‘Wow, you’re doing a Chinese degree?’ people like to say to me. ‘That’s so smart and forward-looking! China is becoming an economic superpower!’
Little do they know! I’m only taking Business Chinese because of scheduling conflicts, I spend much of my study time researching the origin of the chengyu I have to learn (there’s something appealing about quoting the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for professional gain), and instead of occupying myself with the Financial Times or discussing trade wars like the actual serious people on my degree who actually deserve to be there and probably never do anything wrong or regret anything, I have been trying to seek out the campiest Mandarin films of the 60s and 70s, which I like to watch in bed in total glee like some kind of flamboyant hibernating cinema stoat.
These have all been produced by the Shaw Brothers, but the ones I enjoy aren’t the company’s signature martial arts films – they’re melodramas, prototypical dramatic Hollywood women’s pictures transplanted to 1960s Hong Kong. All the new mod fashion and music is there, and they have clearly been influenced by the entrance of Cinemascope a decade earlier, meaning the best productions all look a bit like Godard’s Contempt. Instead of cutting-edge Nouvelle Vague direction, however, I’m met every time with around ninety minutes of Classic Hollywood-esque narrative delight.
Madam Slender Plum (1967, 欲海情魔 Yu Hai Qing Mo, lit. something like ‘The Romantic Demon in the Ocean of Desire’, dir. Lo Wei), remake of Mildred Pierce
I didn’t realise this was supposed to be Mildred Pierce until half an hour in, when Diana Chang Chung-wen opened up her own restaurant and started arguing with her daughter. It significantly out-camps the original; I worried the main cast would not live up to the excellent portrayals in that version, but I needn’t have worried at all! The director seemed to have missed the stylistic point of the original by miles, eschewing Curtiz’s feminine take on film noir for something that reminds me a lot of Sirk, that Demy film I reviewed and, not even unfortunately, John Waters.
It helps that Veda Pierce, who is supposed to start as a young girl of about 12 and end up a young woman, is played by the clearly-grown-up Jenny Hu, who is made up consistently for the whole film, and is also obviously really tall. Veda’s little sister, who dies at the start of the film, doesn’t look much younger but still spends all her time onscreen holding an oversized teddy bear. I was reminded of Female Trouble and Taffy Davenport, except this isn’t even making a thing of it.
The issues of misogyny present in the original become very tongue-in-cheek here. Miss Plum takes a job waitressing at a sleazy bar in the face of financial ruin, and is often harassed and objectified by male drinkers. She later opens her own, and in one of the most memorable scenes, lines a team of skimpily-dressed waitresses up for inspection.
Is this a protest against late-60s girlbossery to the detriment of the working woman? Is it engineered as a moral counterpart to the racist contradictions of the original, where Joan Crawford rises to the top but Butterfly McQueen remains in domestic drudgery? I think it’s an interesting sequence that adds a new dimension to the story. This is the sort of remake that doesn’t bother me at all!
Remember the final twist in Mildred Pierce? We don’t really get that here; instead, the characters take turns accusing each other and taking the blame for the murder that begins the film, like a wholesome (God I hate that word) version of Rashomon. Luo strays very far from the original’s tone here; it is far more heartfelt, with familial love and no bloodthirsty acting.
Torrent of Desire (1969, 欲焰狂流，dir. Lo Chen), remake of Written on the Wind
I will set this straight: I saw the original Written on the Wind a hell of a long time ago (was I doing A-levels? I’m not sure) and can’t make many useful comparisons because I can’t remember much of it. (I actually really want to rewatch the original because I’m now totally obsessed with late-stage Lauren Bacall and everything she’s done, and probably didn’t appreciate her performance enough the first time I watched it).
One thing I want to say about this remake: the set design is the best in any film. I’m not kidding! Just look at this!
Look at this hotel room! Conversation pit! White crystal chandelier! Guoxue woodblock prints! Almost-70s tree mural! Who designed this set and have they been living in my brain?
I’m not even going to say anything about this miraculous many-columned lilac hotel lobby, just look at it!
Also this bizarre Mexican ranch situation (did such interior design exist in real ’60s Hong Kong, or is this an imaginary America?)
And this completely OTT graveyard!
Here’s some set dressing in a style I like to call ‘Woah. What???’
There’s a sort of psychedelic almost-sex-scene here where (I’m pretty sure) the director was mimicking the rainbow lighting from another Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows:
Some of the costumes in this are brilliant (specifically, all of Angela Yu Chien’s costumes; she’s a fantastic character-y actress in this and I can’t wait to watch her other films). Take some screenshots and run:
In conclusion: why are these films not (gay) cult classics already? They’re so good and so overdesigned; I propose a charity scheme where they are subtitled, placed on hard drives and dropped through the chimneys of camp cinema fans worldwide. This was totally worth learning Mandarin for.