The Girlie Bar

Well there is good melodrama and there is bad melodrama. This one is baaaad melodrama – so weighed down with clichés and awful dialogue that I thought it was going to drown like a screeching cat in oil. So bad that it was all I could do not to fall off my chair laughing as a series of very bad things happen to the characters in the film (I know it's not right to laugh when a child suffocates to death, but I could not help myself and I feel so guilty!). But then I suppose I have to admit that with a title like “The Girlie Bar” I wasn’t exactly expecting “The Best Years of Our Lives”. I was instead of course anticipating a fascinating socio-economic discourse on the sad position of women in Chinese society – or at least the back of the DVD might lead one to believe that as it states “In this tearjerker, The Girlie Bar is basically an allegorical tale that follows the plight of the Chinese woman and they way they are treated by males in Chinese society”.
Huh? And I thought it was just an excuse to show a lot of naked breasts. It shows how little I understand film sometimes. I came for sleaze and instead was enlightened. I feel good about that, about myself – I want some sort of good citizens award thrust on me by a feminist group. No, those were not naked breasts going hither and thither that I witnessed during a free for all catfight – that was a treatise on sexual exploitation of the most scurrilous kind and I abhor it. Wink wink. If one didn’t know better, you might think that the scene in which the bar catches on fire and loads of women run about like the keystone cops in a state of undress for about five minutes was purely done for unsavory purposes – but it was no doubt to show how dangerous this life style could be and a needed warning to the authorities to improve fire safety standards in these types of establishments.
Li Chen-chi and Chen Ping
What is mildly fascinating about this Shaw Brothers film – very mildly – is the manner in which it combines the genres of old fashioned “weepies” and drooling exploitation. Unfortunately, neither is done very well – it is like a two headed dog that goes in circles and slobbers all over itself - one of those heads has got to go. My preference would be the “weepie” head – if anyone shed a tear ever over this film they should have themselves put on medication immediately – and my guess is that most people who went to see this when it was released in 1976 did it for the scantily clad women and sat in the back of the theater. Hopefully, some of them came out as enlightened as I did and perhaps some even made a quick trip to Kowloon or Wanchai to express their regrets in certain locales for their past behavior.
Chen Ping
Though in truth the sex here isn’t really the kind to inspire anyone – unless watching people roll around in dingy surroundings on unmade beds in poor light making sounds like they are at an all you can eat buffet does it for you. Watching Dean Shek doing this in one scene may have turned me off of sex forever. There is a classic scene that makes me wonder if the concept of seduction has perhaps changed in the past 30 years. One of the actresses is on a beach with a client – she slowly lowers her top – no complaints so far – and then begins rolling on the sand – and rolling – and more rolling – and yes more rolling – I was worried she was going to end up in Singapore or with some really bad sand burns – but the guy was loving it – I was laughing like crazy.
Helen Ko and Dean Shek
A seedy looking customer with a big bottle of hootch comes into Old Gai’s bar looking for some fun. This isn’t exactly high end – an hour goes for $3.30 at night – a bargain of $2.20 in the day – for an hour’s worth of time with the lady of your choosing. He is drunk and difficult and damn dirty, but Old Gai (Yeh Feng) never turns any money away. He informs the fellow that the Blossom Sisters are available – “the oldest is a sexy widow, the middle one is a wild girl and the youngest is a gentle rose”. What a line up. He naturally goes for the gentle rose – but Fen (Lin Chen-chi) wants nothing to do with him and his unwashed odor and refuses to sit with him. So Old Gai takes down the bullwhip and whacks the hell out of her. But it’s just his way of showing his love he explains – he should know because he is her father. Father Knows Best he isn’t. In a lengthy prologue we learn – with dramatic black and white stills! – that after his wife died Old Gai went into hock to Sister Long – and his only way to pay her back was to open a little bar with his daughters as the main entrees. The three girls gladly oblige – anything to help dear old dad.
Tragedy litters this film like a harvest of road kill. The eldest daughter Hong  (Helen Ko) was married to a sailor but he drowned in a shipwreck (flash to waves crashing on rocks to make the impact really hit home) and she has to raise her son on her own. When customers come to visit, the sweet little lad scampers into the closet to stay out of the way and gets two biscuits afterwards as a reward for keeping quiet. She now has Dean Shek promising to marry her, but would anyone believe Dean Shek? The middle daughter Yan (Chen Ping) fell for the promises of a rich guy who took a quick hike after she gets pregnant and now has the bouncer in love with her. Her father advises her at one point to take up with him because “he only likes to fight, is low class and illiterate, but is a nice guy”. He should write a Lonely Hearts column. Both of these women seem to take pride in their jobs, but Fen hates it and looks for a way out.
It comes in the form of a rich college boy, but what about her past she wonders – will it come back to haunt her? She pensively thinks about this as he sings her a song – she pensively walks, pensively sits, pensively stands by a tree – but comes to no conclusion. Her sister tells her “For women like us, love is beyond our reaching”, but Fen isn’t deterred. Other little stories populate the film – all very sad – like the fellow (James Nam Gung Fan) who comes looking for his prostitute girlfriend named Suzy Wong from 20-years ago that he left pregnant – only to find himself in bed with his own daughter who has taken up where mom left off! Things soon go from bad to worse and the film along with it.
There are some plusses to the film – a couple nice songs, lots of familiar faces in character bits – Fung Fung as a collector, Lee Man Tai as a customer, Tsang Choh Lam as an employee of the bar, Peter Chan Lung as a thug (there is some kung fu in the film), Wong San as the rich boy’s father, Jason Pai Piao as a bouncer, Chan Lau as a mute bouncer (and credited with the action choreography), Tony Liu as the main thug, Chen Ti as another creepy customer, Ho Pak Kwong as a customer and Billy Chan has a quick pass through as well. Yeh Feng – Old Gai – was actually a very popular comedian at the time specializing in country bumpkin types of roles in films such as Crazy Bumpkins, Return of the Crazy Bumpkins and Big Time for the Crazy Bumpkins. That’s a lot of bumpkins.
Most pleasurable was Li Chen-chi even if she is the only woman to keep her clothes on in the film. Co-incidentally I just saw her a few weeks ago in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. She plays Stella Stevens adopted daughter and is a major cutie in the film. I wondered at the time who she was and if she was in other HK films and here she is. Though I didn’t recognize her while watching Cleopatra, I did immediately here – four years later she would take on cult status by playing Pearl in Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounter – 1st Kind as the bomb throwing nihilist. Though she doesn’t show a lot of emotion in this film, she has this intense beauty that must have been what Tsui was looking for.
cw - Chan Lau, Jason Pai Piao, Tony Liu, Lee Man Tai, ?, Wong San, Peter Chan Lung and Fung Fung

My rating for this film: 5.0