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July 21, 2005

Les Belles

Qian jiao bai mei
Doe Chin - 1961
Celestial Pictures Hong Kong Region 3 DVD

I was seriously intrigued by the excerpts of older Hong Kong films included with the Criterion DVD version of In the Mood for Love. Just as seeing the films of the Nouvelle Vague sent me scrambling to see more American films from the forties and fifties, Wong Kar-Wai has me looking at the cinema of Hong Kong past. Certain historical aspects to Les Belles were for me more interesting than the film itself.

The film is an attempt to be a Hollywood style musical with Mandarin elements. Plot elements are from American movies or in some cases, the memory of musicals from various eras. The title is a variation of George Cukor's Les Girls (1957). The main story, about an antagonistic couple who are also unknowingly romantic pen pals, can be figured out faster than you can say Shop around the Corner (1940). A scene with the entire troup practicing a tap dance number looks so much like something from an early Busby Berkeley Warner Brothers musical that I almost expected James Cagney or Dick Powell to make an appearance.

The many musical numbers are more interesting as a presentation of popular culture in Hong Kong in the early sixties. The first numbers have a South American Carmen Miranda type flavor. A more modern dance had a large spider web on stage. I wasn't sure whether the dancers were flies or spiders though. There was also versions of Chinese opera which had the most elaborate staging. One scene also attempted to be abstact in the style of Singin' in the Rain. Instead of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse alone on an undefined set marked by changing colors, Les Belles has a solo pianist on stage with images of ancient China superimposed on screen. The featured musical number from the posters shows star Linda Lin Dai dressed as a Can-Can dancer suggesting that the film Can-Can (1960) had been a popular success in Hong Kong. All of the musical numbers are done on stage and director Doe Chin is unable to work around his budgetary and spacial limits.

More interesting than Les Belles is the story of star Linda Lin Dai. The closest comparison I can make is to say that she was the Hong Kong equivalent to her contemporary, Doris Day. Lin also won four Best Actress awards. According to the DVD commentary, Lin made over forty films from 1953 until her death by suicide in 1964 at age 29. Lin's death was as devastating to Hong Kong film fans as the death of James Dean in the U.S. with both stars dead at the height of their fame. That Maggie Cheung's hair in In the Mood or Love is done somewhat in the style of Lin's is hardly coincidental. At the very least, seeing Les Belles helps me deepen my appreciation of Wong Kar-Wai while I scratch the surface of Hong Kong film history.

Posted by peter at July 21, 2005 03:46 PM