Sunday, May 29, 2016

“Without X Films, What Are Exhibitors Going to Show?” Reconsidering Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960)

“Take me to your cinema.”
Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley) to Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom (1960)

“Well, let’s get the wrong people in as well as the right ones.”
Michael Powell on marketing Peeping Tom

One of the most famous scandals in the history of British cinema is the 1960 release of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom by British distributor Anglo-Amalgamated, a company then enjoying box-office success with the "saucy" (i.e., puerile) Carry On comedy series and violent, pulpy horror films such as Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  Peeping Tom tells the story of Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a voyeur and psychotic, whose now-deceased scientist father had subjected him to sadistic experiments as a child, including filming and taping his grimaces and cries of fear while torturing him with reptiles and sudden noises in the middle of the night.  As an adult, Mark works as a focus puller in a film studio by day, moonlights taking pornographic pictures, and prowls the street at night with a hidden camera, murdering women with a bayonet affixed to his tripod while he films their faces in final agony.  We later discover that the women are forced to watch their own dying faces in a mirror attached to the camera.  His first two victims are Dora (Brenda Bruce) a street-based sex worker, and Vivian (Moira Shearer), an extra at the film studio.

Mark struggles against his compulsion and takes the first, halting steps toward friendship and romance with his downstairs tenant, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), in spite of the objections of her sightless mother (Maxine Audley), who finds Mark secretive and stealthy.  After murdering pin-up model Milly (Pamela Green) during a photo shoot, Mark returns home to find that Helen has discovered his secret home theater and his homemade murder movies.  As the police frantically attempt to break down the door to his studio, Mark commits suicide in front of Helen with his own weapon as pre-set still cameras record his death throes.  The film ends with a shot of Mark’s now-dark movie screen, while on the soundtrack we hear a taped exchange between the child Mark and his father which ends with the child’s tremulous, “Good night, Daddy.  Hold my hand.”

Powell (left) with Emeric Pressburger
Histories of this greatest of cursed films have emphasized its supposed career-ending effect on director Michael Powell who, two years prior to signing on with Anglo had broken with his longtime Archers collaborator Emeric Pressburger and was no longer supported by the powerful Rank Organization, under whose auspices the team had produced international box-office hits such as The Thief of Baghdad (1940), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Tales of Hoffman (1951).  

The hallucinatory masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947)
Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)

Friday, May 13, 2016

What I Did on Blog Vacation: Topics Course on Hong Kong Cinema

This semester, I was fortunate enough to offer another special topics course on Hong Kong cinema, and a class roster of first-rate Film and Media Arts seniors and other rabid Asian movie fans encouraged me to take a different approach to covering the material and helping students discover more about my favorite national cinema.  For years, I have been telling my film history students that the appreciation and study of modern Hong Kong movies came not from the academy but from a passionate hive mind of fans, bootleg tape (later DVD) collectors, zine publishers, and, eventually, internet discussion boards, blogs, and podcasts. 

For fifteen weeks beginning in January, we recreated the fan culture of discovering Hong Kong cinema:  There were no quizzes, papers, or exams.  Instead, students read Steven Tao’s indispensable Hong Kong Cinema:  The Extra Dimensions and David Bordwell’s equally magisterial Planet Hong Kong as we moved through a chronological survey of Fragrant Harbor filmmaking (see my earlier blog entry on Love Without End for Amazon listings of these two great books).  In lieu of traditional assignments, each student produced five blog entries on separate films.  By the middle of the semester, each student chose a single film on which their research would be focused for the remainder of our time together.  

Expressive human limbs went every whichaway this semester:
Student reports covered Grace Chang in Mambo Girl (1957, above)
and Anthony Wong in The Untold Story (1993, below)

At this point, their weekly reading was enhanced by outside material on their movie from books, journals, websites, and SMU Hamon Arts Library's singular and extensive holdings of Hong Kong International Film Festival program guides and catalogs.  One of their research reports took the form of an extended blog post, each of which will later be published here as a guest entry.  In addition, I conducted an audio interview with them on their film which will be edited and featured on the first eight episodes of the Crawling Eye podcast, scheduled to launch in later summer.  Also, they prepared an extensive, detailed, and sourced Wikipedia article on their movie which will be submitted and published by the end of the summer.  Finally, each student wrote and recorded an audio commentary on a segment of their film.

