Monday, March 30, 2009

Joseph Sunn Jue: Claymation Pioneer

Joseph Sunn Jue was truly a motion picture pioneer. Besides producing the second-ever Cantonese talkie (Romance of the Songsters, 1933), the first Cantonese color feature (White Powder and Neon Lights, 1946), one of the first Chinese movies shown in 3-D (A Woman's Revenge, 1953), and the first Chinese movie shot in Cinemascope (New Story of Yu Tang Chun, 1954), he also created several claymation shorts for animator Ralph Wolfe's "Mud Stuff" series in 1926.

Three of these shorts are available online at the Internet Archive, as part of the Prelinger Archives. The shorts are silent, but a couple of creative and enterprising individuals have added soundtracks and posted the results on YouTube. I must say that the new scores really bring these films to life!

First up is "The Penwiper", with music by Tedd Smith and his group The Flying Monkeys.

Next is "Green Pastures", with sound effects provided by Coolympia.

Here are links to the original, uncut films, as well as a third short, "Long Live the Bull!"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don't Worry, Fanny Fans!

Don't worry Fanny fans... I haven't forgotten about my exploration of Fanny's career. It's still simmering on the back burner. In the meantime, please enjoy the picture above, which comes from Southern Screen No. 14 (April, 1959), back when Fanny was still working in Shaw's Cantonese division and being billed as Wan Li-hung.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Joseph Sunn Jue: The Darryl Zanuck of Chinatown

Several months ago I wrote about American-born Hong Kong actress Lai Yee (aka Marianne Quon) and mentioned that she was married to Hong Kong movie pioneer Joseph Sunn Jue. He was a seminal figure in the development of Cantonese cinema, and I've been meaning to say a few words about him. Here's an article from the September 21, 1947 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle that gives a fascinating glimpse of Jue and his Grandview Film Company. The charming illustration at top accompanied the article.

In Other Words: Boy Meets Girl

By James Hudson

SAN FRANCISCO'S STREETS are paved with gold and lined with toothsome young ladies and gentlemen. That, in any case, is the impression shared by many Chinese addicts of the movie houses. And the man to blame for all this is a soft-spoken fellow named Joseph Sunn Jue, the Darryl Zanuck of Chinatown.

Actually Joseph Jue is the organizer and president of America's only company that produces Chinese films, and that company is right here. You can find the studio (Grandview Films) in a reconverted night club in one of the alleys that wind off Grant Avenue.

On the average, eight full-length color talkies come out of this alley each year for distribution to large settlements of Chinese throughout the world. But beyond this, Mr. Jue's works have vast and appreciative audiences in Cuba, Mexico, Panama, South America, Hawaii, the Philippines, Australia and Madagascar. In America, 25 movie houses show his films, 10 of them right here in California.

Most of the actors involved in the Jue enterprise are office workers, students and local actors. A few of the stars, however, are imports from China itself. Even within the company, almost everyone performs dual tasks, with actors and stage hands interchanging duties as circumstances demand.

THE STUDIO is as informal as the corner soda fountain, with sundry people wandering in and out during the shooting. Teenage sweethearts and conservative elderly men come in, watch for awhile, and leave — without uttering a word to anyone. The young couples self-consciously try to keep their minds on the company's activities, and the little, old men maintain dead-pan expressions, registering delight with twinkling eyes.

Studio equipment and procedure are masterworks of improvisation. The group's one camera, an electrically run 16mm gadget, is mounted on a home-made platform on which the cameraman sits and pushes back and forth by one-foot-on-the-floor action. The microphone is suspended over the actors' heads by means of an efficient swinging bamboo fishpole-like arrangement. The company's prop furniture suffers much wear and tear from being moved around to obtain different settings.

The mild-mannered founder of the Grandview Film Company, Joseph Jue, was born 42 years ago in Canton. He was raised, however, in San Francisco and is an American citizen. Jue learned the motion picture business the hard way, relying upon a very limited experience and a lot of common sense.

His original interest in movie production started back in silent film days, 1922 to be exact. This was after San Franciscan Ray Duhem had shown him the ropes about making animated cartoons. Jue picked up the rudiments of photography as "free-lance" photographer in Chinatown, got an idea of directing procedures from a few books on the subject, and learned production techniques by sitting through movies day after day "to see how it was done."

Refusing to be bluffed by the depression which wiped out the three other Chinese film companies existing in the U.S., Jue organized the Grandview Company in San Francisco in 1933. In those days he functioned in every capacity but acting. Working as writer, stage hand, producer, director, cameraman and business manager, he produced the company's first professional contribution to filmdom: "Blossom Time," an original talkie.

