The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, Wong Tin-lam, 1960)

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.

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)