Bruce Lee: The Early Years 1953/1955

This double feature from Cinema Epoch doesn’t belong to their Chinese Film Classics Collection, which is a series of historically important releases from the Shanghai industry before China’s Communist Revolution. This is a pair of basically unimportant releases from the Hong Kong industry whose hook is the charismatic presence of Bruce Lee. As typical family melodramas of the 1950s, they reflect the political and emotional schism of relations between the two Chinas.

Bruce Lee was a child star who made about 20 films in Hong Kong before hitting Hollywood in the 1960s and then going back to Hong Kong to become a martial arts star. Martial arts fans won’t be interested in these soapy stories where Lee, around ages 13 and 15, doesn’t even star in the whole movie. Casual fans of classic cinema won’t be attracted to these unremarkable productions or these prints which, like the Classics Collection, are watchable, at best.

Both films, though obviously cheap, are directed in a smooth commercial style learned from Hollywood, the first film by Kim Chun and the second by Ji Zhu. Both layer music from western records over the drama, another common element of the Hong Kong style. The “Chinese” music that opens An Orphan’s Tragedy is the fanfare from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, followed rapidly by the song “The Sun Whose Rays”.

The audience for these items is either Chinese nostalgists or those who read films sociologically, so we’ll let these items serve as a crash lesson in the special psychology of Hong Kong melodrama. During and after China’s revolution, many people fled from the mainland to the British colony of Hong Kong, thus producing a colony of nationalist orphans with ambivalent feelings about their mother country. The cinema that sprang up almost never refers directly to the historical situation, but the melodramas are informed by it. Even though Hong Kong cinema of the era expresses traditional, conservative values, its concepts of parenthood, the past and the future, are often vexed, subversive, or tragic.

Many movies are about orphans who have been violently or accidentally separated from their parents, or whose parents actually gave them up, and who come to love their kind adoptive parents so much that, when the real parents show up to claim them, the true parents are often considered to be unworthy of the trust they couldn’t keep while the adoptive parents are valorized as the new “real” parents.

Case in point: The Guiding Light (1953), which opens with a shot of a lighthouse for symbolic purposes — something on a shore. The close-up seems to be of a model toy, a conclusion I draw from the giant plug and power cord in the middle of it. The story concerns a homeless maid who was seduced and abandoned by her married master. She is forced to leave her baby with the doctor while she stays away for years to pay her hospital bills.

The doctor is a kind father but is forced to give the boy up to his nanny after he marries a jealous woman, and the nanny slaves away for her drunken, gambling husband, whose brother temporarily sells the kid to a rich woman who turns out to be the second wife of the doctor and from whom he runs away and . . . Anyway, for a while, the kid is Bruce Lee, and then he grows up to be a doctor who does important stuff. Everyone, including the long-lost mother, reunites for a soul-searching lecture on the definition of what makes a true parent.

The package describes An Orphan’s Tragedy (1955) as loosely based on Great Expectations. The similarity involves a boy who helps an escaped convict (some of these shots do seem to copy David Lean’s film of the Charles Dickens novel) and later benefits from the man’s support. What’s going on is a mystery only to the boy, who quickly grows up under a beloved adoptive father to become a doctor, as in The Guiding Light, and even to be played by the same actor.

The father, also a doctor, was framed by the local bigwig, a heartless capitalist who exploits the people, and his son is also briefly hoodwinked by the same crook and learns a valuable lesson. In this case, the slanders against the true father are none of his doing but he remains a jailbreaker who must pay even for this transgression against authority.

In these movies as in others, the true parents are forsaken and the endings avoid a happy reunion in favor of the young generation’s commitment to a new society, which is often depicted as having more integrity (except for the rich folks in it). The attitudes towards the new society’s commitment to capitalism is often problematic in relation to the exhaltation of tradition, but often “home” is contrasted to the corruptions of living abroad.

Grace Chang (aka Ge Lan)

Some of the best examples of Hong Kong melodramas of this period were made by the Cathay or MP&GI Studio, and many have been released in good prints by the HK company Panorama. (Panorama’s only problem, and a serious one, is that it doesn’t letterbox widescreen films, but fortunately there aren’t many widescreen films.) Among the best of these movies are some vehicles starring the wonderful Grace Chang (aka Ge Lan), a multi-talented musical star who can be aptly compared to Doris Day.

