My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢, Patrick Tam Kar-Ming, 1989)

“Now no one owes anything to anyone” a petty gangster ironically states on completing an errand for a friend in Patrick Tam’s heroic bloodshed off-shoot My Heart is that Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢). As the name perhaps implies, Tam’s film is less brotherhood than tragic romance as the fatalism of the noirish gangster world ruled by debt if not by honour conspires against love, not only romantic but filial and brotherly, in its infinite web of violence and futility.

Pinching a classic noir narrative, the picture opens in a cheerful waterside tavern run by former gangster Uncle Cheung (Kwan Hoi-Shan) where carefree gambler Rick (Kenny Bee) is in love with the old man’s daughter Lap (Joey Wong Cho-Yee) who works behind the bar. Uncle Cheung thinks he’s escaped the triad world, but the past is not done with him. Approached by local tough guy Law (Gam Lui), Uncle Cheung is made an offer he can’t refuse to help smuggle Law’s son (Cheung Tat-ming) to Hong Kong from the mainland. He asks Rick to pitch in as the driver and recruits corrupt cop Tang (Ng Man-tat) to help him get past the checkpoints. But Law’s kid is chatterbox, excited to be in Hong Kong and eagerly boring everyone with his future plans to become a famous singer. Unwisely he drops his father’s name and rouses Tang’s interest. Tang makes the gang pull off at a rest stop so he can strong arm Uncle Cheung into ringing Law to up his pay, but the loudmouth kid jumps the gun, literally, and gets himself killed. Tang turns on Rick and Uncle Cheung to clear up loose ends but Rick kills him, escaping with Uncle Cheung and leaving the old lady at the rest stop to clean up the mess. Left with no choice but to flee, the trio arrange passage to the Philippines but Uncle Cheung is snatched by Law before they can leave. Lap is forced to make a deal with rival kingpin Godfather Shen (Michael Chan Wai-man) to save her dad, putting Rick on the boat with a promise to meet him later but knowing that she will likely never escape Shen’s grasp. 

Six years pass, during which Lap becomes Shen’s right-hand woman entertaining wealthy Japanese businessmen in his swanky club as a singer and hostess. Consumed by guilt and remorse in knowing his daughter continues to pay the price for his mistake, Uncle Cheung has become a drunken liability while Lap is lost in romantic melancholy, mooning over the ruined love of her youth and dreaming that some day Rick may return and take her away from all this. Meanwhile, innocent rookie (confusingly also named) Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has fallen in love with her, captivated by her sadness and the futility of her life with Shen. Of course, Rick, having become a hit man, eventually returns leading to a confrontation not just with Shen but with the triad world itself. 

In the gangster universe, everyone owes something to someone. Debt is a kind of currency, and every bargain accrues its particular kind of interest. Lap is forced to sacrifice herself to save the men she loves by trading the only currency she has, her body, knowing that in doing so she destroys the possibility of a happy romantic future with Rick in order to keep him safe. Six years later she thinks she’s paid her debt to Shen, he has plenty of other women what difference can keeping her captive make? But that’s not the way the gangster world works. Shen merely gifts her to the psychotic underling who propositioned her on their first meeting and moments earlier had tried to betray his boss by raping her. Only Cheung, pure hearted and naive, is uncorrupted by the venal cruelty of the triad world, consumed by a truly selfless love that sees him determined to help Lap escape and save her future with Rick. 

This selfless love, however, eventually creates another debt in the moral dilemma faced by the lovers who know that if they escape alone they leave Cheung at the mercy of Shen while to return spells certain death. Co-shot by Christopher Doyle, Tam’s moral universe is lit by the red-tinted glow of the neo-noir, a dizzying yet melancholy world of violence and futility in which freeze frames and ethereal dissolves hint at the transient meaninglessness of the triad life where love and death go hand in hand while betrayal is an ever present companion. Only those sufficiently uncorrupted by the moral duplicities of an increasingly bankrupt existence are permitted to survive, but even so emerge beaten, wounded, and pale with loss literally at sea perpetual exiles without home or harbour.


Original trailer (Dialogue free, contains major spoilers)

Moon Warriors (戰神傳說, Sammo Hung, 1992)

“In fact, some stories are true. Especially the heartbreaking ones” according to a melancholy fisherman in Sammo Hung’s tragic wuxia romance, Moon Warriors (戰神傳說). Arriving in the middle of a fantasy martial arts boom, Moon Warriors boasts some of the biggest stars of the day in a beautifully composed tale of intrigue and derring-do as well as featuring an A-list creative team with such high profile talent as Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Ching Siu-Tung, and Corey Yuen also involved in the production. 

