Sun, Moon, and Star (Evan Yang, 1961)
A two-part anti-romantic epic showcasing all the brightest stars of the MP&GI studio. A man, Xu Jianbai (Zhang Yang), looking back on his life, recalls the three women who dominated it, each identified with a celestial object. The first half recounts his years before the war, as he falls in love with each woman in turn. The second follows the war years, as separation, illness, and injury take their toll on the four heroes. Director Evan Yang, aka Yi Wen, does what he can with the material, fatally flawed as it is by the fact that Jianbai is so dreadfully boring. It’s the kind of role and performance that makes one understand why Chang Cheh felt the need to restore the “manly virtues” to Hong Kong cinema. Jianbai is earnest, emotional, and completely powerless. His primary virtue is that he is tall. In contrast, every one of the women is a fully-realized, complex, and active, with desires that extend beyond Jianbai but that nonetheless, at times, somewhat inexplicably involve an attraction to him.
The first woman is A-Lan, a poor orphan, ward of a nasty aunt and uncle, with whom Jianbai grew up. On the eve of his leaving for school (high school, though he looks to be in his mid-30s), they secretly agree to get married. But when he returns on winter break, her family has arranged for her to marry someone else. When her and Jianbai’s affair is discovered, both proposals are doomed and she retreats in shame. Played by You Min, A-Lan is small and slight with great big eyes, looking sort of like a tubercular Michelle Yeoh. Her sickliness and sense of social inferiority will dominate her decision-making throughout the film.
At school, Jianbai hooks up with his cousin, Qiuming, played by the always incandescent Grace Chang (star of Yang’s very great Mambo Girl). She is wealthy and vivacious, where A-Lan was shy and melancholy, and she falls for Jianbai when he suddenly contracts typhoid and she nurses him back to health. This is good for everyone as their families have arranged for them to get married. But when she visits his hometown and finds out about A-Lan, each woman desperately wants the other to have the man. They will become the best of friends, while Jianbai heads off to college to meet another woman.
That is Su Yannan (Julie Yeh Feng), an outspoken Nationalist attempting to organize the students in case of war. Jianbai eagerly joins up, writing propaganda pieces, and when war breaks out, he follows Yannan to the front. He proposes, but her heart belongs to war and she runs off. He spends most of the war looking for her: the one time he does find her, it’s as she’s commanding a machine gun and the moment they meet he’s blown up by a mortar shell.
Recuperating at the field hospital, he’s cared for by A-Lan, now a field nurse working herself into illness (it was revealed early that she has some unnamed fatal illness which will kill her, she assures us, in 1–2 years or whenever it is narratively convenient). She gets his captain, who just happens to be the guy she was going to marry until he found out about her prior relationship, to tell Jianbai that he and A-Lan are going to be married after all. Half heart-broken and half-relieved, he continues his search for Yannan. But when A-Lan finds her for him, Yannan insists that she doesn’t want to be found, she has a war to win. So Jianbai keeps looking, and comes across Qiuming, working in a song and dance group entertaining the troops. Initially overcome with her inexplicable love for him, they go out to eat, but since all he does is moon about Yannan (who is the Sun in the film’s title scheme, with Qiuming the Moon and A-Lan the Star), she disappears onto an outbound train.
The three women unite after the war back in A-Lan’s hut, where she is finally succumbing to her mystery disease while her adoptive parents are harassing her to repay the wedding gifts her ex-fiancé’s family gave her a decade earlier. Qiuming agrees to pay the debt, but it’s too late. Oh, and Yannan lost a leg in the war. Anyway, Jianbai shows up some three months later, after his ladies are either dead or gone. Sometime later he runs into Yannan in Hong Kong, but she doesn’t think he can handle a one-legged woman so she splits, after giving him Qiuming’s address. So Jianbai heads out in search of his cousin, only to find her in a convent, where she wordlessly chooses the nunnery over his dullness.
So we have this sweeping, ostensibly romantic melodrama, a Dr. Zhivago for the Anti-Japanese War, where the women are doing everything in their power to make sure the man ends up with someone else. In the first half of the film, they’re always deferring to their rivals, in the second half, their priorities straightened by the struggles of war, they just flat-out leave him behind. Only his own ego keeps him at the center of the drama (the film comes to life only when he is off-screen), but he’s too dim to realize his own lack of importance. If he was significantly smarter, or slightly dumber, he might have been in for some Razor’s Edge-style epiphanies about the nature of life and human relationships. But as it is, he’ll probably just find some other trio of women to make miserable.
It’s hard to know how much of this is intentional: did the Jianbai character read as so weak as to be parodic of a certain kind of man back in 1961, and thus the film is a kind of sly feminist tract about how much better women are being the heroes of their own stories? I doubt it, after all, the women are each ultimately punished for their failure to settle down and marry Prince Boring, either by death, maiming, or Catholicism. But there’s a wistfulness here, maybe just an echo of the great actresses’ souls, a yearning for a world where their options aren’t limited by the desires of a capricious man any more than they are by a feudal marriage arrangement system. Where women can choose what to do with their lives free of expectation or condemnation or bland handsomeness.