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May 13, 2006

Hong Kong Nocturne


Xiang jiang hua yue ye
Umetsugu Inoue - 1966
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

Hong Kong Nocturne can't be faulted for trying to be ambitious. It's probably not fair to judge it against more polished American musicals. Inoue obviously wanted to equal Vincente Minnelli's creativity in Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Being a Shaw Brothers production, the budget was more appropriate for the equivalent of an Elvis Presley film like Harum Scarum. There are so many things wrong in Hong Kong Nocturne yet you end up liking the film for its embrace of its hokiness.

The first indication that something's not right is in the beginning with the montage of neon signs. Someone needed to know that there is such a thing as too many superimposed shots at one time. The story is about three sisters and their magician father. The "magic" in the film is crude even by the standards of George Melies. The "go go" dancing of the Hong Kong teens is as graceless as the gyrations of Jody McRae, the resident lunkhead of the Beach Party movies. Every half remembered cliche finds its way to the screen. One can either fight it, or simply enjoy the formula, knowing for example that Cheng Pei-Pei has seen husband Peter Chen for the last time when he has to catch a last minute flight to Japan and a typhoon hits Hong Kong minutes after he's out the door.

Not only is the film a Cantonese version of the "show must go on" musical, but it there are bits and pieces, usually from MGM musicals, that one could make a game of guessing which film Inoue has cribbed from. A rooftop number resembles something from West Side Story only with an obviously fake set, and a cast of six. The one brief moment that would not have passed in an American musical is a number performed by Lily Ho inspired by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Seen taking a bubble bath in a giant clam shell, Ho is seen from the distance exiting the bath, her nude backside visible through a sheer nightie held by two dancers. This bit is actually a variation of a very similar scene in the Joe Mankiwicz version of Cleopatra. My significant other always wonders why I bother watching movies through their entirety. Sometimes when watching a film, it's like being a miner who digs through all sorts of muck to uncover that little chip of gold.

Posted by peter at May 13, 2006 07:01 PM


"Sometimes when watching a film, it's like being a miner who digs through all sorts of muck to uncover that little chip of gold."
Nicely put! I'm guilty of the same miner's impulse...

Psst, Peter--Kelly/Donen did Singin' In The Rain

Posted by: girish at May 14, 2006 12:21 PM

I should edit myself better. I was thinking of the general MGM musical zeitgeist which peaked in the early Fifties.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at May 14, 2006 05:45 PM

Hi Peter, I just recently found your website and have been enjoying it greatly. I saw this film about two years ago at a Shaw retrospective in NYC and actually liked it quite a bit. I don't really remember it now (though I think I recall that Inoue was one of the studio's more talented directors, or at least more stylish), but this is what I wrote in my screening log at the time:

"Supposedly a frothy, generic Shaw musical, the first half of the film is in fact one of the darkest I've ever see for the genre, aligning performance with exploitation, prostitution, hustling, child abuse, and parental exploitation. At its best, Inoue's film is almost non-narrative in its bizarre, unexpected exposure of show business and domestic relationships. But even at its worst it still provides ample viewage of a very sweet Chen Pei-pei."

Posted by: phyrephox at May 14, 2006 10:06 PM

I know you just kind of panned it, Peter, but that still and the MGM comparisons are making me want to see this one!

Posted by: Campaspe at May 15, 2006 04:20 PM

The producer Run Run Shaw invited and Asked Inoue to remake former his films made in Japanese Studios. Hong Kong Nocturne was one of those product, based on Inoue's "Odoritai Yoru (Tonight We’ll Dance)"(1963/Shochiku) played by Yoshie Mizutani, Chieko Baisho, Haruko Wanibuchi as three sisters.

Posted by: tdc at May 18, 2006 05:55 AM