This open-ended, research-driven approach to the material succeeded beyond my wildest imagination.  But why take my word for it?  Here is the audio commentary on the beginning of Eric Tsang’s Aces Go Places (1982) from senior SMU Journalism major Julie Hight:

Monday, February 1, 2016

"I Will Find Somewhere Quiet and Wait for That Day:" The Shaw Brothers' Wenyi-Pian and LOVE WITHOUT END (1961)

Love Without End (1961), directed by Doe Chin / Tao Qin and starring Linda Lin-Dai, provides a snapshot of Shaw Bros studio’s early-sixties approach to the female-centered wenyi-pian, or romantic melodrama, a film genre and star vehicle which characterized the studio’s most high-profile Mandarin-language releases in the years before the male-centered period action film, or wuxia-pian, came to dominate the studio’s output with adoption of the Color Action Century production policy in 1965.   Love Without End tells the story of Qin-Qin (Linda Lin-Dai), a nightclub singer from the provinces whose love for the young businessman Peng-Nan (Guan Shan / Kwan San) is so great that she secretly becomes the mistress and traveling companion of a jewel smuggler to earn the money Peng-Nan needs to pay his deceased father’s debts and rescue his own business from imminent bankruptcy.  

                  Another leading male dating                            Weeping beehives:
                     way above his league:                                 Linda Lin-Dai (L) and 
                   Gwan Shan as Peng-Nan                          Kao Po-Shu as Meng-Li (R)

She disguises this gift through a check issued from the bank account of Peng-Nan’s friend Rui-Sheng, and when Peng-Nan discovers the likely terms of the business trip from which she has returned, he leaves her in disgust.  Rui-Sheng dies in a plane crash, and Qin-Qin is diagnosed with terminal septicemia or blood poisoning, a fact that the now-contrite Peng-Nan and her ever-faithful friend Meng Li attempt to hide from her in the months leading up to her wedding to Peng-Nan, but their attempt is unsuccessful.

Love Without End exemplifies the twin themes of the wenyi-pian, doomed love and female loyalty and suffering.   The film’s nightclub setting and central romantic conflict between a good-hearted woman willing to financially exploit her sexuality to support others and the callow and weak-willed masculine naïf bear a striking resemblance to those of rival studio Cathay’s huge hit of the previous year, Wild, Wild Rose (1960), directed by Wang Tian-Lin / Wong Tin-Lam and starring Cathay’s mega-star Ge Lan / Grace Chang.  

MP&GI / Cathay, Late 1950s:  Left to right,
Grace Chang, Linda Lin-Dai, Shin Chong, Doe Chin

By 1961, Lin was on the cover of Shaw Bros
Southern Screen magazine as their newest star

In fact, Love Without End appears near the end of a years-long expansion program in which Shaw Bros successfully replaced its high-volume, low-cost production strategy with one copied from Cathay of fewer films with high production values showcasing charismatic female stars.  Love Without End signals Shaws’ appropriation from Cathay not only the wenyi genre but some of its signature creative personnel as well:  The film was Doe’s fourth as director for Shaws and Lin’s third as female lead:  The year before, Lin had performed opposite Chao Lei in Shaw’s hugely successful huangmei diao epic Kingdom and the Beauty, and Doe’s first directing assignment for Shaws was the wenyi drama Desire in 1959 starring – Linda Lin-Dai.

In addition to Lin in the role of Qin-Qin, Love Without End features Guan Shan as Peng-Nan, the next in a long line of earnest and uncharismatic male leads Guan had already played at Sun-Sun Enterprises before joining Shaw Bros to serve a similar place-holding function in several pre-wuxia genres.  The supporting players in Love Without End demonstrate that the studio’s repertory of character actors was reaching the critical mass needed to produce a full roster of movies in a range of genres where lightning-quick character sketches based on a performer’s previous roles enabled filmmakers to tell a story with maximum efficiency and impact:  In the role of Meng-Yi, Kao Po-Shu played confidante to the female lead as she would in many musicals, comedies, and historical pictures for Shaw Bros throughout the sixties,  and Lok Kei / Lo Chi’s Rui-shing was the male equivalent on Meng-Yi in musicals and comedies until the Color Action Century rendered such male roles obsolete.  And Cheung Kwok-Chiu as the slimy, scar-faced jewel smuggler Wang Dong-Hai and Li Wan-Chung as Qin-Qin’s pianist uncle Ching-Seng would become two of the studio’s most recognizable villains in dozens of thrillers, wuxia-pian, musicals, and crime films.

