Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND—Tulipunainen kyyhkynen (The Scarlet Dove, 1961) / Ye Mei Gui Zhi Lian (The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960)

Now here's a very odd double-bill pairing Finnish director Matti Kassila's Tulipunainen kyyhkynen (The Scarlet Dove, 1961) with Hong Kong's Tian-lin Wang's Ye Mei Gui Zhi Lian (The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960), "where"—as Donald Malcolm writes in his program notes—" 'bad marriages' take on both operatic and oneiric dimensions." The second evening of Donald Malcolm and Elliot Lavine's international noir series "A Rare Noir Is Good to Find" (running Thursday-Monday, March 19-23, 2015, at the Roxie Theater) is encaptioned "Perilous Love" and—though one of the most redeeming qualities of the series is exposure to rare films and the talent behind them (The Scarlet Dove features Tauno Palo in his final feature film performance directed by Matti Kassila, who Malcolm identifies as "one of the giants in post-WWII Finnish cinema")—I have to be honest and say that I had a difficult time appreciating The Scarlet Dove because of Osmo Lindeman's jarring and obnoxious avant-garde "score" that sounds like a feral cat on LSD let loose on piano wires.

If you don't mind your nerves being needlessly jangled for 86 minutes, then perhaps you won't be as distracted as I was from this nightmarish tale of a doctor on the run suspected of killing his wife. In Kassila's nocturnal scenario, middle-aged Dr. Olavi Aitamaa (Palo) suspects his younger wife of infidelity and stealthily follows her into the city where she does, indeed, meet up with her handsome young lover. Cuckolded, and constantly reminded of the fact by a cackling old man who keeps showing up wherever he goes, the devastated doctor licks his wounds like an old dog underneath the piers where he is unexpectedly approached and seduced by a "scarlet dove" (Helen Elde) who invites him to her ramshackle apartment, only to have her abruptly change face. As if he wasn't emasculated enough, he returns to the rendezvous point for his wife and lover only to discover she has been murdered.

A story in the grip of an overused contrivance, The Scarlet Dove begs its audience at the end of the film not to reveal its conceit. I won't, but I found it far from satisfying. The build-up has its surreal moments, with impressive cinematography by Kalle Peronkoski and solid performances from its ensemble—especially Helen Elde as the sweet-and-sour "scarlet dove" (i.e., prostitute) that reminds Dr. Aitamaa of his first love—but the pay-off falters. Maybe it won't for you?

Grace Chang's sensual embodiment of Georges Bizet's most famous opera Carmen is given a postmodern treatment in Tian-lin Wang's The Wild, Wild Rose. Wang transposes the opera's Seville locations to the noirish ambiance of Hong Kong's Wanchai district. This one-off screening at the Roxie Theatre is a not-to-be-missed experience in their international noir series. Back in 2006, anticipating the local premiere of Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud (2005) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Roger Garcia recommended I watch the films of Grace Chang to better appreciate Tsai Ming-Liang's latest effort, so—following his cue—I secured copies of Mambo Girl and The Wild, Wild Rose. What follows are my notes from 2006, revisited with follow-up research.

At Wonders in the Dark, Allan Fish does a good job of enumerating the many filmic adaptations of Bizet's Carmen, from Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 silent version with opera star Geraldine Farrar, to Rita Hayworth in "the bizarre mess" The Loves of Carmen (1948), through Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), and beyond.

Rich with an insider's perspective that deflates Western reductions of The Wild, Wild Rose to mere kitsch—although it can be enjoyed on that level, it is considerably more—Doundou Tchil (Classical Iconoclast) provides the historical and socio-economic context to better situate and appreciate the film's achievement. He writes that the film's importance lies in its "extremely pointed commentary on Chinese values at a time of great upheaval in Chinese society. It's set in Hong Kong, a city where everyone was a refugee, even the local born. Millions of people had been dislocated in China after decades of war and chaos. Like many films at that time, The Wild, Wild Rose begins with shots of neon lights and glittering nightlife, symbolizing prosperity. But this hedonism unfolds against a background of extreme suffering and deprivation." In his Slant essay on the film, Kevin B. Lee concurs: "Ensconced in cosmopolitan culture, from airliners to mambo clubs, Cathay's urbane entertainments envisioned a Hong Kong jet set that presaged the city's eventual ascendance as an economic powerhouse." I'm going to ask my readers to keep these comments in mind when we later approach Salón Mexico (1949), the Mexican noir in the series, to understand how socio-economic conditions and class conflict energize noir's narrative impulses.

Further contextualizing the film's class critique, Tchil reiterates that The Wild, Wild Rose is the "product of an exile community, made in a city where everyone had been a refugee, as Hong Kong itself had been depopulated under Japanese occupation. Everyone involved in this film, at every level, including [Grace Chang] herself, was a refugee who knew about trauma first hand. There are no gypsies in this version of Carmen, and Deng Sijia is an insider, but the whole film is a paradigm of dislocation and social chaos. So this film is, in a way, the voice of a minority that speaks for us all."

