Apartment for Ladies
This intriguing title certainly hints at a possible
eye raising exploration of the seamy side of Hong Kong, but this idea evaporates
as soon as you realize that the director is Inoue Umetsugu. Umetsugu could
certainly be romantically flirtatious in his films, but he was not one
for crawling through the gutter looking for shards of broken glass and
sexual gratification. One can’t even begin to think of this Japanese
director taking on the material of some of the more sexually provocative
films that Shaw was beginning to churn out by the early 1970’s. If he had
somehow ended up behind the camera for such as “The House of Bamboo Dolls”,
he would no doubt still have managed to get in a few musical numbers –
perhaps the scene in which the female Japanese security officer uses a
wooden implement to pleasure one of the female prisoners would have made
for a great song, moan and dance sequence!
In nearly all of his Hong Kong films, Umetsugu
clearly preferred dealing with actresses and his stories nearly always
seem to circle around female characters whether they are the three sisters
of “Hong Kong Nocturne”, the three friends in “The Millionaire Chase” or
the lady thieves in “The Venus Tear Diamond”. Men on the other hand often
get short shrift – generally kept on the sidelines as one-dimensional romantic
figures and usually played by non-threatening affable male actors like
Peter Chen, Ling Yun and Chin Feng. The women sparkle in his films, the
men take up space. In this film Umetsugu uses another male in this same
mold and pits him against an entire apartment of young attractive women
– needless to say he barely registers. In fact there is a real message
within the film of female solidarity and sisterhood as this group of women
put aside their communal differences and support each other when male nastiness
rears its ugly head.
Suk Man (Betty Ting Pei) arrives in Hong Kong
from Taiwan to look for her sister who she hasn’t heard from in months.
She and her sister had a singing act (The Canary Sisters!) back in Taiwan,
but the sister had been persuaded by a man to come to Hong Kong and attempt
to make it as a solo singer. It turns out the address she has is
a phony one, but she is helped out by Wang (Yang Fang) who tells her that
the apartment house he lives in has one apartment that only rents to females
and that there should be an occupancy available for her. The landlady Mrs.
Chan (Ouyang Shafei) runs it with an iron hand and allows no men to even
enter – and even checks out the curvy Suk Man to make sure she isn’t a
man in disguise! There are a number of other women living in the apartment
– all with varied backgrounds and ways of making money from working in
a beauty salon, a jewelry shop, a message parlor, a nightclub singer, a
stripper, a late night secretary – i.e. female companion - and a maraca
player who has ambitions to take over the singing spot.
Over the film’s running time a number of sub-plots
emerge – the singer Lulu (Ha Ping) has found herself suddenly thrown into
middle age like an old tire toss and the nightclub owner George (Lee Pang-fei)
has lost interest in her and is eyeing up the much younger maraca player
Betty instead, Lulu’s daughter (Lily Li) is keeping her innocent romance
with Mrs. Chan’s son (Barry Chan) a secret, Betty and another tenant Ding
(Ou Yen-ching) are playing a con game on a wealthy gentleman to allow George
to win at cards – but the main story is Suk Man’s search for her missing
sister. Her only lead seems to be a song Wang was playing that was a favorite
of her sister's and this leads her to various dead ends – and it seems
likely her sister may have run into one as well – if so she wants her revenge.
She also finds time to be romanced by the easygoing charms of Wang.
Most of this plays out fairly lightly with a number
of songs interspersed – a nice mix of drama, comedy and music that takes
an old fashioned turn deep into soapy melodrama in the final fifteen minutes.
It is more satisfying than it may sound – though somewhat lackluster for
Umetsugu – the film feels quite staged and perhaps its origin is theatrical
- but the small stories somehow begin to take on emotional ballast and
the sense of community and caring for your neighbor may seem clichéd
and out of date but it still feels good.
There are no major stars in the film – instead
it primarily relies on a cast of young unknowns – most of whom stayed that
way! Umetsugu often used young actresses at the beginning of their
careers - Betty Ting Pei had appeared in his film “The Millionaire Chase”
the previous year, but at this point she was a long way from getting into
her more risqué films and it wasn’t until 1973 that she gained her
real fame when Bruce Lee died in her apartment and rumors began of an affair
between the two of them. She was later to marry actor Charles Heung. Lily
Li was also near the beginning of her career and had yet to develop a reputation
as an action female kung fu star and is just quite adorable here. Another
young attractive actress is Ou Yen-ching who had been in a number of high
profile Cantonese films, but after switching over to Mandarin films never
really had much of a career - one of her roles was as Ti Lung's wife in
"Vengeance". It is always interesting to see Ha Ping in some of these earlier
films after so many years of seeing her as a much older character actress
in the 1980s and 90s. She had been an actress since her teenage years in
the 1950’s and has a huge filmography over five decades. She only joined
up with the Shaw Brothers in 1970 and was to stay with them for fourteen
years. She has a good role here as the aging singer who turns to drink
as a last refuge of dealing with the sad creep of the years.
My rating for this film: 6.0
If anyone can ID any of these actors besides
Lily Li it would be appreciated by the world at large.
Thanks to Tim Youngs for the ID on Lee Peng-fei,
the male with the moustache.