A free-spirited nightclub singer’s dreams of love are shattered by fragile masculinity and an unforgiving society in Wong Tin-lam’s take on the classic opera Carmen, The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, yě méiguī zhī liàn). Where similar films of the era may paint the heroine’s plight as punishment for her subversion of societal norms, Wong’s musical noir implies that perhaps she was too good, too pure-hearted for the increasingly selfish and judgemental society around her while the man she loves is simply too weak to accept her transgressive femininity.
It’s with the man, Hanhua (Chang Yang), that we first enter the world of the EW Ritz cabaret bar. An “elite” English graduate, Hanhua has fallen on hard times and unable to find teaching work has been forced to take a job he sees as sordid and degrading as a pianist in a nightclub. He and his teacher fiancée Suxin (So Fung), literally the girl next-door, joke about it outside, Hanhua asking her if she’s worried about all the “pretty bad women” in such establishments and pointing at his engagement ring as an amulet of protection against predatory femme fatales. Once inside, however, he’s instantly captivated by the alluring singer, Sijia (Grace Chang), who nevertheless takes against Hanhua because unbeknownst to him he’s displacing her regular piano player, Old Wang (Lui Tat), who’s being let go by the greedy boss for showing up late because his wife is seriously ill.
Unable to accept such callous behaviour, Sijia tries to use her position to speak up on Wang’s behalf and almost loses her own job in the process while irritating her stage rival and the boss’ squeeze Meimei (Shen Yun). While Meimei sings a quiet romantic ballad on the dance floor, Sijia embarks on a crowd-pleasing, gender-bending routine in the bar which proves both that she is the star in this establishment and that she can bend the crowd to her will turning them on whoever she sees fit. After a fight breaks out, Hanhua finds himself physically restraining Sijia to prevent her from stabbing Meimei with an icepick. Though this originally annoys her, Sijia is quite clearly turned on watching Hanhua fight off all of the other men who rose up to defend her honour. Once he is wounded, she again asserts her authority by calling them off and proceeding to flirt with Hanhua who leaves with Suxin vowing never to return.
But as Old Wang had said, it’s tough to find a job these days and faced with his mother’s excitement about his new career prospects Hanhua has no choice but continue working at the Ritz. We can perhaps tell something of Hanhua’s background from the interior of his home which though modest has a large classical portrait on one wall and is otherwise neat and well organised. He evidently envisaged a conventional middle-class life for himself and is humiliated to have been reduced to a mere piano player in a backstreet bar, the kind of place that he sees as sordid and dangerous and would not ordinarily think of himself visiting. He sees Sijia in much the same way but perhaps stops short of admitting her danger, refusing to look at her or only with contempt while furiously denying his barely controlled desires of the kind which were perhaps unleashed by the fight at the bar.
Yet all the qualities which attract her to him are the ones he eventually wants to destroy in her rebellious goodness and refusal to follow the unjust rules of her society. She tells him point blank not only in her song but repeatedly to his face that she is a fickle woman who believes there are no good men and is essentially in this only for a good time for as long as it lasts. In fact, her interest in him largely stemmed from a bet with a guy at the bar that she couldn’t seduce him in 10 days, stung by his rough rejection of her after the fight. But Hanhua is too conventional a man to understand or accept her. He gives in to his desires after discovering that she slept with a rich man only to get the money for a life saving operation for Old Wang’s wife, witnessing her self-sacrificing goodness and therefore deciding that she is “worthy” of him after all. Ultimately he expects her to play the role of a conventional housewife, refusing to allow her to continue singing in nightclubs even while he is unable to find another job having served time in prison for bludgeoning her abusive ex. His fragile masculinity had also caused him to blow up at Suxin when she went to the headmaster at her school and asked him to give Hanhua a less degrading job, humiliated to have a woman beg for him just he is humiliated to be supported by Sijia and especially by her doing a job he thinks is somehow improper.
It is not Sijia who ruins Hanhua, but Hanhua himself and the toxicity of conventional social codes that feed into his sense of resentment. His obsessive desire to possess Sijia, to dominate and tame her, drives him to drink and uselessness to the point he completely degrades himself, pathetically pleading with Sijia not to leave, prepared to allow her to return to work or even take other lovers if only she does not abandon him. Sijia meanwhile is in a sense tamed by her love for Hanhua in that she decides that love is sacrifice, that she must live a more conventionally proper life as Hanhua’s wife and eventually that she must separate from him in order to preserve his future. In this she is redeemed in the eyes of Suxin and Hanhua’s mother who realise that she is a good woman who genuinely cared for Hanhua, but is finally done in by her goodness. Her morality cares nothing for properness and all for humanity, her kindness to Old Wang and her best friend eventually repaid while all Hanhua can think of is a redemption of his masculinity through violence driven just like Don José to the peak of madness in obsessive love. But there’s more than just inevitable tragedy in Sijia’s fate, there is a deep sense of injustice and that Hanhua’s actions were as much about stifling her transgressive goodness as they were about vindicating himself as a man which in any case is only pathetic in its unrighteousness. Masterful in its musicality, Wong’s romantic noir positions its heroine as dangerous but only because she is better than the world around her and the world around her knows but does not want to see.
The Wild, Wild Rose screens in Amsterdam on 27th/29th/31st October as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.