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March 16, 2010

Death Traps

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Sha ji chong chong
Wang Tian-lin - 1960
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Death Traps is the Hong Kong version of one of those dames in distress movies that came out of Hollywood that were produced in the early to mid-Fifties, and usually starred Joan Crawford. The film might be as good an introduction as any to Helen Li Mei, one of the top Hong Kong stars of the mid Fifties through early Sixties. Unlike fellow Cathay Studios star Grace Chang, Li was just a few years older, and by Hong Kong standards, more openly sexual. The film isn't quite Hong Kong noir, but has some stylish touches by veteran Wang Tian-lin, with a screenplay by future martial arts auteur Chang Cheh.

Li plays the part of Jieyun, a woman of apparently independent means, and an alcoholic. Her boyfriend, Shouli, played by the stalwart Roy Chiao reminds her that he plans to marry of woman with good habits, and certainly not one who gets drunk every night. A date at a nightclub turns out badly when Shouli is seen sitting with the ditsy Meigui. Drunk and jealous, Li steps out with the gangster, Fatso Cai. Knowing Cai's underworld connections, Jieyun requests that Cai set up a hit on the woman that Shouli will marry, going so far as to write a check for Cai's services. Waking up the next day, resolved to stay sober, Jieyun finds herself engaged to Shouli, and unable to contact Cai.

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There are amusing scenes of accidents and encounters with strangers strike Jieyun as evidence that someone is after Meigui, and then herself, with a flower pot nearly falling on the chatty friend, and Jieyun panicked when fireworks explode while she exits the church following her wedding. There's a mysterious young punk, one of Cai's crew who is seen earlier, who coincidentally is on the same ferry when Jieyun and Shouli go on their honeymoon in Macau. Even stranger is that this man, with his ever present cocked hat and sunglasses, is also staying at the same hotel.

Among the echos of Hollywood films is the opening shot with Helen Li driving wildly drunk on a dark road, a nod to The Bad and the Beautiful. Wang's occasional use of overhead shots recalls a favored touch of Robert Aldrich. Within the context of a thriller, Li's (dubbed) singing to Chiao might recall Doris Day in The Man who Knew too Much. Wang makes nice use of dolly shots moving in on close ups of Li as well as utilizing framing devices within some of the shots. There is also one shot of Li's cheongsam dress rip on top that is relatively innocent by current standards, but no doubt inflamed many of Li's admirers fifty years ago. While one of the weaker aspects of the film was addressed by Chang Cheh in an interview, regarding the unrealistic treatment of alcoholism, it's the kind of flaw that doesn't get in the way of this very entertaining film.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 16, 2010 12:26 AM


Sounds interesting, specially to a mid-fifties Hong Kong cinema newbie.

Posted by: Tania at March 16, 2010 08:26 PM

Its really hard to see old style Chinese movie now. The feeling always different. Also the some dresses were beautiful.

Posted by: Lidiya at March 20, 2010 08:29 AM