From the very beginning, the company has catered to China's huge audience. When the Hongkong audience, like ants after the picnic, flocked to see "Blossom Time," the company established its studios there in 1933.

After producing some 120 pictures in China, Mr. Jue opened the Grandview Movie Theater, seating 400, at 756 Jackson Street. The Grandview, unlike the studio, is conspicuously marked by a flashy neon marquee which advertises in Chinese script the picture fare for the day. The theater, however, does not seek tourist trade, and, on the other hand, tourists don't seem to be attracted in great numbers to the theater.

THE COMPANY recently produced "Pear Blossoms in the Storm," a $30,000 color talkie, which took three months to make. A tourist browsing around the Jackson Street movie house the afternoon of the premier would have enjoyed one hour of the two-hour show. Only curiosity would keep him in his seat for the remaining time.

Upon entering the theater, the self-conscious visitor would soon relax as the Orientals continue to chat among themselves, apparently unaware of his existence. He will probably be disappointed to find himself in an environment, except for language, similar to any theater he'd attended before. He might grow a little concerned though, about the unusual number of at-the-restless-crying-age children present.

Though the dialogue is entirely Chinese, except for an occasional "OK," an universal expression, the visitor will be able to follow easily the first hour of the story.

At the end of the hour, the leading female character dies, and the visitor, figuring that a good spot for the story to end, is totally confused by the action which follows.

With its local "modern" background, the setting is entirely Occidental, complete to Vogue and Esquire costumes, night club scenes, and New Year's Eve celebrations. The visitor might be slightly amused to hear the casual mixing of Oriental and Western music. He could easily embarrass himself by laughing when he mistakes for comedy what happens to be a deadly serious portion of the plot. At first, he might smugly decide that production doesn't touch Hollywood techniques. However, after visiting the studio and witnessing the conditions under which the pictures are made, the visitor will concede that the films are amazingly well done.

Though the romantic dramas sell the most tickets in China, the company produces everything from comedies and detective mysteries to historical dramas. Presently, the company is shooting a picture roughly translated "Girl in the Lake."

MR. JUE HOPES to return soon to his prewar production rate of 18 films a year: "six supers and 12 quickies." The supers were budgeted between $40,000 and $60,000, and took from three to six months to make. Quickies, costing from $15,000 to $20,000, were completed in three weeks.

Practically ever member of Mr. Jue's family works actively with the company. The pretty girl smiling behind the cashier's booth is likely to be one of the daughters. The doorman and the usher might be one of the sons. When not working at the theater or doing their high school or college assignments, the brothers and sisters work in the studio.

With the company securely established after guiding it through the storms of economic depression and war, Mr. Jue feels entitled to a rest. So he presently confines himself to writing, producing, and directing when he's not performing administrative duties and taking turns at being doorman or usher at the theater.

"Blossom Time", the inaugural film of Grandview mentioned in the article, is more commonly known as Romance of the Songsters. It was the second ever Cantonese talkie and also the movie debut of Kwan Tak-hing.

If you're familiar with San Francisco's Chinatown or have ever visited there, you may be curious about the Grandview Theater. Here's a picture showing the theater in 1964 from the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.

And here is a photo that I took just last week. The building is currently occupied by a shop that sells Chinese New Year's paraphernalia, funerary supplies, and devotional items.

Stay tuned for more about Joseph Sunn Jue. In the meantime, check out the links below.

Further Reading

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Grace Chang Captivates 60 Million Americans

Grace Chang and Dinah Shore (October, 1959)

During the late 50s, Hollywood and the American public seem to have engaged in a kind of summer romance with Asia (that is, at least with "freedom-loving" Asia). I suppose it started in 1955 with a trio of postcard films that showcased in glorious color the exotic sights of Hong Kong and Tokyo: Soldier of Fortune (featuring a young Grace Chang in a walk-on role), House of Bamboo (starring Shirley Yamaguchi, aka Li Xianglan), and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. And since nothing complements an exotic postcard view better than a genuine exotic beauty, Hollywood was on the prowl for Asian actresses.

