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December 08, 2009

Mambo Girl

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Man bo nu lang
Yi Wen - 1957
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Mambo Girl begins and ends with shots of Grace Chang's feet. Chang is mostly now remembered for her singing, primarily in as part of the soundtrack for films by Tsai Ming-liang. Most of the musical numbers in Mambo Girl are solo performances with Chang singing and dancing to an appreciative audience of her friends from school. This is the first film I've seen starring Chang, part of my own burgeoning interest in older Hong Kong cinema, as well as an interest in Hong Kong and Asian musicals.

Mambo Girl also has some links to the more polished wide screen musicals from the Shaw Brothers. A scene in a nightclub features Mona Fong, at the time a singer, several years before she transitioned to become an accomplished movie producer. Male lead, Peter Chen Ho starred in several Shaw Brothers musicals, although he was always overshadowed by the female stars.

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Even if the film is no more accurate in reflecting its time any more that an MGM musical of the same era, it offers an interesting glimpse into Hong Kong popular culture, as well as a display of why Grace Chang was so popular. Chang plays Kailing, the most popular girl in school. On the eve of her 20th birthday, she discovers she has been adopted. With her sudden collapse of self-identity, Kailing seeks out her real parents. From the adoption agency, she learns her biological mother's name, and from the mother's former neighbor, is told that the woman might be working at a nightclub. Kailing finds a woman who might be her mother, indeed working at a nightclub, but as a washroom attendant. A school friend's mother, a widow, shares how one of Kailing's songs has been a source of encouragement, and in turn convinces Kailing to return to her adoptive parents. Kailing, her family and friends, all reunite for a big dance party on the night of Kailing's birthday.

As in something like Don Weis' Affairs of Dobie Gillis, too many of the "kids" look too old for the part. Unlike an MGM musical though, Mambo Girl does have some realism when Chang takes to the streets in search of her mother. The film offers a peak into the lives of Hong Kongers with a scene in a slum where Kailing's mother had formerly lived, as well as Kailing's solidly middle-class home on top of her adoptive father's toy store, and the mansion of her clearly more prosperous boyfriend. The two scenes in nightclubs provide an interesting contrast, between Mona Fong's conventional staging, and a scantily clad, non-Asian dancer whose appearance demonstrates some universality in exoticism and eroticism, from an Asian point of view. It is the crisscrossing of similarities and differences, of Chinese culture, Hong Kong life and a Hollywood genre, that makes Mambo Girl fascinating.

David Bordwell has some observations on director Yi Wen. Bordwell discusses the use of mirroring in Spring Song. More literally in Mambo Girl is the use of mirrors in two key scenes. When Kailing first discovers the truth about her birth, she sees herself in three reflections. In the scene where Kailing finds the woman who may be her mother, at one point we see not the women, but their reflection on a mirror. One might interpret these two scenes as the concrete idea of self-reflection as well as raising the question as to whether we see ourselves as others see us.

In his description of Mambo Girl on behalf of the Udine Film Festival, Simon Ko interprets the extended dance number at the end as showing "a household ruled by entertainment is in denial of reality". I would think that the song and dance would be the point, that the film was offering a bit of a respite for the Hong Kong audience, especially with Chang singing about overcoming adversity with perseverance and an optimistic attitude. That Mambo Girl would be popular with a teenage audience is no surprise as Kailing never has to fight for her right to party. Her adoptive father reminds the cranky woman next door that Kailing studies hard at school the rest of the week. In a culture where family harmony is prized, Mambo Girl offers the reassurances that the kids are alright.

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Mambo Girl is available individually or part of the "Grace Chang Collection" from HK Flix.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 8, 2009 12:12 AM