“Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios,” nominally a retrospective celebrating one of the seminal production companies in Hong Kong cinema, could just as well be a celebration of a seismic talent known as Ge Lan, a.k.a. Grace Chang.
Ensconced in cosmopolitan culture, from airliners to mambo clubs, Cathay’s urbane entertainments envisioned a Hong Kong jet set that presaged the city’s eventual ascendance as an economic powerhouse. Central to this modern vision were the stable of actresses who portrayed headstrong, independent leads in these films, not the least of which was Chang. Of the seven films in the sidebar, five feature Chang, she of the sultry, man-eating gaze and volcano voice.
As a singer and actress, Chang exuded a liberated, free-wheeling persona that ushered an era of swinging times among a generation of post-war Chinese. Chang’s voice, powered by years of Peking opera training, rings with a bell-like clarity that compensates for its lack of delicacy or restraint. And when hitched to a mean mambo rhythm and lyrics like “shaking bodies drive everyone wild… dance as crazy, crazy, crazy as I am!”, her clarion call threatens to topple thousands of years of Chinese repression. The butchiness of her stentorian singing makes her ripe for camp appreciation among contemporary Sino-queers, including Tsai Ming-liang, who offered touchingly makeshift homages to her song-dance numbers in The Hole. But her lasting impact on Chinese cinema is no less important than Brigitte Bardot’s on French cinema or Marilyn Monroe’s on Hollywood: when Asia Weekly conducted a poll of the greatest Chinese films of the 20th century, two Grace Chang films, Mambo Girl and The Wild, Wild Rose, made the list.
Mambo Girl, reputedly conceived when Cathay Studio head Loke Wan Tho saw Chang dancing at a nightclub, is the film that catapulted Chang to stardom, extensively exhibiting her dancing skill. Personally I don’t think her footwork is all it’s made out to be, but the poise with which she sells the latest imported steps is persuasive. More disturbing is the subtext to be found in what otherwise may appear to be a teen melodrama plot serving as a perfunctory coagulant for the dance numbers. Innocent but spoiled party girl Kailing (Chang) overhears rumors of her orphan lineage, leading to a haunting, if dissonant scene where she envisions her birth mother as a peasant, in sharp contrast to her debonair, Western-clothed adoptive parents. Her search leads her to a washroom attendant who staunchly denies their biological link, even as she confirms it in solitude. Her Stella Dallas-esque sacrifice is a face-saving measure that subverts the New Society promises of the film—Kailing can be a symbol of the New Chinese Woman only if she doesn’t have a low-class family history to haunt her. Cheerfully reconciled with her adoptive parents and affluent classmates, Kailing launches into a ten-minute dance sequence in which she practically mambos the past out of her memory, even as her real mother watches through a doorway crack with sorrowful pride.
The Wild, Wild Rose offers further pleasurable perversities lying in the cracks of Cathay’s brave new world. Good mambo girl Chang has gone very bad as Sijia, a nightclub chanteuse who makes a stunning entrance, literally dancing on title credits emblazoned on a staircase. Her first number, a sultry Chinese version of “La Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, suggests that Hanhua (Chang Yang), the schoolteacher-turned-nightclub pianist who eyes her in horny bewilderment, is in for a whole mess of trouble. But when Hanhua saves Sijia from a near-fatal beating, a spark of devotional reciprocation is kindled in Sijia that’s missing in her famous Spanish counterpart. Sijia tries to make a decent go as a homemaker for Hanhua, but his drunken profligacy forces her to return to the stage, notably as a contrite Madame Butterfly bowing in geisha garb. Recalling Marlene Dietrich’s stunning journey of self-discovery in Morocco, Sijia’s volatile transformation from a carefree material girl into a bitterly tragic maternal figure for her childish husband (a typical male counterpart to the Cathay heroine) gives layers of drama to the Grace Chang persona. No longer does she simply represent an escapist fantasy for Chinese hipsters, but a fierce assertion of individualist womanhood who insists on her freedom of choice, even in the face of an oppressive reality.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker based in New York City. He has written for Cinema-Scope, The Chicago Reader, Senses of Cinema and Slant. His website is www.alsolikelife.com.