Then, as now, there were quite a few Hong Kong stars who were tempted by the promises of Hollywood. In 1956, Li Lihua was courted by Cecil B. De Mille and signed a contract to star in one of his films but ended up instead in Frank Borzage's China Doll. Pearl Au Kar-wai was brought to New York by Otto Preminger in 1958 to prepare for her role in his never started film, The Other Side of the Coin. Around the same time, Helen Li Mei was invited by Jantzen to represent the Far East in a swimwear fashion show. She made the papers in an unexpected way when she refused to pose in the "immodest" swimsuit that was waiting for her. Lin Dai also traveled to the States in 1958, to visit Hollywood studios and audit drama classes at Columbia University. But by 1960, the summer romance was coming to and end: The World of Suzie Wong was its last kiss.

It was against this backdrop of intercultural courtship that Grace Chang made her American television debut on The Dinah Shore Show (October 25, 1959), along with a host of "favorite entertainers of the Orient". (BTW, the show was originally telecast in color, but I've only ever seen black-and-white recordings of it.) According to an article from the November 1959 issue of International Screen, Grace "scored a sweeping victory" with her appearance on the show, which was estimated to have been seen by 60 million Americans. I'm sure she made just as great an impression then as she has today with those who have seen her films on DVD. And evidently, she was popular enough for Capitol Records to release an album of her Chinese songs in 1961.

Anyway, enough of my blabbing! Without further ado, here is the lovely Miss Grace Chang singing "The Autumn Song" on The Dinah Shore Show.

And to end the show, here is Grace Chang, Yukiji Asaoka, and Dinah Shore singing, appropriately enough, "Getting to Know You" from The King and I.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hong Kong Hula Hoopers: Grace Chang

I think I may have spoken too soon when I declared Lam Fung the Hong Kong Hula Hoop Queen last week. Grace Chang makes a strong showing in this photo set from New Screen No. 2 (1959).

Grace's joi d'vivre is infectious, and I love her finish. Hmmm... what do you think?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lam Fung: More Teen Fashion

Here are some more advertising cards for Patricia Lam Fung's fashion company, Yuk Fung [Jade Phoenix] Fashion. According to Dev Yang, there are advertisements for the company's catalog in quite a number of movie magazines from that time. Lam Fung modeled the outfits, and occasionally so did other stars, like Suet Nei for instance.

Chun Siu-Lei: Cantonese Opera's Burlesque Queen

Evidently, Forbidden City dancer Noel Toy wasn't the only Chinese burlesque performer to get her start at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. I was surprised to discover recently that Chun Siu-lei, Cantonese cinema's premiere sex symbol during the early 50s, also learned a few tricks there.

According to Law Kar in his article "The American Connection in Early Hong Kong Cinema", Chun Siu-lei traveled to the United States to perform with an acrobatic troupe at the expo. (If her birth date of May 13, 1925 in the Hong Kong Film Archive's online catalog is to be believed, that would mean she was just 14 years old at the time!) During her stay, she befriended an American performer named Helena who taught her burlesque dancing, contortionist techniques, and "other tricks".

In an oral history interview, excerpted in the HKFA's Newsletter #7 (February, 1999), Chun Siu-lei elaborates on her experience in San Francisco.

In 1939, there was an inaugural ceremony of the Golden Gate Bridge and many acrobatic troupes and performers were invited to take part. The head of the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe, Au-yeung Fat, passed through Hong Kong to select a young girl performer. He saw me in Hua Mulan where I performed tricks with a bronze rod and did a sword dance and he praised my performance. After performing in America for several months, I was curious or otherwise bored and that was what led me to see how the Westerners perform acrobatics. I met a lady coach and thus I was trained in the 'body-bending' technique. I studied for three months and I also learned other tricks.

While it isn't explicitly stated what the "other tricks" were that Chun Siu-lei learned during her journey to the West, one can make a pretty good guess based on her subsequent career in Hong Kong.

After several years of war, we were all extremely gloomy and so we didn't want to make sad and tragic films. Being young and fearless, I did this seduction scene in Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh* (1949) where I put on a sexy costume, and this caused a sensation. At the time, stage people were very conservative. Women were either playing chaste wives or magnanimous lady knights. No one would expect them to put on erotic costumes.

Chun Siu-lei in her first film, Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh.

Chun Siu-lei's first appearance on the silver screen was an adaptation of her enormously popular Cantonese opera play, Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh. Tan Kei (or Daji) was the concubine of King Zhou, the last ruler of the Shang Dynasty. Although she was a historical figure, her portrayals have ranged from sadistic femme fatale to righteous avenging daughter. What's clear is that she was a powerful symbol of female power that evoked either fear and disgust or respect and understanding. An example of the later is her portrayal by Lin Dai in Last Woman of Shang (1964). I'm not sure where Chun Siu-lei's rendition fits into this spectrum, but I imagine that she knew how to play both aspects to maximum effect.

