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IttDMB: Chinese Dance Films

May 7th, 2008 (10:28 am)

A few thoughts on dance in Hong Kong cinema...

D. Gordon

A few months back I got a chance to see A Century of Light & Shadow, a 2005 Hong Kong TV documentary on the first 100 years of Chinese film. It isn't perfect - it assumes some prior knowledge, it's a little overproduced, and it comes across as the type of project in which everybody in the business gets their three minutes of narration time - but it's still a good overview of the history and happenings in Mandarin and Cantonese films. It also includes an episode on musicals and dance.

As in the US, the introduction of commercial sound films in the 1930s brought an influx of musicals to the screen; however, unlike the US, they were based on traditional opera. Most in the West refer to the form as Chinese or Beijing opera, but they're much more regional and varied: Cantonese, Putonghua, Huangmei Diao, to name a few. These operas are usually based on traditional folktales; both performance and story date back centuries and are familiar to the average person. Time constraints around movies meant shaving down elements, such as songs and a bit of the story, but the tale would still be recognizable. And showing the familiar was one way of bringing in audiences.

Many many versions of many many tales have been made; even John Woo (yes, that John Woo) filmed Princess Chang Ping (Dinü hua, 1976), early in his career. These films are full of color and drama (and Woo's even incorporates some battles and explosions, the kind of things that would show up in the work he's now know for). Woo stuck with mostly stylized gestures, but many also contain dance sequences, with rows of ethereal maidens in pastel colored gowns. Dance wasn't usually the primary focus of the film, but the elements within the operas - the songs emphasizing character and plot, the vivid colors and costumes, the plot switchbacks - helped to set the stage for the dance movies to come later. They were popular culture, and they lasted long into the 1970s.

Starting in the 1950s, however, several trends came together to change the course of Hong Kong film. First was the political and economic situation in the colony after the World War II. As a longtime British territory, Hong Kong had long been open to international influences; the war and the Communist revolution only increased the forces buffeting it. Hong Kong is a peninsula off the People's Republic of China, and a number of refugees from the communist takeover located there; the population shift and the state's location both increased its importance as a point of contact between East and West and spurred rapid postwar industrialization. The resulting thirst to modernize, industrialize, and maintain strong historical ties with the West implied a thirst to emulate the West - not to become Western, but to become an international player in its own right. These desires eventually brought Hong Kong into the company of advanced industrialized nations - and had a clear impact on domestic culture.

In the meantime, trends in western culture spilled over into Hong Kong. The success of Hollywood dance musicals (think Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Show Boat) and club dances (think the mambo and cha-cha-cha) soaked into the sponge that was Hong Kong. Hollywood long had been a worldwide force and Hong Kong's openness made it fertile ground, especially among the younger generation. This combination of music / dance trends extended through the 1960s, into jazz, pop, and rock, and the younger generation lapped it up. Kids wanted to hear, dance to and see jazz and pop - although it didn't have to be Western produced - and the local movie studios made sure to oblige, churning out titles such as Mambo Girl, Mad About Music, and The Dancing Millionairess.

One example of the product of the time was 1967's Hong Kong Nocturne (Xiang jiang hua yue ye), a Shaw Brothers production about three sisters who sing and dance as backup for their father's magic act, and what happens when the act splits up. To feed the frenzy, it's a production with a capital P. And there are so many obvious references to Western dance in so much of this: a scene emulating Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," a song on the verge of bursting into "Oklahoma!," big production numbers a la Seven Bridesfor Seven Brothers.

Always pushing to make bigger and better films, and keep the audiences coming in (there was also tight competition between Cantonese and Mandarin films; and in the Mandarian market, between the Shaw Brothers and Motion Picture and General Investments Limited (MP&GI) studios), the studios added every innovation they could think of: Shaw Scope (a type of Cinemascope), costumes, plenty of extras. Personnel were sent overseas, especially to Japan, to learn new techniques. Foreign experts were brought in. (The writer / director of Hong Kong Nocturne is Umetsugu Inoue - a Japanese artist.) In order to produce the best and advance the industry much effort was expended...

