickly and cheaply (locked, as it was, in competition with the increasingly dominant and considerably more lavishly funded Mandarin language studios) The Black Rose is to some extent restricted to the limited, minimally dressed sets typical of Cantonese films at the time. Though these lack the lush, finicky detail found in those of his Shaw Brothers films, Chor does manage some expressive design flourishes — the gigantic abstract painting that covers an entire wall of one set, a particularly oppressive looking grandfather clock, and the sleek and up-to-the-minute mod furniture favored by the films protagonists among them — that contribute to The Black Rose having a far more stylized look than might be expected. And what the film lacks in art direction, Chor more than compensates for with a surfeit of old school Hollywood style. There is a rich, beckoning depth to his tight black and white compositions, and, when he is filming his attractive stars, he renders them so luminous that all incidental detail becomes irrelevant. One need only look at some of the other, comparatively slap-dash products of the industry at the time to see why The Black Rose, with its lustrous, handsome and meticulously-crafted look, was a solid stand-out, as well as a big box office hit.
The Black Rose opens with a costume party hosted at the home of a wealthy and beautiful Hong Kong socialite, Chan Mei-yu. The film’s lines of combat are drawn immediately–and none too subtly–by the device of having the revelers, all members of the moneyed elite, cavorting about in an assortment of grotesque children’s Halloween masks (in lieu of the frilly period costumes and domino masks you’d typically see in one of these “fancy dress ball” scenes). Suddenly the room erupts in panic as a black clad, hooded female figure makes a dramatic appearance on the landing above the dance floor. It’s the Black Rose, a Robin Hood-like cat burglar who preys on the rich for the benefit of the city’s poor and downtrodden. As a handy squad of police officers swarm to apprehend her, the mystery woman laughs and cheerfully removes her mask. Much to the relief of the assembled fat cats, it’s the lovely hostess herself, simply sporting a topical costume for the occasion. The joke here, of course, is that, while her well-heeled guests play at dress-up, the true nature of Chan Mei-yu’s masquerade is that she is posing as one of them — for in reality she actually is the Black Rose, a sworn enemy to everything they stand for.
Or, rather, Chan Mei-yu is half of the Black Rose. Because, unknown to the public at large, the Black Rose is actually two people. Chan Mei-yu’s younger sister, Chan Mei-ling, also wears the Rose’s black suit and hood, and alternates between going solo (and thus providing her sister with an alibi should anyone suspect her) and working in tandem with Chan Mie-yu under that guise. By means of this ruse the both of them manage not only to avoid detection, but to also on occasion overwhelm some chosen mark by appearing to come at him from both sides at once. Out of costume, the two gamely play at being a sort of swinging sixties Chinese version of the Hilton sisters. By all appearances the subjects of a pampered and frivolous existence, they spend their downtime cheerfully separating the gang of horny old saps who court them from their cash, giving nothing more than a wink in return.
One thing that is obvious from all of Chor Yuen’s work is that he was a director who was very good at — and who clearly enjoyed — working with actresses. Well drawn and powerful female characters were a staple of his films, and he clearly knew how to feature and photograph the women who played them to best advantage. The Black Rose provides an ideal showcase for this particular strength, as the director here works with a pair of especially talented and charismatic female stars in the lead roles. Playing Chan Mei-yu is the radiant Nam Hung, an actress who had already worked in front of the camera for Chor on several occasions, and who, in addition to starring here, also acted as co-producer with him on The Black Rose. (She would also soon afterwards become his wife.) Here she does a winning job of personifying the film’s winking sense of fun, while at the same time conveying the gravitas appropriate to a woman whose past has driven her to follow such an extraordinary calling.
In the role of Chan Mei-ling is teen star Connie Chan, an actress who, having spent her childhood working in Cantonese Opera, would go on to become the biggest star of 1960s Cantonese cinema. Though Chan’s singing abilities don’t get a showcase here (The Black Rose is the first film of hers I’ve seen in which she doesn’t bust out with some Chinese language version of an American pop hit), her considerable athletic and martial arts abilities are shown off to fine effect. Chan, who often played male roles in her films, brings a scrappy, tomboy energy to the part which nicely embodies the thrill-seeking, mischievous side of the Black Rose persona. As such, she provides a complimentary contrast to the womanly sensuality of Nam Hung and to the conflicted and longing side that becomes increasingly apparent in the character Nam Hung portrays.
Rounding out the lead cast of The Black Rose is Patrick Tse, an actor whose prettiness threatens to eclipse that of even Nam Hung and Connie Chan (an attribute not lost on Chor Yuen, who seems to pause the action for a swooning take on Tse’s delicate features whenever he shows up on screen). Tse plays Cheung Mun-fu, an insurance investigator who comes on the scene when a precious jewel belonging to one of Chan Mei-yu’s wealthy party guests turns up missing. The jewel’s owner has named the Black Rose as the culprit, but the truth is that he himself had secreted the jewel away with the intent of fraudulently claiming the insurance money. However, the Chan sisters, taking umbrage at this attempted frame-up, decided to make him good on his word and took the jewel outright.
Cheung Mun-fu soon comes to suspect Chan Mei-yu of being the Black Rose, but this may in reality be just an excuse to stay close, as his obsessive nocturnal tailing of her soon takes on a distinctly erotic cast. The attraction is mutual, it turns out, and the tentative romantic dodge and feint between the two comes to be a central part of The Black Rose‘s second half. Here the tone of The Black Rose is most recognizably similar to that of many of Chor Yuen’s wuxia films, its atmosphere permeated by an over-bleed of stunted romantic desire as its protagonists’ deeper longings run up against their sense of an honor bound, solitary personal destiny. When Chan Mei-yu lures Tse into a chaste, isolated tryst within the gothic ruin of a deserted old house, its the type of moment — pregnant with a woozy, unfulfilled yearning — that the director has made a hallmark of his style. Mei-yu finally surrenders to her feelings, revealing her identity to the investigator, and it’s a move which ends up putting him in mortal danger, and he is soon at the mercy of a gang of the Rose’s enemies. This leads to a climax that features the helpless Tse in the type of kinky bondage tableau Western-made films of the time usually reserved for their heroines as, meanwhile, the two fearless female heroes race to effect his rescue.
The impact that The Black Rose had on Hong Kong cinema can be traced through the numerous knock-offs, re-imaginings and homages to the film that have sprung up in its wake over the intervening years. In addition to The Spy With My Face, a direct sequel which Chor Yuen shot with the same cast the following year, the film’s success inspired the Shaw Brothers studio to produce a virtual remake–though in period drag–in the form of 1968’s The Black Butterfly (which was itself remade by Pearl Chang Ling as Dark Lady of Kung Fu). The 1990s saw the release of a series of successful features spoofing the film, which in turn inspired the 2004 Twins vehicle Protege de la Rose Noire.
Strangely, however, while most of the aforementioned titles are readily available on DVD or VCD, The Black Rose itself remains M.I.A. It may just be that there is little interest in Hong Kong films of this vintage among today’s film consumers, but the availability of a number of Connie Chan’s other 1960s films on disc would suggest otherwise. Hopefully the growing interest in Chor Yuen’s work in the West will ultimately lead to it getting the reverential, extra-laden DVD treatment it so deserves. For it to be otherwise would be a true shame, because the film is a true classic of Asian genre cinema–a tightly crafted package of wit, charm, excitement and romance wrapped in a swath of sophisticated sixties style and delivered with the distinctive touch of a true master.