Chun's next film after Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh was Sex to Kill the Devil (1949), which sounds like it could have been a 1990s "Category III" movie. Indeed, one review complained that the film's unnaturally developed story and irrationally arranged sequences were "tuned only towards one objective: sex and the exposure of flesh."

Her third film was The Woman General Muk Kwai-ying (1949), about the Song Dynasty heroine who defended China against the Western Xia Dynasty. Shaw Brothers fans will recognize this story from its 1972 movie adaptation, The 14 Amazons, which featured Ivy Ling Po as the lady general. Chun Siu-lei played the role of another legendary woman warrior in her fifth film, Story of Fan Lihua (1949), which was retold in 1968 with Connie Chan in the title role.

In between those two movies was Romance of Rome Palace (1949), an Occidentalist erotic tale about a beautiful queen and a playboy king. BTW, all of these movies, and several of her later ones, were directed by But Fu, about whom I know absolutely nothing. But based on his films with Chun Siu-lei, and some intriguing titles from his filmography like Charlie Chan's Battle of Wits Against the Black Bully (1948), I'd love to know more about him.

Romance of Rome Palace (1949)

Chun Siu Lei's first few films are typical of what made her famous throughout her career. She specialized in playing strong and/or sexy women in a variety of genres from bastardized Cantonese opera and Occidental costume fantasies to martial-arts movies and contemporary urban comedies. Chun was so popular (obviously with male moviegoers, but perhaps with the ladies as well) that she made 22 films in 1950 and 22 again in 1951. The selling point for many of her movies seems to have been her burlesque-inflected dance numbers. In The Sword and the Pearl (1951), Chun even performed a snake dance — one of her specialties!

The Sword and the Pearl aka Ali Baba (1951)

Needless to say, I would love to see any of Chun Siu-lei's films, but if I had to choose just one, it would have to be The Battle Between the Handsome Hero and the Wild Girl (1950). The following description from the HKFA catalog makes it sound like some whacked-out mo lei tau film from the 90s.

The Handsome Master subdues the bandit Ku Lo-keung. Lo-keung's associate, Ngau Chun-hung tries to even the score by joining forces with the Wild Girl [played by Chun Siu-lei of course]. The Wild Girl uses her 'soul-luring whip' to seduce the Handsome Master and makes Suet-dip, wife of the Handsome Master, become jealous. Using gadgets invented by Dr Sze, such as a laser light box, flying boots, power pills, a transformation machine and other contraptions, the Handsome Master comes out the victor in all his encounters with the villain. Chun-hung, defeated, jumps off the cliff, while the Wild Girl is transformed into a virtuous woman.

Chun Siu-lei's film output began to slow down after 1952. Perhaps she was too much of a good thing and audiences had become satiated by her extreme "soul-luring" sexiness. Without a doubt, she was one of Hong Kong cinema's sourest beauties. Just one look at her makes my mouth pucker!

Maybe it's just her flared nostrils or the way she bares her teeth, but Chun Siu-lei reminds me of one of Hollywood's own sour beauties: the legendary Mae West. Both were strong ladies, unashamed of their sexuality, who tested the limits of censorship and challenged cultural conservatism in their respective cultures.

In 1958, Chun Siu-lei returned one last time to her famous role as the concubine Tan Kei, and thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we can sample a taste of what drove audiences again and again to see the undisputed burlesque queen of the Cantonese screen and stage.

Chun Siu-lei in The New Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh (1958)

*I have decided to adopt and adapt Law Kar's translation of 肉山藏妃己 as Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh rather than the awkward-sounding translation used in the HKFA's online catalog, Tan Kei in the Meat Hill. The 1958 version, 新肉山藏妃己, translates as The New Lady Tan Kei and the Hill of Flesh.

Law Kar, "The American Connection in Early Hong Kong Cinema", The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (2002).

Friday, March 20, 2009

International Screen: First 50 Covers

Having posted the first 100 covers of Shaw Brothers' Southern Screen magazine, it's only fair that I post some covers of International Screen, the in-house magazine of Shaws' number one rival, Cathay/MP&GI. Here then are the first 50 covers, minus those for Nos. 4, 14, 15, 20, and 36, which I've been unable to track down. Let me again thank the following eBay sellers for any of their scans I might be using: adamantine!, cyk5391antiques, kwsx, lvlalaysiaboleh, penangantiques, and rajah_borneo.

