Hong Kong Rhapsody


The fact of the matter is that if you don’t have a fondness for musicals, the chances are you aren’t going to enjoy the Hong Kong musical any more than you did Hollywood musicals. Probably less actually as in some ways Hong Kong musicals are clearly inferior to the ones pumped out by the big Hollywood machine in the heyday of musicals from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. This genre from both film industries share a lot of the same traits – they abound with color (post black and white of course), they are generally sentimental and romantic with an anticipated happy ending, plots are often the merest of structures to throw musical numbers around and people break out in song and dance whenever the notion strikes them whether it’s while hanging the laundry in “Hong Kong Nocturne” or in the school gymnasium in “Mambo Girl”. I know a lot of people just don’t enjoy the whole thing. The other day when I picked up a new musical, my Chinatown DVD supplier told me that he was so happy to see me because he only gets two copies of these types of films – one for me and one for some guy who is buying them for his elderly mother!
What can I say, I happen to really enjoy film musicals and have ever since I saw a late night showing of “Top Hat” many years ago and was awed by the dancing of Fred Astaire. I still feel awe whenever I watch one of his films. That musicals have become an extinct genre almost everywhere except in India strikes me as a great shame. A well choreographed dance number is just as intricate and astonishing as a well choreographed fight – perhaps more so because while the camera and editing can often help you look good in action scenes, in dancing you are out there naked for the world to judge. So even though the dance choreography in the Hong Kong films I have seen so far are not up to the standards of those from Hollywood, I have still really enjoyed them so far – the sweet comedy, the melodrama, the actors and the spectacle have won me over. So take my raves with a huge pinch of salt because I have often wished that real life was a musical and that on the way to work in the morning people on the subways would periodically break out in song and dance with the person sitting next to them – but that kind of thing only happens in musicals – and that’s why I love them. Get prepared for a rave.
A year after “Hong Kong Nocturne”, Inoue Umetsugu once again painted the screen in Hong Kong Rhapsody with gorgeous saturated spectacle in this effervescently giddy musical that begins as screwball comedy and morphs into a touching and sentimental romance. Like Nocturne there are lush musical sequences around every corner that tickle your eyeballs with delight and send a rush of warm nostalgia down your backside. Umetsugu was invited by the Shaw Brothers along with a number of other Japanese directors to bring a larger degree of technical sophistication to their films. While most of these directors seemed to have a made a few films and then returned to Japan, Umetsugu stuck around for some six years and seventeen films before doing so. I am not sure if all of these films are musicals, but it seems the majority of them are and it is on them that much of his Hong Kong reputation rests.
Here is what little information I have been able to run down on this director. He was born in Kyoto in 1923. After graduating in 1949 he obtained a job as an assistant director with Toho and in 1952 he stepped up to director. He soon gained a reputation as a very efficient director who brought his films in on time and could direct in many different genres. At some point he left Toho and was directing for Nikkatsu by the end of the decade.  For Nikkatsu he made a number of action films starring two of Japan’s biggest action stars of the time, Akagi Keiichiro and Ishihara Yujiro. Some of these were “A Storming Drummer” that a website compares to Elvis's "Jailhouse Rock in overdrive”, “Storming Brotherhood” and “Sun in the Crowd”. By the early 60’s Nikkatsu was turning much more towards the “pinku eiga” (soft-core) film genre and perhaps for that reason Umetsugu next turned up at Toei where he directed three yakazu films as part of an “Underworld” trilogy. Around the same time in the early to mid sixties he also apparently directed a samurai film for Daiei, “Third Shadow”, which starred Raizo Ichikawa and the film that “Hong Kong Nocturne” was based on called “Odoritai Yoru” for Shochiku.
Cheng Pei-pei says that when he came over to make “Nocturne”, he set all three of the female stars down and made them watch this film to get an idea of how to play their characters since he was unable to express it in Chinese! With all these works for different studios one would have to guess that Umetsugu had become more of a contract director than a studio one. This was to change with his years at Shaws. In all he made over fifty films and is still apparently living in Japan (if anyone has more information on this director, please send it in and if you know of the availability of any of his Japanese films on DVD I would love to know).
The plot of Hong Kong Rapsody is a simple one, but you have to picture it in blazing color, populated by a myriad of interesting characters and immersed in stylish song and dance. Peter Chen is a nightclub magician and a bit of a playboy heel who seems to be a younger version of the father from “Hong Kong Nocturne”. He is juggling two vamps that come in the delicious forms of Angela Yu Chien and Helen Ma and has managed to leech money from each. He is wont to sing to himself “As a lady-killer you are hard to beat”! One evening a parting gift from a dead magician friend appears at his door – his vagabond smudged “son” that he appoints Peter to be the guardian of. Later that same evening he has to pull one of his best disappearing trick yet when Angela and Helen along with a few toughs come looking to collect the money he “borrowed” from them. With the boy trailing behind him they find a fabulous home whose owners seem to be away on a trip.
Chen soon discovers upon barging into the bathroom that underneath the dirt and baggy clothes is the more than adorable Li Ching – a 20-year old girl verging on womanhood. It turns out that the next day is Li’s birthday and they decide to throw a party and invite all of their down on their luck entertainer friends over for the festivities – a smorgasbord of dancing and singing occurs that is simply a terrific scene. The niece (Allyson Chang Yen) of the home’s owner shows up with her entourage, but instead of getting upset over these trespassers she and her friends join the party and are soon blowing some mighty horns – what do you know – they are all aspiring singers and dancers and want to put on a show! Sure enough, the elderly owner (Yeung Chi Hing) shows up and has a good time until his rapacious nephew (Wei Ping Ao) puts an end to the lovely evening.

Love is soon simmering between Peter and Li Ching, but they don’t tell each other and Peter realizes that his reputation as a playboy is hurting her image and potential singing career – so he leaves her and accepts an invitation from old man Yeung to put her up as she reminds Yeung of his dead daughter. The kids all decide to put on a show and though there are many complications, the show must go on. And what a show it is – with huge sets, an army of dancers and singers, ornate décor splashing in color and some solid songs. My favorite section – the final 30-minutes is nearly a non-stop number with some dramatic off stage happenings breaking in from time to time – is the three color section which features guest stars Lily Ho, Chin Ping and Margaret Hsing Hui. It is great fun and in particular Chin Ping has a lovely graceful number that shows her in good form. Jing Ting provides the vocals for Li Ching.

Li Ching is an extremely appealing cutie pie – small in stature and a bit pudgy by most dancer standards but with a face that is like warm pie. Interestingly, though she portrays this very innocent girl, the studio also seemed to be trying to sell her sex appeal as she appears in towels a few times, a negligee and in the shower (no nudity). Born in Shanghai in 1948 she joined Shaw at the ripe old age of fifteen in 1963. She soon received some good roles and won the Best Actress Award at the 12th Asian Film Festival for “The Mermaid” and acquired the nickname “Baby Queen”. It fits her well. Like so many actresses at the time, after this film she was pushed into martial arts films and was in a few well-known ones – “Have Sword, Will Travel”, “The New One Armed Swordsman” and “The Fourteen Amazons”. By the mid 70’s her career seemed on the decline as she made appearances in films like “Sexy Girls of Denmark” and “Sexy Playboys”. Later in the decade though she came back with roles in “Clans of Intrigue” and “Dream of the Red Chamber”. The last role she has credited in the HKMDB is a 1995 film called “Hope”.

My rating for this film: 8.0