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June 24, 2010

The House of 72 Tenants

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Chat sup yee ga fong hak
Chor Yuen - 1973
IVL Region 3 DVD

At the time I saw Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, I was unaware that the main set, a group of tenement apartments sharing a courtyard, was inspired by The House of 72 Tenants. I was also unaware of the classic status of that film, not only as a source of inspiration for other Hong Kong comedies, but as the film that made Cantonese Chinese the prime language for Hong Kong films with its immense popularity. This was the film that bested Enter the Dragon at the box office in 1973.

Seen on DVD, this is also a film that might be best appreciated be seeing all of the supplements, the interviews with Chor, Bey Logan, and Hong Kong film critic Po Fung. Unlike many of the other Shaw Brothers films that have been made available for U.S. viewers, this is one film that is only available as a Region 3 DVD. In part, this can be attributed to the film not being the more exportable martial arts production. More problematic are certain cultural aspects that require some basic knowledge of both Chinese culture and Hong Kong at the time the film was made. The film also relies on word play based on Cantonese Chinese which cannot be conveyed with the subtitles.

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The origins of the film are from a mainland Chinese play that served as a condemnation of capitalism. Even though the film, adapted by Chor for the screen, is not openly didactic, the theatrical and philosophical roots are not difficult to identify. Every person and every thing can be reduced to its monetary value. The film takes place at a time when, save for a handful of altruistic people, even needed public services require payment in advance. Some of the neighbors band together to pool enough money for a mother to take her sick child to the hospital. Mistakenly called to put out a fire in one of the apartments, the firemen perform a little rhyme explaining that without payment, they would just assume have the building burn down. Even glimpsed through a window, one can see the difference between the stingy landlady's comfortably appointed apartment, and the rougher, more spartan living quarters of some of her tenants.

In addition to the disparity between those with money, and those without, is the conflict between those who feel entrenched in Hong Kong, and those who are still regarded as outsiders from the mainland. It took me a few minutes to realize that when the characters discuss changing their money, trading the yuan for the Hong Kong dollar. Most of the tenants have recently arrived in Hong Kong, and pointedly cooperate with each other, while those on the outside are guided by self interest, accumulating money through business, legal or illegal, bribery or theft.

The film was shot entirely on a giant soundstage. Even when the film takes place outside of the apartments and the courtyard, there is a sense of claustrophobia in the streets and alleys. The sea and sky are only briefly seen in the distance. Most of the cast is of actors who were part of the Shaw Brothers stable, with the best known, in small parts being Lily Ho near the end of her career, and Danny Lee, not too long after beginning his own still active career. There was a version of the play filmed in mainland China in 1963 that should also be of historical interest should it be ever be available to be seen again. A recent remake, The 72 Tenants of Prosperity is chock full of contemporary Hong Hong stars, including the daughter of Lydia Shum and a couple of the actors from Chor's film.

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Posted by peter at June 24, 2010 12:55 AM