                         A nice guy, for once.                        The rodent-like jewel smuggler
                            Li Wan-Chung as                                       Wang Dong-Hai
                           Uncle Ching-Seng                                   (Cheung Kwok-Chiu)

By 1961, Shaws’ period musical films in the huangmei diao (“Yellow Plum Opera”) genre were lensed in resplendent Eastmancolor to showcase their sets and costumes, but Love Without End was shot in widescreen “ShawScope” and glacial black and white.  Both the movie’s ultramodern mid-century interiors and high-voltage melodrama replicated elements of many of Cathay’s most successful wenyi-pian, and black-and-white cinematography was part of a set of genre conventions Doe Chin brought from Cathay to his new employers on the other side of Victoria Harbor.  The widescreen frame is frequently used to situate Qin-Qin in the domestic utopian space of her deluxe flat and the upscale nightclub while dividing the frame with cage or prison-like parallel vertical lines, a compositional strategy also used for similar claustrophobic effect in American melodramas of the same period such as Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1960).  

                       The caged bird sings                                Rui-Sheng and Qin-Qin 
                                                                                          discuss her secret gift

                 Trapped in the hospital bed                  Qin-Qin overhears that she is dying
                and under Peng-Nan's stare                                 at the bridal shop

Qin-Qin prepares for her last 
night out with Peng-Nan

These caged-in views of Qin-Qin are contrasted with more expansive views of the former girl from the provinces in natural settings such as the forest and the seaside.

            An afternoon fishing trip and picnic         Somewhere quiet, waiting for that day

The title theme and central musical number performed onstage by Qin-Qin also weaves together the themes of nature and the city, modernity and tradition, and permanence and loss.  “The Vine Entangles the Tree” combines the traditional Chinese chord progressions and melodic lines characteristic of Cantonese opera with early-1960s Afro-Caribbean lounge instrumentation.  The lyrics tell the story of a vine on the southern side of a mountain which remains entwined with the trunk and branches of a tree throughout and even after the life cycle of the tree itself and presages the love that Qin-Qin and Peng-Nan will have for each other which will outlive the brief years of the doomed wenyi heroine: 

“Together day after day, night after night
Together dawn after dawn, dusk after dusk
The vine entangles the tree
Whether the tree lives or dies
Together through rain and storm
Together through life and death
The vine entangles the tree.”

This imagery carries over into the film’s visual design and the blocking of action:  While Peng-Nan is trying to postpone Qin-Qin’s awareness of her disease, the couple enjoy a brief idyll fishing, playing golf, and walking in the woods.  Both the trees themselves and the couple’s embrace evoke the image of entanglement.  

            Peng-Nan spreads a picnic blanket                   Peng-Nan and Qin-Qin
                 under two intertwined trees                     intertwined in the forest

Similarly, the first time Qin-Qin and Peng-Nan spend the night together, their lovemaking is elided by a dissolve from a newly-lit twisted-design candle to its melted remains the next morning.  After Qin-Qin has found out about her terminal condition, the couple toasts on what Peng-Nan does not realize will be their last evening of courtship before Qin-Qin leaves for her seaside cabin to wait for death to come, and the entwined candle is once again at the center of the composition.

Lin’s star burned bright at Shaws for another five years before her tragic suicide in 1967.  She continued to star in huangmei-diao, backstage musicals, historical dramas, thrillers, and wenyi-pian.  Of these, the youth musicals Les Belles (1961) and Love Parade (1963), the two-part epic historical wenyi The Blue and the Black (Parts 1 and 2, 1966), and the horror thriller The Mirror (1967), were all directed by Doe Ching.  Their artistic collaborations formed a lynchpin in Run-Run Shaw’s successful efforts to modernize the studio and create what became the most successful Mandarin-language filmmaking company of the 1960s and are worthy of much closer study by critics, fans, and historians.

Hong Kong cinema has inspired dozens of excellent books written by fans, journalists, and academics.  The following books have been particularly helpful for me as I have taught courses on Hong Kong movies and happily made my way through over one hundred of Celestial Pictures' dazzling DVD restorations of many Shaw Bros classics.  Note:  The Shaw Screen, like many of the other books once published by the Hong Kong Urban Council in affiliation with the Hong Kong International Film Festival, is out of print and is subject to ferocious demand by fans, scholars, and collectors.

Coming soon:  An essay on Polydor's 4-CD box set of The Velvet Underground:  The Complete Matrix Tapes