Somewhere in feudal China, 13th Prince Shih-san (Kenny Bee) is on the run after being usurped by his evil brother, the predictably named 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong Siu) who burnt down his castle and has been following him throughout the land razing villages wherever he goes. Accompanied by trusty bodyguard Merlin (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) who is silently in love with him, Shih-san is desperate to get in touch with the Lord of Langling (Chang Yu), also the father of his betrothed princess Moony (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), in the hope of uniting their forces to retake the country together. Meanwhile, goodhearted yet eccentric fisherman Philip (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is doing a spot of hunting in a bamboo grove during which he notices Shih-san and the others wading into a trap and leaps to the rescue, helping to despatch the black-clad assassins. As Shih-san is badly injured, he takes them back to his cheerfully idyllic village, serves them the local delicacy of spicy shark fin soup, and generally befriends them before 14th Prince’s goons track them all down again at which point he takes them to his secret hideout which turns out to be an ancient temple dedicated to Shih-san’s emperor ancestors. 

We find out just how evil 14th Prince is when he gets his minions to kill all of Moony’s ladies-in-waiting and dress up in their clothes to mount a sneak attack on the Langling estate while holding on to the pretty kites Moony was flying before the gang arrived. Though petulantly flying kites seems like quite a childish activity for a princess about to be married off, Moony more than holds her own in the fight even if finding it difficult to deal with having killed someone for the first time. Sent to protect her, Philip is less than sympathetic, but after a few arguments, a near death experience, and some magic glitter, the pair begin to fall in love, which is a problem because Moony is betrothed to Shih-san. 

What develops is a complicated love square in which Merlin pines for Shih-san who seems more interested in Philip, while Philip repeatedly tries to leave the group because of his conflicted loyalties and a feeling of inferiority as a peasant suddenly mixed up in imperial intrigue and forbidden romance. Moony tries to give him her half of a precious jade talisman which plays beautiful music, but her melancholy suggestion that it will sound better with his flute than with the other half which is held by Shih-san flies right over his head. Shih-san, meanwhile, who was spying on them talking, suddenly decides to give him his half too, leaving Philip holding the whole thing. Merlin, as it turns out, has a series of interior conflicts of her own that leave her resentful of just about everyone except Shih-san. 

Eventually, however, nowhere is safe from the destructive effects of political instability and Philip’s fishing village is soon a target for the vicious 14th Prince, ensuring he enters the fight with the help of his improbable best friend, a killer whale named “Sea-Wayne”. Before the romantic dilemmas can be resolved, the courtly intrigue collapses in on itself, fostering an accidental revolution in the literal implosion of an old order, suddenly becoming dust as in some long forgotten prophecy. In a strange moment of flirtatious smalltalk, Philip had remarked that legend has it the flowers in these fields are only so beautiful because they grow on top of bodies buried far below, something he later discovers to be more than just a fanciful story. 

There might be something in the tragic tale of two branches of elites destroying each other in order to take control of a disputed territory while the ordinary man is left behind alone to reflect on the fall of empires, but perhaps that’s a reading too far in a melancholy wuxia of 1992 and its unexpectedly gloomy ending in which true feelings are spoken only when all hope is lost. Nevertheless, with all of its high octane fight scenes, painful stories of romance frustrated by the oppressions of feudalism, and surreal killer whale action, Moon Warriors is a strangely poetic affair as doomed love meets its end in political strife.


Trailer (no subtitles)

Cheerful Wind (風兒踢踏踩, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1982)

A leading figure of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has sometimes been regarded as difficult or inaccessible but there has always been a kind of playfulness in his wistful romanticism and it is not perhaps as surprising as it might first seem to realise that like many directors of his generation he began his career with a series of idol movies starring top Hong Kong star Kenny Bee. Cheerful Wind (風兒踢踏踩, Fēng Ér Tī Tà Cǎi, AKA Play While You Play) reunites him with Cute Girl co-star and Taiwanese chart topper Fong Fei-fei* who, in true idol movie fashion, sings the title tune the refrain of which is heard frequently throughout. For all that, however, it’s a surprisingly subversive effort in what is often regarded as a conservative genre, painting its heroine as a free spirited modern woman and refusing to punish her either for her breezy approach to romance or for rejecting marriage in favour of individual fulfilment. 

