by Allan Fish
(Hong Kong 1960 128m) DVD3
Aka. Ye mei gui zhi lian
Love is just an ordinary thing
p Robert Chung d Wang Tian-lin w Quin Yifu ph Ming Huang ed Wang Zhaoxi m Min Yao, Ryoichi Hattori art Fei Boyi
Grace Chang (Deng Sijia), Yang Chang (Lian Hanhua), Ta Lei (Old Wang), Li Ma (Old Tian), Liu Enjia (Fat Lin), Shai-Fei Ouyang (Hanhua’s mother), Feng Su (Weng Suxin), Shen Yun (Li Meimei), Tang Ti (Cyclops), Ching Tien (Xiao Liu), Lai Wang (Xueli), Ma Xiaonong (Wang’s wife),
The first Carmen I ever saw on screen, believe it or not, was Cecil B.de Mille’s silent from 1915. Famous opera star Geraldine Farrar played the title role and did so very well, and while some may find it baffling that an opera star would appear in a silent film, one has to recall that in 1915 the notion of stardom was first being explored on the silver screen and there was a rush to turn great stars of other spheres (theatre, opera, popular music, vaudeville) into film stars. Other Carmens would follow, from another silent version by Feyder to a bizarre mess called The Loves of Carmen with Rita Hayworth – Carmen would always seem redundant after Gilda. Throw in Carmen Jones, Preminger’s flawed updating of Bizet with Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey. Carlos Saura took it on and there was a very fine film of the original opera by Francesco Rosi with Placido Domingo under the thrall of Julia Migenes-Johnson.
If I was asked to pick a favourite Carmen, it would not be any of the above, but rather this legendary (in the east at least, in the west it’s barely known) musical drama from Hong Kong starring a woman who should be as cherished any woman who starred in not only any film of Carmen but any film from old Cathay. For here seemed to me a crucial link in Chinese stardom, Grace Chang. Until I became aware of Chang’s films, finding a connection between the old stars of Shanghaiin the early 1930s like Ruan Lingyu and the modern goddesses from Maggie Cheung to Gong Li seemed to stem largely on Cheung playing Lingyu in Actress. What Chang represents, with herShanghai roots, Peking Opera training and passion for western opera, is a sort of hybrid of Lingyu, Li, Cheung and even Marlene Dietrich.
Rose is not pure Prosper Merimée; Chang’s fiery vixen is more complex, in her way more fragile and given over to altruism. “If you fall in love with me, you’re only looking for trouble” she sings in the opening transliteration of Bizet, continuing “if I fall in love with you, you’re going to die in my hands.” And while she’s at first seen as a Venus fly trap, accepting a wager to seduce a naïve young pianist away from his prim fiancée within 10 days, from the start one senses this Carmen, Deng Sijia, has a heart, in her pleading for the pianist’s predecessor, Old Wang, who loses his job when he has a seriously ill spouse.
Gorgeously shot in smoky little dens in glorious monochrome, it’s a spellbinding melodrama which also serves to act as a representation of Hong Kongcinema before the rise of the kung-fu Wuxia spectaculars of the late sixties and early seventies. There’s a lovely vignette from Ta Lei as Wang, of whom Sijia is so platonically fond, and an equally indelible one from Tang Ti as the one-eyed gangster husband. Yet all are merely flies around Chang’s light. She’s every inch a goddess, not just in her singing repertoire which takes in Lehar, Verdi and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as well as Bizet, but in her rampant, catlike sexuality. Her legs invite you to stare knowing you may get a knee in the face, her face invites you to touch knowing you could get a punch or a bite. In the scene where her lover shows up like Banquo’s ghost to find her dancing flamenco one recalls La Femme et le Pantin, Conchita Montenegro, Dietrich and Bardot, and she can hold a candle with any of them. She should have been a global star, but four years later she’d made her last movie at 31. Even now her physical and vocal shadow is cast over the films of Wong Kar-Wai and Tsai Ming-Liang. Where was Josef Von Sternberg when you needed him?