International Screen started publication on October 1955, almost two years earlier than Southern Screen. This reflects the Cathay Organization's lead in the race to modernize the Chinese film industry along Hollywood lines (especially the vertical integration of production, distribution, and exhibition). Cathay had started out as one of the largest theater chains in Southeast Asia, then entered into distribution in order to ensure a steady supply of films for its theaters.

In the mid-50s, Cathay ventured into production (including funding the independent productions of Yan Jun and Bai Guang) and initiated an actors training program. In 1956, it formally restructured its various Hong Kong companies into Motion Picture & General Investment, and the first MP&GI film, Golden Lotus (1957) starring Lin Dai, debuted the following Chinese New Year.

That same year, Run Run Shaw arrived in Hong Kong to oversee production at the languishing Shaws and Sons company. But he had bigger plans. He bought 46 acres of land in Clearwater Bay for the future Shaw Movie Town, and in March 1958 he officially announced the establishment of Shaw Brothers (HK) Ltd. The battle between Shaws and Cathay had begun.

One tactic used by Shaws was the stealing of stars, which can be traced on the covers of both studios' magazines. The most obvious example is Lin Dai, who was the cover girl for the premiere issues of both International Screen and Southern Screen. In fact, in the same month (December, 1957) that she appeared on the cover of Southern Screen No. 1, she also graced the cover of International Screen No. 26. Throughout the late 50s, she freelanced for both studios, until she finally settled down at Shaw Brothers in 1961.

Other stars, such as Li Lihua, Diana Chang, and Peter Chen Ho, were also lured away from Cathay/MP&GI over to Shaw Brothers. The one notable exception to this migration of talent was Lucilla You Min, who left Shaws in 1959 to join MP&GI.

As far as International Screen cover queens go, Lin Dai is the winner once again, as she was in the first batch of Southern Screen covers, with a total of 8 appearances. Grace Chang places second with 7 covers. Jeanette Lin Tsui follows in third with 5. And Li Lihua, Helen Li Mei, Julie Yeh Feng, and Kitty Ting Hao all score 4 each.

A special mention goes out to one-cover wonders Mu Hong, a Taiwanese compatriot of Diana Chang who had considerably less success breaking into the Hong Kong industry, and Nellie Chin Yu, who is best remembered for her screenplays (which include Her Tender Heart, The Wild, Wild Rose, and Sun, Moon and Star) than her two-film career as an actress.

Some of my favorite covers of this batch include: No. 3, a stunning portrait of the beguiling Bai Guang; No. 12, the brimming-with-optimism cover debut of 17-year-old newcomers Ting Hao and Soo Fung; No. 29, showing a deliciously bookish-looking Yeh Feng, with her turtleneck sweater and big forehead; No. 33, a simple, but absolutely radiant, close-up of Lin Dai at her most beautiful; No. 39, the perfect distillation of Lin Tsui's tomboy glamor; and No. 50, where Li Mei rings her bell, promising a very Merry Christmas indeed!

My least favorite is No. 34, You Min's International Screen debut, which I'm compelled to single out as the worst cover. You Min possessed a simple and natural beauty, but here she looks a touch garish. Compare this with her next cover, No. 43, which shows her at her usual girlish best.

Hopefully, it won't be long before I can show you the second fifty covers of International Screen!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hong Kong Hula Hoopers: Lin Tsui and Lam Fung

Here's a charming photo set from Southern Screen No. 12 (February, 1959). First up on the hoop is Jeanette Lin Tsui:

Up next is Patricia Lam Fung:

And, for her skill and artistic interpretation, the winner is... drum roll, please... Patricia... Lam... Fung!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Return of the Z-Bomb!

Margo the Z-Bomb in Singapore (1956)

You may remember my post last November about the origins of the Z-Bomb. This tasty piece of American slang was used in Hong Kong movie magazines in the late 1950s to describe sexy stars like Fanny Fan and Lau Leung-wa. Of course, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure out that it was made popular by the unforgettable Margo the Z-Bomb, whose explosive dancing was captured in the 1957 film Mambo Girl.

In my post I included a clip of Margo's scene that I'd put up on YouTube, and what do you know... three months later, thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, I was contacted by RMarie, who tells me that her mother just happened to be Margo's road manager during her 1956 tour of Asia. OMG! How cool is that?!

