Hoger Mambo Girl: DVD (1957) ***'
Having seen a few fragments of “Mambo Girl”, I decided to pick up a copy and try. The movie starts very much as a music film, with mambo and songs giving lots of life’s pleasure and at first a more thin story of a student being known as “the mambo girl”, supported well by her parents who own a doll shop accompanying this. The dances are at first a bit clumsy but with the music and story the whole still convinces until here. Then before her 20th birthday a family secret is accidentally revealed, that she was in fact adopted. That is told by her sister, to a jealous girl. From here the whole associations field of possibly not being accepted as what happens with minorities, as being not part of the majority comes to mind. The girl looks for her mother but when she finds her, her true mother does not dare to show her true face. Still being accepted where she lives, at her return celebration, she dances the hell out of her in a scene where also the dances are much more real fun to watch. The whole emotions and the evolution of them in the movie and the people’s way of responding to situations, each in their own way is very recognisable, and in way and in all it’s simple story still manages to touch at moments. The singer also succeeds to show charisma and a good voice.
Full movie on http://www.viki.com/videos/220197v-mambo-girl
Info: http://brns.com/pages4/drama242.html :
Mambo Girl was released in 1957 – in black and white – and it was an enormous hit for the MP & GI film studio (later renamed Cathay). During the 1950s and the 60’s this studio was the main rival to the Shaw Brothers and had a similar studio system as well as a similar background. Like Shaw it too had its roots in Southeast Asia – the founder was Loke Wan Tho who inherited the family businesses and began expanding them into film in the late 1930’s when his family began establishing theaters in Singapore. After WWII Loke began distributing the British Rank films throughout Southeast Asia and continued building state of the art theaters until he owned 40 of them by 1951. By the mid 1950’s Loke had moved the film business into Hong Kong, purchased a studio lot and formed MP & GI to make primarily Mandarin films. They also began signing talent – beginning with writers like Eileen Chang, Chang Cheh and Stephen Soong – and then began looking for acting talent and signing them to contracts.
They specialized in recruiting actresses and built their success around a core of women who became huge stars – Grace, Linda Lin Dai, Jeanette Lin, Julie Yeh, Lucilla You, Betty Loh Ti, Li Mei, Christine Pai and Kitty Ting Hao. Their films were very women oriented – the male actors tended to be pale shadows of their co-stars – and they were for the most part comedies, romances, dramas and musicals with contemporary settings. Over the next ten years they released around ten to fifteen films a year of generally high quality and had a number of films that are considered classics today such as Wild Wild Rose, Air Hostess, It’s Always Spring, The Greatest Civil War on Earth, June Bride, The Battle of Love, Sun, Moon and Star, Our Sister Hedy, Sister Long Legs and of course Mambo Girl. By the mid-60's though the studio was on the decline – the studio head Robert Chung had resigned in 1962, Loke died in a plane crash in 1964 and the studio lost direction as the Shaws began to overwhelm it with their big budget films. By the end of the decade the studio was closed (sold to Golden Harvest).
There are two versions about how Mambo Girl came to be. One is that Grace Chang went to Taiwan to perform for the troops and her mambo dance so enthralled them that they began calling her Mambo Girl and this inspired scriptwriter (Yi Wen) to write the story. Grace herself says the idea was the result of an evening at a nightclub with Loke and others and she danced the mambo so well that Loke said a film should be made around her skill. At any point, it was decided to make a simple little film around Grace Chang and the mambo. And it made her a huge star and forever the Mambo Girl.
Born in 1934 in Nanjing, Grace (Ge Lan) grew up in Shanghai – trained in Peking Opera – and moved to Hong Kong with her family in 1949. Her film debut was Seven Sisters in 1953 and after a few more films she joined MP & GI in 1955. After she married in 1961 her career slowed down and she retired after The Story of Three Loves in 1964. She was also a very popular singer and released a number of albums and actually appeared on the Diana Shore show. In total she only made about 30 films, but a number of them are classics and she is well loved to this day. I guarantee that Mambo Girl will win her (she is still alive) a brand new set of fans.
I had previously seen pictures of Grace Chang – interesting face – sort of flat with a flared nose and a mouthful of teeth and a wide smile – but I would not have called her beautiful by any means. That’s because a still photo can’t begin to capture her immense charm, her myriad of lively expressions and her remarkably playful eyes that can enchant you one minute and devastate you the next. This is her film - she owns nearly every minute of it - and she creates a heartwarming portrait of youthful innocence that is astonishingly simple and yet completely captivating.
The film itself doesn’t have a story that you could hang your hat on. It is old fashioned in a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland sort of way where it is peopled by good friends, kind caring parents and a lovable younger sister. Much of the running time is taken up by song and dance numbers – the entry shot being a great close up of Grace’s checkered pant leg and white shoes set on a checkered floor from which the camera rises up as she dances the mambo surrounded by her classmates and breaks into song. The dance numbers in the film are very basic – nothing really flashy – but instead graceful and realistic. It is her singing and the joyful expression when doing so that is the real selling point – wonderful catchy Mandarin pop songs (termed shi dai qu) from Ji Xiangtang and Yao Min with titles like I Love Cha Cha, Mambo Girl, Have Fun Tonight and My Heaven - nine songs in total (along with an instrumental of the Pork Bun song!). The final ten minutes is a joyful blast of song and dance that ends as it began with the camera once again panning down on her dancing happy feet.