The heroine, Hsiao Hsing-Hui (Fong Fei-Fei), is a keen photographer working for an ad company currently shooting a commercial for detergent in a traditional seaside village. Whilst there she catches sight of Chin-tai (Kenny Bee), a musician she later discovers to be blind and, therefore, not catching sight of her as she had first assumed. Somewhat problematically, Hsing-hui decides to use Chin-tai in the commercial, an essentially exploitative action that plays into various unhelpful stereotypes about the blind as they hope to show that “even” those who cannot see are aware of their brand despite being unaware of the branding. She does something similar after unexpectedly running into him back in Taipei and “helping” him to cross a road he had no intention of crossing, but this does at least provide the opportunity of a second meet cute which kick starts their relationship. 

Hsing-hui, however, is technically already attached to nerdy colleague Lo Zai (Anthony Chan Yau) with whom she is living though apparently in separate rooms. He is keen to move things forward and has already quit his job with the intention of taking Hsing-hui to meet his mother in Hong Kong who has apparently been nagging, but she is in no particular hurry and has in fact already agreed to fill in for her brother teaching at the primary school in her home town while he goes to Australia for a tennis competition. 

This new focus on international travel perhaps symbolises the growing ambitions of a newly prosperous, globalising society. Hsing-hui’s dream is not marriage but to see the world, which is one reason she’s staying with Lo Zai in that they plan to tour Europe together and she fears she may never have another opportunity. Back in Taipei, meanwhile, when Hsing-hui’s country bumpkin father (Chou Wan-sheng) arrives to take a look at Lo Zai, they take him to eat pizza and drink Coca-Cola in a trendy restaurant but he finds himself doubly displaced. He speaks mainly Taiwanese dialect and struggles to understand the capital’s preferred Mandarin, quickly lost after failing to understand directions while trying to find the bathrooms at the station and enduring a series of comic misunderstandings while trying to converse with Lo Zai who hails from Hong Kong. In fact, the family aren’t really that keen on the idea of her marrying a Hong Konger, but in a pleasantly modern touch Hsing-hui’s father is quick to tell her that it’s her own decision and as long she’s sure he’ll support it. 

Chin-tai meanwhile jokes about a wife needing good teeth as if she were a goat or a horse being sold at auction and as sympathetic as her father is, he also brings up dowries while attempting to negotiate with Lo Zai who goes along with it but isn’t actually that invested in the “hassle” of marriage anyway. “I prefer the old ways, they were more romantic then” Chin-tai confesses, and to an extent Hsing-hui does too, a hippieish free spirit even in the country where she’s taken to task by her new boss for getting the kids to paint an undersea mural on the playground wall rather than the government approved slogans they were supposed to be reinforcing. For all of this drive and positivity, this is still a nation trapped under martial law and would be for the next five years which makes the tacit approval of Hsing-hui’s desire to seize her own destiny romantic and otherwise all the more subversive. What she gets is a universal happy ending with a man who has no desire to trap her and vows to wait while she achieves her dreams in the hope that she will then return to him. Hou’s second feature sees him flirt with youthful post-modernist aesthetics and is so absolutely of its time that it almost hurts, but for all of its essential fluffiness is also an infinitely breezy affirmation of a woman being absolutely herself and the men just dealing with it as she steps bravely into a freer future entirely of her own choosing. 


Cheerful Wind streamed in its new restoration as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Title song performed by Fong Fei-fei

*The standard pinyin romanisation of 鳳飛飛’s name is Feng Fei-Fei, but she is usually credited as Fong Fei-fei.

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Prince Charming (青蛙王子, Wong Jing, 1984)

Prince charming 84 poster“This isn’t a film from the 1930s!” a confused sidekick exclaims part way through Wong Jing’s zany ‘80s comedy Prince Charming (青蛙王子). He’s right, it isn’t, but it might as well be for all the farcical goings on in Wong’s hugely populist, unabashedly zeitgeisty romp through a rapidly modernising society. Starring popstar Kenny Bee, Prince Charming also marks the feature film debut of the later legendary Maggie Cheung who would find herself making a fair few disposable comedies in the early part of her career. All the Wong trademarks are very much in evidence from the sometimes crude humour to the random narrative developments and deliberate theatricality but it has its charms, even if perhaps despite itself.

Signalling the “aspirational” atmosphere right away, Wong opens in “Hawaii” with Kenny Bee performing one of the many musical numbers which will be heard throughout the film (which is also a kind of idol movie as well as a populist Shaw Brothers Comedy). Chen Li Pen (Kenny Bee) is the son of an oil magnate and hotel chain manager but unlike his father, is a sensitive, nerdy young man who gets the hiccups around attractive women and has never had any luck with the opposite sex. Nevertheless, his mother wants to set him up with an arranged marriage – something which he vehemently opposes but understands will become harder for him fend off if he can’t find himself a love match in good time. Enter his old friend Lolanto (Nat Chan Pak-Cheung) who is a self-styled ladies man if a bit “common”. Lolanto has come to Hawaii on holiday and to hang out with Li Pen, but like any young guy he also wants to meet some girls.

