Mambo Girl (Evan Yang, 1957) – March 20, 2017
On first glance, a frothy frivolity, a 50s teen rom-com musical with Grace Chang the Debbie Reynolds or Annette Funicello at its center, the bubbly singing, dancing, wholesome good girl everyone loves. But the plot takes a turn: it turns out Grace is adopted, something she doesn't learn until the middle of her 20th birthday party, when a jealous rival (her short hair and air of menace recall Mercedes McCambridge) spitefully lets the secret slip. Grace, the unstable foundation of her world revealed, runs away, at first in embarrassment and pity, and then (after a rooftop vision of a ghost woman singing a mournful song for her lost child) determined to find her real mother. She finds her (after searching every night club in town: an excuse for some more musical numbers, including one primal dance as physical as any Chang Cheh brawl), but the woman denies it, and Grace (through song, naturally, but by listening to a recorded version of herself singing) comes to realize how happy she really is. Her ebullient smile returns, but rather than the sublime emptiness of Debbie Reynolds (circa Dobie Gillis or I Love Melvin), it's now the weary and wary joy of Hara Setsuko. A generation comes of age, realizes the tragedies of the world that preceded them, that brought them to life, and that surrounds them still, yet carries on dancing. Because what else is there?
The June Bride (Tang Huang, 1960) — March 22, 2017
Totally pleasant romantic comedy starring Grace Chang and directed by Tang Huang. The plot resembles nothing so much as an Astaire-Rogers film, except it’s weirdly lacking in musical numbers: only one in fact, though that one is nice. Consequently, Chang doesn’t get much to do — outside the one song, her only really good scene is one where she gets drunk. Instead, the standout performance comes from Roy Chiao (the supernatural monk from A Touch of Zen), as a hulking drunken sailor with a deceptively quick mind and generosity of spirit. He’s one of three men in love with Grace, along with her wealthy fiancé and a musician she met on the boat from America to Hong Kong. Completing the classic love pentagon is a local showgirl, whom the fiancé has been sleeping with and who he tries to set up with Chiao.
Eileen Chang is totally slumming in writing the script, but it’s never not charming and there are hints of a better world where the dictates of class and propriety don’t determine who ends up with whom. As in The Philadelphia Story, Chiao’s everyman is ultimately too low-class to win the star, but in being paired off with the showgirl, he probably gets the better deal anyway.
The Wild, Wild Rose (Wong Tin-lam, 1960) — March 21, 2017
Grace Chang takes a 180 from the wholesome everygirl of Mambo Girl into this adaptation of Carmen by Wong Tin-lam, father of the notorious Wong Jing and character actor in many a Johnnie To film (he’s the large boss in the Election films, for example). She’s a showgirl of loose sexuality who specializes in singing Mandarin versions of Bizet songs and who has a well-hidden heart of gold. When an uptight pianist spies her prostituting herself to raise money for a friend’s wife’s surgery, he’s smitten with her generosity, or rather, the generosity gives him an excuse to give into his very repressed desires.
From here, it’s a bit like The Blue Angel, except if the Marlene Dietrich character actually really loved the Emil Jannings sap. The result is the same: he ends up destroying himself, but not because of the twisted wiles of a devil woman, but because his fundamental weakness manifests itself in nonsensical patriarchy (refusing to allow her to sing even though he can’t get a job). Her essential decency, and concomitant disregard for the inane mores of her terrible world, are the cause of her destruction, the worthless doofus she can’t help but love is only the instrument.
Wong’s direction is solid, not as fluid as Evan Yang’s work in Mambo Girl, but he builds a nice noirish atmosphere. The musical numbers are outstanding, but entirely confined to the stage, which is in keeping with the noir vibe. As in Mambo Girl, there isn’t an actor on-screen that can hold a candle to Grace Chang.