First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.

First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Pilferer’s Progress (发钱寒, John Woo, 1977)

Money CrazyJohn Woo is best known in the West for his “heroic bloodshed” movies from the ‘80s in which melancholy tough guys shoot bullets at each other in beautiful ways. However, he had a long and varied career even before which began with Shaw Brothers and a stint in traditional martial arts movies. What often gets over looked outside of Woo’s native Hong Kong is his many comedies, of which The Pilferer’s Progress (AKA Money Crazy, 发钱寒, Fa Qian Han) is one of his most successful.

The plot follows the comic adventures of two down on their luck hoodlums – would be bodyguard Poison (Ricky Hui) and “private detective” Dragon (Richard Ng Yiu hon), who keep running into each other so many times that they eventually end up having to become a team. After each becoming involved with the greedy business man Rich Chan (Cheung Ying), the two find themselves lusting after a set of three diamonds which he has in his possession. Their desire only grows after meeting Mary (Angie Chiu) and her godfather to whom the diamonds originally belonged before Chan cheated him out of them.

Love trumps money, at least for a while, as Poison and Dragon team up to get revenge on Chan and get the diamonds back for Mary. Of course, more personal concerns end up raising their heads towards the end as the duo realise that if they just give the diamonds back to Mary it might buy them some brownie points but they’ll be quite massively out of pocket. They come up with a suitably anarchic solution that involves dummies holding guns and a motorbike cleverly concealed inside a haystack not to mention a fake broken arm (unsurprisingly it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as they’d hoped).

Much more slapstick buddy comedy than crime thriller, The Pilferer’s Progress is full of innovative sight gags and the fast paced Cantonese wordplay that has become a hallmark of the genre. Neither Poison nor Dragon are born criminal masterminds, they’re both just muddling through with a kind of anarchic insouciance that lends their exploits a gleefully childish quality even when Dragon is doing something as shady as indulging in a bit of analogue photoshop to fabricate a picture of Chan with a mistress so he can blackmail him. Poison’s number one manoeuvre is to get a gang together to pretend to attack his target so he can pretend to fight them all off in the hope that the “victim” will be so grateful and impressed with his martial arts skills that he’ll take him on as a bodyguard.

Dragon seems to be an avid watcher of modern spy movies and has a host of fairly useless gadgets he can use to try and get the drop on Chan such as bugging his car (Poison puts the bug on the exhaust pipe), or drilling a hole from the kitchen below right into Chan’s toilet and sticking a periscope up there to scout out the room. Chan also has a fairly elaborate security system that he mostly uses to annoy his wife but Poison and Dragon get round it by drilling another, bigger hole in the ceiling and pulling a Mission Impossible style rope manoeuvre to try and grab the diamonds from around Chan’s neck while he’s asleep. Because he’s thought of everything, Dragon even pulls out a tiny umbrella and hangs it from his nose to catch the increasing stream of sweat falling from his brow in one of the film’s funniest moments.

Woo also mixes quite a lot of exciting kung-fu action with the pure comedy as Chan’s second bodyguard is a recently graduated shaolin monk who’s pretty much invincible – to normal people, but somehow Dragon and Poison manage to outsmart him every time. There’s also a fair amount of the gunplay that was to become Woo’s signature but there are no balletic sequences here – the guns look ridiculously fake, almost like children’s toys, and are always the “butt” of the joke, literally.

The Pilferer’s Progress may not be a great lost classic but it is heaps of period specific fun with an extremely catchy soundtrack including the title song sung by star Ricky Hui. Extraordinarily successful on its original release, The Pilferer’s Progress is undoubtedly very much of its time, as perhaps it was intended to be, but its fast paced, silly slapstick humour has a universal quality that proves that true comedy has no sell by date.

Seen as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.