The guys end up in a kind of sparring match with the two ladies staying in an adjacent room at the hotel, May (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and Kitty, (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) following a series of misunderstandings. When the girls drug them and then somehow leave them on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the boys are humiliated but don’t have too long to nurse their wounds because Li Pen’s dad sends them back to Hong Kong to investigate suspected embezzlement at head office. As luck would have it, both May and Kitty work for Li Pen’s family firm (which was perhaps why they were staying in the hotel). Another misunderstanding sees May assume Li Pen is a former triad looking for a new start, so she “bribes” the hiring department to get him a job as a chauffeur, while Lolanto ends up in the boss’ office posing as Li Pen. Hilarity ensues.

Aiming a squarely for the populist, Wong’s defiantly aspirational vision revolves around the fabulously wealthy and internationalised Li Pen who went to college in the US and lives most of his life in Hawaii, perhaps not quite understanding Hong Kong in the same way Lolanto does, both because of his outsider status and because of the freedom his wealth gives him. When the two swap roles they each get a kind of education, but their real quest (while halfheartedly investigating the embezzlement scandal) is winning over Kitty and May who think they’re dating a CEO and a chauffeur respectively. Despite their irritation when they realise their mistake, both May and Kitty perhaps come to realise that the deception is a part of what eventually drew them to the guys and they’re a better match than they might otherwise have imagined.

Meanwhile, Wong finally remembers the embezzlement plot and introduces a third woman, Puipui (Rosamund Kwan Chi-Lam), who is secretly a plant set up to seduce the pure hearted Li Pen and marry him because this will in some way prevent the embezzlement scam from coming to light. Puipui’s scheme eventually kicks off the ridiculous finale in which the gang find themselves chased by goons and having to play pool for their lives with hostages hooked up to electric chairs which will be triggered when a certain number of points are scored. Wong adds a host of cutesy touches from cartoon hearts around our lovelorn heroes and adorable doodles popping up as on screen graphics while Kenny Bee and Cherie Chung also get a completely bizarre musical number at the midway point where they pretend to be happy frogs marooned on a private lily pad. It doesn’t make any sense, but it really doesn’t matter. Completely throw away, but strangely fun.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and perhaps other territories)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Cute Girl (AKA Loveable You 就是溜溜的她 Hou Hsiao-Hsien 1980)

f_10046820_1If you’re familiar with the name Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it’s probably for his role in the Taiwanese new wave and as one of the major directors of so called “slow cinema”. It might come as a surprise then that his first three movies were pop star vehicles, heavy on catchy tunes and universal humour but light on deep themes and social commentary. However, even if everything about his first film Cute Girl is intended to be just another run of the mill populist rom-com, many of the elements from Hou’s later films are already present from long lenses and longer takes to interesting ideas about composition and a noticeable town/country divide.

The story is predictable enough, poor boy Da-gang falls for wealthy Wen Wen who quite literally doesn’t give him a second glance. That is until she runs off to stay with an aunt in the country for a last holiday before her father has her married off to the son of an important businessman. Da-gang coincidentally ends up in the same village as part of a survey team for a new road (that’s going to go right through the middle of someone’s house). Being Da-gang he also gets bitten by a caterpillar and ends up being left behind to recover whereupon he begins a tentative romance with Wen Wen at last! However, disaster strikes when her father calls her home to meet her prospective husband – will Wen Wen and Da-gang ever find the happiness they deserve? The answer’s sort of obvious but it’s still fun finding out!

The film features pop stars Fong Fei-Fei and Kenny Bee (from Hong Kong) and is unsurprisingly heavy on pop music including the title track which recurs several times throughout the film. Though Cute Girl is undeniably formulaic and intended as nothing other than disposable entertainment hoping to capitalise on its stars profile and sell a few more records, the film has undeniable quirky charm. Full of strange, not quite slapstick humour and silliness you can’t help but find yourself hugely invested in the screwball style love story of Wen Wen and Da-gang.

No, it’s not a film for the ages. It doesn’t tackle the deep themes Hou would return to time and again in his later career but it does have a degree of heart and commitment that make it a very enjoyable example of the late ’70s/’80s Taiwanese musical romantic comedies.

For the extra curious, here is the undeniably catchy tune itself!