A key figure in the history of Sinophone cinema, Li Han-Hsiang migrated to Hong Kong from the Mainland in 1948, studying originally as an actor at the Yong Hwa Film Company under the director Zhu Shilun before performing various roles in the industry working as a set painter and graphic artist as well as in voice acting. After his directorial debut Red Bloom in the Snow proved a critical hit, he joined Shaw Brothers in the mid-1950s where he became instrumental in the success of the studio’s hugely popular period musicals inspired by Huangmei opera including the classics The Kingdom And the Beauty (1959) and The Love Eterne (1963). In 1963 he left Shaw Brothers to found Grand Motion Picture Company in Taiwan, helping to further the burgeoning Taiwanese film industry where the Huangmei musicals had proved so popular. Unfortunately, however, the Grand Motion Picture Company ran into financial trouble in the late 1960s and Four Moods (喜怒哀樂, Xǐnù’āilè), a four-part historical portmanteau piece featuring instalments from the most prominent directors of the day including Li himself, was in part intended to improve its flagging fortunes. Unfortunately it was not in that regard successful and Li eventually returned to Hong Kong, founding another production house before rejoining Shaw Brothers in 1972.
The first of the Four Moods, Joy, is directed by Pai Ching-Jui who studied filmmaking in Italy in the early ‘60s and was heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism but perhaps counterintuitively his contribution is an entirely wordless piece of expressionist psychedelica in which a man trying to stay awake (Yueh Yang) receives a visitation from a beautiful female spirit (Chen Chen) who seems to be the incarnation of a woman whose resting place he repaired after frightening off a disfigured grave robber, planting a pretty flower he found into the earth. The man eventually beds the demure young woman but is disappointed to find her disappeared the next morning, running out into the forest and trying the same thing again, scouring headstones looking for a woman’s name and then planting his flower only to be much less enthused with his next visitor. A visually arresting fever dream of sex and death playing out in a gothic dilapidated cottage in the middle of a foggy forest and set to a primal beat of traditional instrumentation, Pai’s eerie ghost story is feast for the senses.
King Hu’s Anger, meanwhile, sees the legendary director return to Dragon Inn territory as the destabilising forces of the age meet in a nihilistic battle for survival at remote outpost. The main thrust of the drama follows retainer Tang-hui (Chang Fu-Geng) who is despatched by General Yang to follow one of their men, Tsun, who has been sent into exile after killing the son-in-law of rival general Wang in a fight, but it’s believed that Wang has bribed his guards to kill him before they reach the border. They do indeed try to assassinate Tsun but he seems to fend them off and no longer thinks of them as dangerous when they arrive the inn which turns out to be staffed by duplicitous innkeepers who make a habit of robbing and murdering their guests. Tang-hui, when he turns up, is next on their list because they believe he’s a wealthy businessman weighed down with silver. Soon enough all hell breaks loose as Tang-hui takes on the innkeepers while the mercenary guards debate which side it’s best to be on, culminating in an extraordinarily well choreographed battle set to the rhythms of Peking opera.
Anger then gives way to Sadness, directed by “godfather of Taiwanese cinema” Li Hsing who migrated from the Mainland in 1949 and began his career in Taiyupian Taiwanese language cinema in 1958 with Brother Liu and Brother Wang on the Road in Taiwan. One again a ghost story, Sadness meditates on the fallacy of vengeance as a man (Ou Wei) returns home after 10 years in prison on a trumped up charge looking for revenge against the men who murdered his family but inconviently discovers that they were all murdered themselves some years previously so there’s no one left to take revenge against. Retaking his family home, he finds a beautiful young woman (Chang Mei-yao) living there who claims to be a refugee making use of the empty house. She tries to talk him out of his revenge fantasies which involve pointlessly desecrating the graves of the Lan family so they’ll never rest in peace, but he doesn’t listen. Thrashing around angrily with his sword, the man eventually softens as he falls for the woman, but ruins his chance of happiness in his inability to let go of his grief and rage.
The final segment, Happiness, is directed by Li Han-Hsiang himself and is a comparatively subdued tale revolving around a cheerful miller (Ko Hsiang-Ting) who enjoys a drink while fishing in the river by the millhouse. It’s there that he encounters a strange young man (Peter Yang Kwan) who charms the fish into his basket through the beautiful music of his flute. The miller learns that the mysterious man, Liu Lon, is the ghost of one who fell into the river drunk sometime previously and is looking for his replacement so he can move on. Problematically for the miller that involves the death of a young local woman (Chiang Ching) he knows well who considers drowning herself because her father doesn’t approve of her marriage to a man she loves. He saves her, offering to intercede with her father to make him see sense, which means he gets to spend more time with his ghost friend but also that Liu Lon will be in purgatory for another few years. Liu Lon later gets another chance but takes pity on a lost soul and is rewarded for his selfless act of kindness, as he tells the miller will he be for all his earthly goodness. If we haven’t learned already from all the terrible tales of fruitless human greed and violence presented in the other three segments, the path to happiness lies in temperate kindness which is sure to receive at least celestial reward in its proper time.
Original trailer (English subtitles)