Stage Door Johnny

Reviewed by YTSL

This at times highly melodramatic 1990 Hong Kong film -- whose setting, for the most part, is 1932 Shanghai -- has two big strikes against it.  One of these is the period piece’s terribly abrupt and generally unsatisfactory ending.  The other is that, on account of its being one of those offerings which has a large cast -- many of whom appear to be members of Jackie Chan's Stuntmen Association (who also put in work as the effort’s action choreographers) -- and multi-stranded plot, it really only becomes coherent upon a second viewing.  It doesn’t help either in terms of structural but also tonal continuity that the movie’s makers seem to have tried to pack every kind of genre (bar for supernatural horror) into it.

Despite that which would rank as one of Jackie Chan’s lesser productions having such sizeable problems though, this (re)viewer still found the curiously English named STAGE DOOR JOHNNY -- whose Chinese title is the more appropriate “Stage Sisters” -- to be very much worth a watch (and re-watch) and reckons that she might not be alone in feeling this way.  One reason for this comes from the film’s novel focus being on an all-female -- bar for its father figure (“Pops” is portrayed by director Wu Ma) and musical accompanists (whose “divine tea” (i.e., opium) imbibing leader is played by Lam Ching Ying) -- Chinese opera troupe.  As one might imagine, “this floating life” -- as it gets described in the music-filled movie’s lyrical main song -- is depicted as being colorful and eventful indeed, both off as well as on stage.  Considering the five main personalities involved, the chances are high that this would have been the case even if they didn’t ply the trade that they do.
Kara Hui Ying Hung, Ann Mui, Idy Chan
The first opera star to make an appearance in STAGE DOOR JOHNNY is Boss Tsui, a “do ma dan” artiste who:  Specializes in playing males; is trained in the acrobatic-oriented Peking Opera style; and gets enlisted by “Pops” to help the Shanghai-based company he heads perform the more popular martial -- as opposed to the less audience-pleasing “civil” -- acts (Kara Hui Ying Hung was a great choice to play this actress but I reckon it would have been even better for her character to not be two months pregnant).  The longer serving divas of the Hsiao Ho Chun troupe comprised:  Stern Boss Shen, a young widow who specializes in playing “chaste” roles (and is essayed by Anita Mui’s older -- and sadly deceased as of April 2000 -- sister, Ann); flamboyant Boss Hsiao (a.k.a. Perfume), who invariably appears on stage with some kind of “Painted Face” (and is played by Wong Yuk Wan); pretty Boss Sai, with whom more than one man gets enamored (who comes in the form of Lai Yin Saan); and dignified Boss Ching, who I reckon is the film’s most noble character (and one who Idy Chan endows with quite a bit of class).
Waise Lee, Mars and Ken Lo
Perhaps inevitably, the male personalities of STAGE DOOR JOHNNY pale in comparison to that of its women.  However, they really should not have been as one-dimensional and undeveloped as they are.  IMHO, this movie -- which possesses some kick-ass action scenes on account of the Chinese Opera folk getting involved in more than one way with a couple of major Triad figures -- would have been so much better served if:  More had been known about Waise Lee’s Lu Tung Tang other than his being the leader of a group intent on ensuring that the ban on opium was upheld (so that there was one less way for Chinese men to become weak); Lau Siu Ming’s Mr. Chang had not been such a stereotypical bad guy; and Ken Lo’s character hadn’t been as silent as he was strong and adept in the martial arts.  As for the rickshaw puller portrayed by Mars:  Here’s stating that I saw no logical reason for his needing to make the costly sacrifice that he did.  Consequently, his final loving act in a work that really does seem intent on showing that “the world is fraught with frustration” was not the moving one it probably was meant to be but, instead, came across as more stupid and senseless than sad.
Lai Yin San, Lam Ching Ying and Ann and Kara
Something else that I think worthy of mention is the obvious high quality of STAGE DOOR JOHNNY’s sets and props.  According to Paul Fonoroff, they were originally made to be used in Jackie Chan’s “Mr. Canton and Lady Rose” before being recycled in “Shanghai, Shanghai” as well as in this lower budget production (See his “At the Movies”, 1998:77).  Actually, some of the Chinese Opera costumes look a lot like those worn by some of the performers who appeared in “Peking Opera Blues”.  If this is indeed so, it sure is a case of good second hand use being made of filmic elements to make a second tier movie which nevertheless does successfully entertain more often than not.

My rating for this film:  6.5

Ann, Kara and Idy