...except it didn't always work. Actors were often working on 3-4 productions at once and could devote only so much time to any one in particular. It sometimes boiled down to a dance teacher coming on set, a rehearsal being held - and then as soon as the dancers got the basic steps down filming would start. (The leads seemed to have gotten a couple of days extra.) And it shows: the dancers are slightly off with their timing, so that movements are just out of synch. During that Monroe-esque dance sequence, the male dancers almost drop the star, Cheng Pei-pei's, legs. A dancer at the edge of the screen trips on her dress. It's possible that the mistakes show because this knowledge was acquired rather than developed; even Cheng Pei-pei, a very famous martial arts star trained as a dancer, admits to learning jazz dance during the production. The industry hadn't had the time for the new knowledge to filter through a domestic lens.

By the 1970s, dance was on its way out, at the end of its cycle, in part supplanted by other, more culturally traditional genres. Martial arts films in particular began to dominate the market; but even musical films switched to concentrating on the music rather than dance. Youth culture had moved on to pop / rock, and movies followed on its heels. The occasional dance film would come and go, but it wasn't until the mid-1990s that dance films once again started having some success on Hong Kong screens.

There have been several notable dance films since then; one recent example is 2005's Perhaps Love (Ru guo · Ai), a film within a film with a romantic triangle reflected through both. Nie Wen (Jacky Cheung), famous Hong Kong director, travels to mainland China to film a musical. The musical revolves around a young circus entertainer who suffers from amnesia; she's happy in the life she's made with the circus master, until her old lover appears, determined to win her back. Top star - and Director Nie's girlfriend - Sun Na (Xun Zhou), who's done some active forgetting of her own past, plays the amnesiac Xiao-yu; another top star, Lin Jian-dong (Kaneshiro Takeshi), plays the returned lover. Unbeknownst to Nie, Lin Jian-dong and Sun Na were lovers before either became famous... and Lin Jian-dong is just as determined as his movie counterpart to win her back.

Director Peter Chan took risks in making this film, and in fact this is the first musical made in mainland China in 35 years. Perhaps for that reason he downplays the dance elements: Chan in interviews refers to the film as a love story rather than a musical, and admits to using the device of a film within a film to balance what he calls the "over-the-top element in musicals" with the subtleties of film. But despite the PR, the movieis a dance film. And hallelujah, this time the dancers are more practiced, technically more proficient. They're actually more than practiced: the chorus is a huge crowd of all ages who put on a real show filled with lights, colors, and costumes. (The circus is the perfect setting for the interior movie.) They all sing and move together, and there's no more stumbling or near-drops. While actual dance is limited to the movie within a movie, there's still a tight sense of integration within the film, as the lines between the "film" and the story blur and the narrative become one whole. It's a well put together production, and can easily go toe to toe with any Hollywood film.

Interestingly enough, Chan (admittedly an independent filmmaker) made a very international film. The main actors, all A-list, cover Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and South Korea. Chan himself was born in Thailand and attended school in the United States (he currently lives in Hong Kong). The choreography was done by Bollywood's own Farah Khan (quite famous in her own right). Imdb credits China, Malaysia, Hong Kong as the country of production, and it was shot in the People's Republic.

The film has had a resulting level of international success, closing the Venice Film Festival and being chosen as Hong Kong's submission for the 2006 Academy Award for foreign film. It's the cream of the crop, and what cream... It's also a realization of those postwar aspirations - modernization and an international presence - and on Hong Kong's own terms.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 7th, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC)

Another informative, interesting article. I loved the clip of Perhaps Love and hope it signals more films of this kind from Hong Kong. The choreography is very sophisticated in the way it tells its story.


Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: May 7th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)

Thanks, Marilyn! It is a great film, and I'm hoping that the Hong Kong industry is moving away from its shyness towards the genre.

I've started wondering about the links between martial arts films and dance films; for example, a number of the female stars have dance backgrounds. Something to look into at a later date.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: May 8th, 2008 05:36 am (UTC)

I liked seeing the clip of from Hong Kong Nocturne. A couple of years ago I wrote about the Shaw Brothers and a couple of musicals starring Linda Lee Dai.

Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: June 19th, 2008 06:37 pm (UTC)

Sorry I didn't get to this before, but I'd love to see your writeup!

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