RMarie told me that she had lots of photos and promised to scan some and send them to me. Well, she did even even better than that by launching her very own blog to share her Margo treasures with the world. This is amazing news, because there is practically nothing about Margo in print or on the Web (just google her name and you'll see what I mean). And that, my friends, needs to be corrected, because based on the newspaper accounts that I've been able to find, Margo was a legend (with a capital L) in the San Francisco nightclub scene during the 1950s. She obviously made quite an impact in Asia as well. Check out this picture of Margo and Run Run Shaw from RMarie's blog.

Margo and Run Run Shaw in Saigon (ca. August, 1956)

I'm sure that Run Run would have loved to sign her up for one of his films, but alas Margo ended up with Shaw's main rival, Loke Wan Tho and his Cathay Organization, shaking her stuff in the film Mambo Girl. The movie was created as a vehicle for Miss Grace Chang — allegedly inspired by her knack for dancing the mambo — but Margo's presence added some much appreciated authentic Latin spice. Compared to Margo, Grace is just a mambo-girl-next-door. Don't get me wrong... I absolutely adore Miss Grace... and love her uncharacteristic "bad girl" turn in The Wild, Wild Rose (1960)... but take a gander at these publicity photos of Margo and Mambo Girl's leading man Peter Chen Ho and try telling me that he'd rather be dancing with good girl Grace. I think not!

Margo and Peter Chen Ho from the December, 1956 issue of International Screen (thanks Charley!)

If you're hungry for more about Margo and her conquest of Asia, here's a tantalizing account that I came across from surgeon and author Richard Selzer in the book What One Man Said to Another (1994). Selzer tells his friend about seeing Margo at a Hong Kong nightclub.

Pretty soon the performance was announced, and it was Margo the Z Bomb. Not the A Bomb, the Z Bomb. It was this Portuguese woman who was going to perform and there were great cheers from the Chinese men — it was ninety percent men — and out came Margo the Z Bomb, absolutely gorgeous and vulgar to her toenails. She had on this very sexy outfit, which was minimal, she danced and sang, and then she began to take off her clothes. She called a man up from the audience, and there was a general reluctance for some guy to get up and take part in it, but finally some young Chinese man got up and she wrapped her legs around him and rubbed him up and down, and everybody laughed and he was a little embarrassed, but not much, and she was carrying on — she knew how to play the crowd to a fare-thee-well. If I could perform like that, believe me, I would be a rich man, because she knew exactly what this audience wanted of her and she delivered it.

OK, so now you want to see Margo in action, right? Well, here is an encore presentation of her scene from Mambo Girl, because like all good things, once is never enough. And for godsakes, will the whole bunch of you please give this video a 5-star rating to counteract the killjoy who gave it one star! Finally, don't forget to visit RMarie's wonderful Margo blog.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Southern Screen: Second 50 Covers

By popular demand, here are the second 50 covers of Southern Screen, minus the cover for No. 66, which I was unable to track down. The image size and quality varies greatly, since these were downloaded from the listings of several eBay sellers over the past several years. I don't remember what came from whom, but let me just pay a general courtesy to the following sellers (all highly recommended): adamantine!, cyk5391antiques, kwsx, lvlalaysiaboleh, penangantiques, rajah_borneo, and tazimmerman68.

This series of covers (spanning May 1962 to June 1966) shows the emergence of Shaw's new reigning movie queen, Ivy Ling Po, topping the charts with 6 covers. Following on her heels with 5 covers each are Li Lihua (who had turned 40 in 1964 and was a full decade past the age when many Hong Kong actresses married and retired) and Lin Dai (who ended her life in 1964). Clocking in at 4 covers each are former champ Loh Tih (who left Shaws for Cathay/MP&GI after 1964) and former newcomers Ting Hung and Tu Chuan.

Of the other former newcomers noticeably absent from this period, Ting Ning married and retired in 1963, while Fanny Fan seems to have fallen out of favor and left Shaw Brothers at some point (only to return a couple of years later). And since Shaw shut down its Cantonese division in 1962, Lam Fung and Au Kar-wai were no longer to be seen on the covers of Southern Screen.

The first graduates of Shaw's in-house drama academy started to make their appearance as cover girls: Li Ching (4 covers), Fang Ying (3 covers), Cheng Pei-pei (3 covers), and Chin Ping (2 covers). And let's not forget Julie Yeh Feng (3 covers), who left MP&GI and joined Shaw Brothers in 1963.

I must say that, as a group, the first 50 covers are more attractive than the second 50. The first batch had a greater variety of types of shots, including the medium and full shots which I prefer. In the second batch, the predominance of close-ups becomes quite monotonous. And the color quality is not as good. I don't know if it was a case of bad lighting or bad printing, but some of the pictures are just horrible. Check out poor Li Lihua on No. 63; she's as red as a lobster! And even on No. 55, she seems to be afflicted by sunburn (yet still manages to look stunning).