Take the delightful Mambo Girl from 1957. It opens with a close-up of a pair of legs on a checkered tile floor. The legs are wearing capri pants with matching checkerboard pattern. Then they spin around and start dancing and the camera pulls back to reveal Grace singing, surrounded by an admiring crowd of young people. The songs are great but the dances are protracted and less interesting.

Anyway, the effect is to create a westernised youth movie but one which constantly emphasizes that these are no delinquents or rebels. This first number is interrupted by a neighbor woman who complains to the father about the noise, but he defends his daughter and her friends as hardworking kids whose interest in music should be cultivated. Later, Grace sings a song at school to the effect of “We’re all good kids, we study, and we like to have fun without being rowdy.”

Then the plot finally kicks in: the discovery that Grace is adopted. She tracks her mother to a nightclub where she works in the washroom, but the woman denies being her mother. This is the highlight dramatically, as we see the unworthy mother torn between wanting to know more about her daughter and her willful rejection of her past.

Then there’s Her Tender Heart (1959), where the heroine (Lucilla You Min, aka Ming Yu) at first gladly reunites with her rich mother, who pretends to be her aunt and has flown in from Italy. When her parents ran away the first time, they didn’t take her because they couldn’t afford her while making their fortune in Europe. Now, as the girl’s about to go off to Italy with her parents, having found out the man who raised her isn’t her true father, he suffers an accident and she wants to stay with him.

This time, the rejected Ma and Pa are identified with the decadent West (albeit a country that safely didn’t have Asian colonies), but the message is still nationalistic, saying the talented youth should stay at home and resist the lure of emigrating to foreign glamour, and she can still work to fulfill her dreams of playing Beethoven.

If Cinema Epoch is interested in exploring this route of film history, as it seems to be, it could do worse than investigate the possibility of licensing these well-made Cathays, especially the Grace Chang films. She may not currently have the star power in the US of Bruce Lee, but she would soon recruit new fans.

Many of her films are even in color. There are the 1959 items Our Dream Car, which is 100 minutes about absolutely nothing but a happy couple in the throes of consumer culture, and Air Hostess, a film that, like such Hollywood product as Come Fly with Me, feeds the adolescent glamour-fantasy of that exciting new career, the stewardess. Grace is being “independent” by seeking this job instead of marrying a rich guy like her parents want (her father points out she’s just being a maid in the air). The first half of the movie is, I kid you not, the stewardess equivalent of Full Metal Jacket, except nobody quite goes ballistic. After the training, it becomes more of a Jane Austen-type bildungsroman about the shaping of personal and professional ethics, and realizing that the guy who speaks to you coldly and harshly really cares about you. Sigh.

From the same busy year, Spring Song is another bildungsroman about two college freshman girls, one who excels in music and the other an athlete. Each becomes put out when the spotlight is on the other and they learn more Jane Austen lessons. As a Grace vehicle, it’s one of them there tour de forces. At one point she does a medly of Chinese lyrics to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, a Chinese folk song, “The Great Pretender” and “La Donna e Mobile”! She also does an unfortunately lengthy extract from a Peking opera. At one point someone plays a record of a Chinese “Que Sera Sera” and I can’t decide if it might be her singing as an in-joke. A nightclub band plays “I Want to Be Happy” and another plays and sings in English “See You Later Alligator”, all presumably royalty-free.

She’s also in the two-part Sun, Moon and Star (1961) and A Story of Three Loves (1964), which are excellent, very allegorical nationalist epics. But perhaps her most amazing movie is the noir-ish black and white musical The Wild Wild Rose (1960), a Chinese translation of Carmen, literally — the title song is a Cantonese version of “La Habanera” to a cha-cha beat!

All her nightclub songs are translated arias, delivered beautifully by Chang. She’s not quite the heartless harlot she makes out, however, because then she wouldn’t be an acceptable Chinese heroine. Her man who’s thrown his life away for her just doesn’t understand that she’s a secret self-sacrificer who’s really only trying to save him.

In short, the Chang items and other Cathays are a great untapped resource for anyone interested in importing Hong Kong musicals and women’s films, and we’re not even mentioning the lavish, widescreen Shaw Productions of the ’60s. Image and the Weinstein Company are importing some of their martial arts films, but the musicals are a mother load waiting to be uncovered in the West.

RATING 4 / 10
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