Whose Baby is in the Classroom?

For those who have watched a lot of the Cathay films as well as the musicals from the Shaw Brothers, the omnipresent light charm of Peter Chen has been impossible to avoid and perhaps has even grown on you over time. From the late 1950’s to the late 1960’s he seemed to show up in just about every contemporary Hong Kong musical being produced – not because he could sing (as he was always dubbed in his few songs) or that he could dance all that well (though apparently much better than any other leading man), but simply because his comic affability was a perfect fit for these films and he was the perfect foil for his much more charismatic female stars. I have gotten to the point now that a musical without Chen seems to be lacking some indefinable chemistry and I always welcome his presence. Here in this film he is at his genial best – by turns silly, confused, romantic and sympathetic and this only adds a layer of melancholy to knowing that this is Chen’s last film. He was to die within a year at the age of 40 from cancer and his death coincided with the end of the Hong Kong musical. The musical had been a staple of Hong Kong films for over twenty years, but their popularity was ebbing, as had the Western musical a decade earlier.
Chen had been in three of Umetsugu’s previous musicals – “Hong Kong Nocturne”, “Hong Kong Rhapsody” and “The Millionaire Chase” – all of which were very enjoyable colorful extravaganzas, but “Whose Baby” falls short of the ambitions of those films. It looks to be shot on a very small budget, has only a few basic musical numbers, is lacking in the star power category of those earlier films and has a much less sophisticated veneer. It is perhaps the weakest of Umetsugu’s musicals that I have seen yet and seems to be an indication that the Shaw Brothers were backing away from their glorious high gloss musicals into ones that were much more toned down (and cheaper) such as “Apartment for Ladies” (1970), “A Time for Love” (1970) and “The Venus Tear Diamond” (1971). The beginning of the end in other words.
Chen goes to a clinic for a check up and ends up with a baby after a woman leaves it with him and excuses herself to go to the bathroom – and never comes back. Not really knowing how to get rid of this infant (and not being smart enough to turn it over to the police), he decides to keep it and to take care of it. Soon thereafter he gets hired by Ouyang Shafei to be the first male teacher in an all female high school and confusion reigns. He meets up with his female childhood friend (Li Ching) who is also a teacher there but has taken on a very conservative and serious nature and is called “The Rock” by the students for her stiff and stern ways. It’s only a matter of time of course before Peter charms her out of her wide-rimmed glasses and dour outfits. Glasses or no glasses, Li Ching is as cute as a slightly plump button and glows like a pumpkin lantern. One has to wonder if someone with her build – very short and roundish – could possibly be a leading romantic lady in today’s Hong Kong film – but her wide-eyed cherubic innocence was very popular back then.
Complications arise when Chen smuggles the baby into the school grounds where he has to live and tries to care for it on the sly. Soon the students get wind of the toddler and they too are in on the secret and helping to care for it like a school home economic class as they darn socks and warm milk for the little tyke. Another thread of the plot revolves around a student who was done wrong by a man and has suicide on her mind. Most of this plays out exactly as one might expect, but there is a certain complacent sappy pleasure in happy endings and though the film is no great shakes it did have an old fashioned warmth about it that was pleasing to some degree.
The DVD claims that this Umetsugu film was shot in his home country of Japan and though I suppose I have no reason to doubt this it seems a very odd choice since almost the entire film takes place within the school grounds and there are no exterior shots that had a distinct Japanese flavor to them or was it ever made a plot point of the film that it takes place in Japan. One curious aspect of the film shows how times have changed in the way we view movies now - in a few shots the camera pans the young students legs and clothed breasts from Chen’s POV and there is also a scene in which Chen looks at them through his telescope as they take showers (no nudity displayed). In the film he is suppose to be 28 years-old (though upwards near forty in real life) and in today’s sexual climate this anachronism came across as very creepy and Lolita like though I am sure that was not at all the intent of the film.

My rating for this film: 5.5