Tu Chuan gives us her classic look on No. 51, but by No. 64 her look is starting to look a little garish.

Ivy Ling Po wasn't exactly a newcomer when she first appeared on the cover of Southern Screen, No. 60, since she'd been a big star in Amoy-dialect cinema since the late 1950s, but here she looks like a girl-next-door caught in the big-time bright lights. Contrast that with her demeanor on No. 89, two years after her success in Love Eterne (1963) catapulted her to movie queendom.

Speaking of movie queens, the picture of Lin Dai on No. 71, just half a year before her suicide, seems to foretell her downfall with that detached, slightly sad, look in her eyes.

Lin Dai's last cover, No. 77, was published the month she died. And heralding the new generation of Shaw stars, the fresh-looking Cheng Pei Pei appears for the first time on the cover of the very next issue, No. 78.

Finally, to wrap things up: Worst Hairdo goes to Ling Po, No. 76; Best Smile (hands down!) goes to Julie Shih Yen, No. 58; Best Cover goes to flying swordswoman Chin Ping, No. 92; and a Special Memorial award goes to Li Ting, No. 86 (who hung herself in her room at the Shaw Brothers dormitory the very next year).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Southern Screen: First 50 Covers

Here is a slideshow of the first 50 covers of Southern Screen, the Shaw Brothers' official studio magazine. It covers the period of Shaw's production history (1957-1962) that I'm most interested in and which — sadly for me — is least represented by the recent restoration and release of the Shaw Brothers film library.

For a more casual viewing, you can view a photo album of the covers. If you're like me and like to tabulate things, you'll notice that the cover representation pretty accurately reflects the hierarchy of Shaw stars at that time. Lin Dai is the number one queen with 9 covers, and Loh Tih and Li Lihua follow in second and third place with 8 and 6 covers respectively.

Of the new generation of stars, good girls Ting Ning and Ting Hung clock in with 5 and 4 covers, while bad girls Fanny Fan and Tu Chuan each score with 3 covers. Then there's Shaw's Cantonese stars Lam Fung and Au Kar-wai with 3 and 2 covers each. Chang Chung-wen graces only 2 covers, which neatly illustrate her attempt to evolve beyond a sex symbol.

Special mention goes to Peter Chen Ho for being the lone cover guy; Shaw's male stars were usually relegated to the back cover when they couldn't sell it as advertising space.

Some other things I noticed are Loh Tih's love of tiaras. She certainly was a princess.

The coolest cover has to be No. 2, which shows Li Lihua decked out in cowboy duds and superimposed against the wide open expanse of the American West.

Two other favorites of mine are No. 30 and No. 46, featuring Tu Chuan in her characteristic pose: face tilted slightly upwards and often with mouth seductively open. And of course, I musn't fail to mention her thick eyebrows and eyeliner! All of these things made me fall for Tu Chuan, but by the late 60s this look was looking not so good on her and couldn't hide the tragic trajectory of her life.

Speaking of sexy, I still find myself a little surprised by that overhead cleavage shot of Li Lihua on No. 11! Not even sex bombs Fanny Fan, Tu Chuan, and Diana Chang showed as much in their covers. Only a star of Li Lihua's stature could pull it off and look supremely elegant at the same time.

When it comes to girl-next-door glamor, I've got to give a shout-out to Au Kar-wai and her cool and colorful shirt on No. 16.

And finally, I just love the picture of Lam Fung on No. 7: her fresh look, the bright red of her sweater and lipstick, and the umbrella which forms an enchanting halo behind her head. A classic portrait!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gliding on the Sea with Alison Chang Yen!

Oh... Alison... although you were never admitted to the elite ranks of Shaw Brothers stardom, you will always have a special place in my pantheon of Hong Kong actresses. Let the other fans fawn over Li Ching, Cheng Pei Pei, Lily Ho, Chen Ping, and Jenny Hu. That just leaves more of you for me!

What a shame that your sexy girl-next-door look and sporty personality were squandered at Shaws. If I had been the boss, I would have featured you in a series of beach party musicals (costarring Ho Fan and Peng Peng of course), along with a generous smattering of spy thrillers and wuxia films.

Alas, the only thing I can do now is try to draw attention to your under-recognized charms... and maybe start a fan club too!