As the fiery nightclub singer Deng Sijia, Chang's temptress is an amalgram of Bizet's Carmen and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. It's not her fault that men are drawn to her like moths to the flame. When the naïve new pianist Liang Hanhua (Yang Chang) arrives to work at the club where she performs, Sijia takes a bet that she can seduce him and steal him away from his fiancé within 10 days. It's hardly a challenge, and just as readily leads to ruinous tragedy, not only for him, but for her. Despite herself, she becomes emotionally entangled with this train wreck of a man and the two spiral downwards towards mutually-insured destruction.

Though I can't quite say Sajia possesses duende, The Wild, Wild Rose is rich with flamencano flourishes and transnational guises. Not only does Chang impersonate a Latin femme fatale, but she poses as a contrite geisha as well (but, only to land a nightclub audition). The film's stylized production design, memorable songs by Japanese composer Ryôichi Hattori, and Ming Huang's cinematography set a high standard among Hong Kong films of this kind from the '50s and '60s. Time Out Hong Kong includes The Wild, Wild Rose in its list of the 100 greatest Hong Kong films and—in an Asia Weekly poll of the greatest Chinese films of the 20th century—The Wild, Wild Rose, likewise made the list.

At Senses of Cinema, Frank Bren observed in his 2001 Top Ten list (no longer available on the site) that Hong Kong films of the '50s and '60s "concerned frustrated love" and were made "moving" thanks to great female stars of the era like Grace Chang. Concomitantly, in his Senses of Cinema report from the 40th Golden Horse Awards, Charles Leary noted that one of the familiar traits of the Cathay melodrama of the 1960s is the characterization of its male leads as victimized and pitiful. Further: "As in many Cathay films, the women are the real attraction, particularly the great singer and dancer, Mambo Girl Grace Chang."

Lisa Roosen-Runge's Senses of Cinema report from the 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival (March–April 2002)—again, unfortunately, off the site—included a profile of the Hong Kong Film Archive series of classic Mandarin films presented during that year's festival. She outlined that the Cathay studio started operating as MP & GI in Hong Kong in 1957, and produced roughly 250 films in the following decade. These films often had similar casts, with character actors from amongst the studio group of actors. She concurs with Leary that The Wild, Wild Rose showcases Grace Chang's dynamism in contrast to the ill-destined male lead who plays out the typical path in these films, generally making wrong decisions and exemplifying what Stephen Teo calls the "weak romantic hero" [Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, BFI, 1997, p. 76].

Distinguishing Sijia from her famous Spanish counterpart, Kevin B. Lee details the dynamics of her fatal attraction to her lover: "Sijia tries to make a decent go as a homemaker for Hanhua, but his drunken profligacy forces her to return to the stage, notably as a contrite Madame Butterfly bowing in geisha garb. Recalling Marlene Dietrich's stunning journey of self-discovery in Morocco, Sijia's volatile transformation from a carefree material girl into a bitterly tragic maternal figure for her childish husband (a typical male counterpart to the Cathay heroine) gives layers of drama to the Grace Chang persona. No longer does she simply represent an escapist fantasy for Chinese hipsters, but a fierce assertion of individualist womanhood who insists on her freedom of choice, even in the face of an oppressive reality."

Tchil adds overtones to the scene where Sijia, needing to return to work, auditions for a new nightclub. She sings "Un bel di", Tchil explains, "dressed as Madame Butterfly, the nice girl forced into prostitution who sacrifices herself for love. In 1960 the image was still slightly shocking as memories of the Japanese occupation were still fresh. It's a parody of submissiveness."

Tchil further distinguishes the gender reversals in The Wild, Wild Rose as focused on politics, not sexual preference. "The nightclub is society in microcosm," he writes, "Nightclub hostesses are bought like commodities." Sijia resists, shakes up assumptions, and subverts the trend. "I sing", she tells her friend who has a sugar daddy, "I don't sleep with customers." Just as she doesn't sell out as an artist, she doesn't sell herself. In one scene she hands Liang the score to "La donna è mobile" ("The Woman Is Fickle") from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Rigoletto. "You can't sing this" he protests, because he knows "La donna è mobile" should be sung by a male character, The Duke in Rigoletto. But Sijia understands its meaning, Tchil explains, and "overturns the Duke's refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. Women are fickle, she implies, because they can't depend on men. She's dressed as Escamillo in cape and toreador hat. Later she appears in a man's flamenco costume, wearing tight pants with buttons up to her waist. Gender stereotypes are shattered." Once again, she resembles Marlene Deitrich's cross-dressing subversions. She challenges class, status and social mores; the thorn of the wild rose.

Yet, despite her thorny defiance, Sijia is unable to escape her fate any more than Carmen. Her strength is brought down by a weak male. Her alcoholic lover is so fixated on the old order that—even though unemployed—he won't allow Sijia her creative autonomy. In this tragic consequence, "The Wild Wild Rose could teach western culture a thing or two" Tchil asserts, which appears evident when—55 years after its making—American actress Patricia Arquette feels compelled to make a plea for gender equality during her Oscar® acceptance speech.