Grace is living a cloistered middle class life – going to music school where she is adored by Peter Chen and the rest of the school body – to the point where they sing a song to her – “You're a lucky girl. We call you the Mambo Girl. You are the sweetheart in your family. You are the queen in the school”. Her parents own a toyshop and love their two daughters deeply. Dark clouds set in when Grace learns that she was adopted and she goes to search for her birth mother (Tong Yeuk Jing) leaving her worried family behind. In the search she discovers what family really means. And that’s about it, but it is surprisingly effective at grabbing your heartstrings and this is primarily due to the wonderful sweet appeal of Grace and the characters that play her father (Liu Enjia) and her sister (Kitty Ting Hao).
Kitty Ting Hao is quite adorable as the younger sister - a bubbly-bouncing ball of high spirits – watch her in the last dance number as she radiates with a smile as large as a schoolyard. It was rather sad reading afterwards about her all too short life. Born in 1939 in Macau, she moved around quite a bit with her soldier father and picked up a number of languages (she actually intended to get into the Cantonese film arm of MP & GI but arrived late and so tried out for the Mandarin films). She came to Hong Kong in 1950 and made her first film (Green Hills and Jade Valleys) in 1956 for MP & GI. She became a teenage sweetheart star with roles in Mambo Girl, Little Darling (which became her nickname), The Greatest Civil War on Earth and You Were Meant for Me. A reputed romantic scandal with the studio head led to her leaving MP & GI by 1963 and she soon married. This did not last long though and in 1966 she left for Los Angeles where she committed suicide at the age of 27.
Another little note to watch for in the film is when Grace is looking for her mother in various nightclubs and she stops and watches a performer sing “Have Fun Tonight”. This is one of the few moments when the spotlight is not on Grace – instead it shines on this beautiful sleek singer Fang Yihua. She was a very popular singer at the time, but is now best known as Mona Fong – the wife of Run Run Shaw and the overseer of many of the Shaw films. One other musical number that takes place in the clubs is a great Latin flavored dance gyrating number from a Spanish or Brazilian dancer called Margo the Z Bomb! – who I assume was quite popular at the time.
I had a great time watching this throwback in time – film has changed so much since then as have the times – but when you are watching a Grace Chang on the screen none of this matters a whit – there are certain things that time can only enhance and Grace Chang with her head tilted back, her mouth wide open in smile and song would be one of those.
The DVD transfer is amazingly clean for such an old film and the sound is excellent. The ratio is 4:3 but I am informed that this was the same ratio that was presented at the HKIFF – but it looks odd to me. There are really no extras to speak of that are of any interest – wish Fonoroff had done a commentary on this one. It also would have been great if they had the songs separate in the menu so that you could just play them when you wanted.
Grace Chang was foremost an actress although she starred in musicals. Her movies were very popular in Singapore. She started from 1953 and after starring and co-starring in nearly three dozen movies like Mambo Girl, Spring Song, Air Hostess, Wild Wild Rose and Sun, Moon And Star her popularity soared and she was considered, for some time, the queen of musicals. her movies were very popular in Singapore.
Mambo Girl, reputedly conceived when Cathay Studio head Loke Wan Tho saw Chang dancing at a nightclub, is the film that catapulted Chang to stardom, extensively exhibiting her dancing skill. Stephen Teo in his book Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions says of Mambo Girl, “Hong Kong cinema found its most representative musical star-cum-actress and with Mambo Girl, Hong Kong cinema produced its first musical masterpiece” (1). Personally I don’t think Chang’s footwork is all it’s made out to be, but the poise with which she sells the latest imported steps is persuasive.
More disturbing is the subtext to be found in what otherwise may appear to be a teen melodrama plot serving as a perfunctory coagulant for the dance numbers. Innocent but spoiled party girl Kailing (Chang) overhears rumours of her orphan lineage, leading to a haunting, if dissonant scene where she envisions her birth mother as a peasant, in sharp contrast to her debonair, Western-clothed adoptive parents. Her search leads her to a washroom attendant who staunchly denies their biological link, even as she confirms it in solitude. Her Stella Dallas-esque sacrifice is a face-saving measure that subverts the New Society promises of the film – Kailing can be a symbol of the New Chinese Woman only if she doesn’t have a low-class family history to haunt her. Cheerfully reconciled with her adoptive parents and affluent classmates, Kailing launches into a ten-minute dance sequence in which she practically mambos the past out of her memory, even as her real mother watches through a doorway crack with sorrowful pride.
Born as Chang Yu Fang in Shanghai in 1933, Grace Chang moved with her family to Hong Kong in 1952. Two years later she auditioned for the Tai Shan film company and began her film career. Though a Mandarin speaker, she picked up Cantonese quickly (as well as English, for a role in "Soldier of Fortune" with Clark Gable). In the late fifties she reached superstar status, signing on with EMI's Pathe and starring in a spate of hits, including Mambo Girl, Wild, Wild Rose and Air Hostess.
Chang married in 1961 and retired from film in 1964.
Read also on http://www.tofu-magazine.net/newVersion/pages/MAMBO.html :
Paul Fonoroff : "My life was changed by Mambo Girl."
More info on Grace Chang : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Chang