These pictures appeared in the August, 1967 issue of Hong Kong Movie News. Click here for the original spread.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

In Memory of Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935)

Seventy-four years ago today, on International Women's Day, Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu took her own life in response to problems in her personal life that were exacerbated by the mean-spirited scrutiny of the tabloid press.

Seventy-four years later, the alternately pathological and moralistic obsession with the personal lives of Chinese actresses has remained remarkably unchanged. (Click here if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

Anyway, I don't want to start a rant but merely pay my respects to the memory of one of the world's great actresses: Ruan Lingyu. It was largely her story and the clips of her films in the biopic Centre Stage (1992) that spurred my interest in vintage Chinese cinema.

To celebrate her life and career, I'd like to share this contemporary (though deliberately antiqued and often sold as vintage) reprint of a pictorial magazine devoted to the radiant star. Click here for the 4MB PDF file.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

From the eBay Archive: Chinese New Year Cards

Besides the prolific and ubiquitous photos of all the latest movie stars, photography shops and studios also crafted greeting cards like these creative Chinese New Year cards (circa the mid-1950s) which are currently up for bid on eBay. Here are a few of them that I really like.

Featuring Linda Lin Dai

Featuring Helen Li Mei

Featuring Li Xianglan (aka Shirley Yamaguchi)

Chong Sit Fong:
Queen of Amoy Films

Zhuang Xue Fang in the April, 1959 issue of Southern Screen

I'm sure my buddy Ral never imagined I would end up in the obscure wilderness of late 1950s Amoy-dialect cinema when he introduced me to Hong Kong movies via Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, and his legendary "girls with guns" clip videos more than ten years ago. But sometimes life takes us down unexpected paths, and so it is that I find myself very excited about Dev Yang's new post about Amoy movie queen Chong Sit Fong.

If you are like me, you probably thought that Chinese cinema was neatly divided into Cantonese and Mandarin, just like a VCD with the left audio channel devoted to one dialect and the right channel to the other. But for a brief period back in the late 1950s, films made in the Amoy dialect (which was the predominant dialect spoken by Chinese living in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines) actually outnumbered Mandarin films being made in Hong Kong at the time.

Although the boom was short lived and the movies were often cheaply produced copies of popular Cantonese and Mandarin films, the Amoy industry did produce its own share of beloved and memorable screen stars. To give you a taste of the world of Amoy-dialect cinema and its movie queen Chong Sit Fong, here is an article from Southern Screen No. 14 (April, 1959) about her film Beauty and the Beasts (1959), plus a rare clip from Shrews from Afar (1958). Chong's costar in that film was another popular Amoy actress named Xiao Juan — who would go onto even greater fame later in the 60s after she signed on with Shaw Brothers and became known as Ivy Ling Po.

Chong Sit Fong and Xiao Juan (aka Ivy Ling Po) in Shrews from Afar (1958)

Further Reading

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Everything You Wanted to Know about Blue Warblers and Hong Kong Mermaids

Allow me to give a big thanks to Dev Yang for answering a question that's been burning in the back of my mind ever since I bought this cool flyer about eight months ago. I've been dying to know more about the star of Hongkong Mermaids (1950), but the only information about her in English I could find was that this was her first film (which, as it turns out, is not quite true). So, when Dev posted about Lan Ying-ying earlier this week, I was practically jumping for joy.

Dev writes primarily for his Chinese-language blog, so it's always a treat when he posts to his English-language blog. If you're at all interested in or curious about the rich history of Chinese film, do yourself a favor and check out The Golden Age of Chinese Language Cinema.

Miss Grace Chang in Jamaica, Mon!

I was very surprised today to stumble across this ad from the November 25, 1961 issue of The Gleaner, a newspaper from Kingston, Jamaica. I didn't even know there were Chinese in Jamaica, yet alone theaters showing Chinese movies!

It just so happens that The Girl With a Thousand Faces (1959) is showing as part of the Evan Yang retrospective at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in conjunction with the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Sadly, I won't be going this year. So, to console myself, and all the other Grace Chang fans who can't make it, here is an encore presentation of a clip from The Girl With a Thousand Faces that I posted last August.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

HKMDB Daily News Makes You Big and Strong

Finally! Dennis Lee's Daily News over at the Hong Kong Movie Database forums has now morphed into a blog and is available as an RSS feed. As he says in his About page, "Like a dim sum cart, the contents herein are sometimes sweet, sometimes savory and sometimes chicken feet." So, what are you waiting for, get on over to HKMDB Daily News and yum cha!