Grace Chang's specific portrayal of Sijia in The Wild, Wild Rose, and the general popularity of her career, speaks to a modern vision of emancipated female roles in cinema and, by extension, society. "As a singer and actress," Kevin Lee writes, "Chang exuded a liberated, free-wheeling persona that ushered an era of swinging times among a generation of post-war Chinese. Chang's voice, powered by years of Peking opera training, rings with a bell-like clarity that compensates for its lack of delicacy or restraint. And when hitched to a mean mambo rhythm and lyrics like 'shaking bodies drive everyone wild ... dance as crazy, crazy, crazy as I am!', her clarion call threatens to topple thousands of years of Chinese repression." She does, indeed, become—as Tchil phrased earlier—"the voice of a minority that speaks for us all."

Folded into that, of course—much like the Gay movement took cues from the Women's movement—is queer identification with the larger-than-life cinematic persona of Grace Chang. Lee explains: "The butchiness of her stentorian singing makes her ripe for camp appreciation among contemporary Sino-queers, including Tsai Ming-liang, who offered touchingly makeshift homages to her song-dance numbers in The Hole. But her lasting impact on Chinese cinema is no less important than Brigitte Bardot's on French cinema or Marilyn Monroe's on Hollywood."

That being said, in my case at least there is no question that Tsai Ming-liang is responsible for introducing me to and awakening an appreciation for the vibrant talents of Grace Chang through his incorporation of her vocals into his movies, particularly The Hole. And it's perhaps a bit more clear now why he chose to do so.

Brian Hu's Senses of Cinema analysis of Tsai Ming-liang's The Skywalk is Gone (2002) notes that the film is "nostalgic for three kinds of film: the popular Mandarin Chinese films of the '60s, the films of the Taiwan New Cinema of the '80s and '90s, and the films of Tsai Ming-liang himself. By longing for three major waves of Taiwanese film history, the film demonstrates the interminability of nostalgia for the cinema. From each passing epoch develops a new cinematic tradition to miss."

"As in The Hole," Hu continues, "The Skywalk is Gone communicates with 1960s Chinese cinema through popular song. Famous outside of Asia for its martial arts films, 1960s Hong Kong cinema also saw a flourishing musical genre. Among its most popular stars were Lin Dai and Grace Chang, the latter's songs appearing prominently in The Hole. Tsai has cited these early musical films as direct influences on his own filmmaking . . . ." The musical numbers from The Hole come "from an earlier era of Mandarin music extremely popular in Taiwan in the 1960s" and perhaps signify "an escape from the dull urban sounds of the city."

Fran Martin writes in her Senses of Cinema essay ("The European Undead: Tsai Ming-liang's Temporal Dysphoria") that Tsai Ming-liang's films "perform parallel citations of Chinese cinemas." She notes how The Hole, in particular, is punctuated by song-and-dance numbers featuring the songs of Grace Chang, the star of many 1950s Hong Kong musicals (including The Wild, Wild Rose). Comparably, in What Time Is It There? (2001), he includes a sequence at the video stall where Hsiao Kang buys a copy of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and we overhear another customer asking for films starring Grace Chang, Yu Ming, or Lin Dai. "This double citation of European art film, on the one hand," Martin writes, "and popular Taiwan and Hong Kong cinema, on the other, demonstrates that cinematic citation in Tsai's films is in itself a complex, hybrid practice, rather than any simple emulation of European film modernism."

In her interview with Tsai Ming-liang, Nanouk Leopold asked directly about that scene: "In the beginning of the film there is a scene where someone in a video-store asks for a Yu Ming, Lin Dai or a Grace Chang movie. What kind of films are these?"

Tsai Ming-liang responded: "These are films from the '50s and '60s and also some from the '70s. Yu Ming, Lin Dai and Grace Chang are the great stars from the Hong Kong films of my childhood. In my film The Hole, I used some songs by Grace Chang. I am always searching for videos of these films so I can watch them again. And when I look at them I always think: they have really gone, they exist no longer in this world, there are no stars any more like in those days. And then I think: I am really not up-to-date, I am living in the wrong period if I like these films so much."

Perhaps the reason Grace Chang became a diva for Asian queers is the same reason that several Hollywood actresses became icons for American queers. Nostalgia for golden eras past lend a religiosity to memory. Perhaps the nostalgia felt when seeing these old films, whether from the Cathay/MP&GI or the Hollywood studios is not so dissimilar, and not so much about a time gone by as it is about feeling displaced from the time one lives in and the current cultural attitudes one endures. Tsai Ming-liang seems to admit so himself. A certain surrogacy is sought in cinematic representations of yesteryear. Entrusted to the larger-than-life women of the silver screen are experiences—perhaps imagined experiences, perhaps desires—of who they might have been in another less realistic time? Or more cogently, contemporary disenchantment—as articulated by Patricia Arquette at the Academy Awards®—with how societal change remains as elusive as the stuff of dreams.