Our Sister Hedy

English Title: Our Sister Hedy

Country of Origin: China

Studio: MP&GI

Director: Doe Ching

Producer(s): Robert Chung, Stephen Soong

Screenplay: Doe Ching

Cinematographer: Charles Tung

Art Director: Rex Fay

Editor: Wang Zhaoxi

Runtime: 114 minutes

Genre: Comedy

Year: 1957

Volume: Chinese

Synopsis:

A year in the lives of the Kong sisters sees heartbreak, jealousy, matrimony and humour. Hilda, the eldest, constantly has her boyfriends stolen by vampish second sister Helen. Youngest sister Susu, not yet eighteen, is the first to be married, further rocking the wedding boat in the Kong household. In the middle of it all is meddling third sister Hedy, whose good intentions lead her to playing matchmaker, but distract her from her own romantic pursuits. Swarming the Kong nest are young men taken and rejected at the whims of the sisters, as well as the quiet, widowed patriarch who provides moral support when sisterly quibbles get out of hand.


Critique:

Along with Shaw Brothers, the MP&GI studio was famous for Mandarin-dialect comedies about urban life, and Doe Ching’s Our Sister Hedy is one of MP&GI’s most enduring successes. The film shares with the wenyi (romance melodrama) genre many of the concerns regarding ethical female behaviour, but more memorable than the ultimate resolution is the film’s lively depiction of the four daughters, each with their own take on what a young woman should be in post-war Hong Kong. Hilda is a soft, cautious talker. As the eldest daughter in a family without a mother, she chooses her words conservatively and seriously, always hesitating in life to maintain a good example for her younger sisters. When she finally smiles, the room lights up, and youth returns to her face. Second sister Helen has a sinewy way of talking, sneakily changing volumes and pacing mid-sentence, as if trying to maintain the upper hand in any conversation. She is a seductress, using her voice (and her body) to hook any handsome man that comes her (or her sisters’) way. Played by Julie Yeh Feng, Helen holds her chin up, with eyes forwards, as if always on the prowl. In another movie, she would be the femme fatale, though director Doe Ching does find moments in this romantic comedy for her to perch in noir shadows.

Third sister Hedy, played by Jeanette Lin Tsui with so much verve that her character made it into the film’s English title, is a tomboy with Audrey Hepburn hair and a schoolgirl blouse. She is a straight talker, spitting crazy schemes and sisterly advice with verbal velocity and directness. Hedy brings energy to everything she does (her eyes dart about quickly and she never walks when she could scurry), and brings energy to everyone else (she cooks up plans for her sisters and uses song to teach her young students to fence). Equally at home playing mixed doubles on a tennis court and playing chess with her widowed father, Hedy loves company and company loves her, though her stubbornness in her principles means she often oversteps by meddling in her sisters’ business. Lastly, youngest sister Susu (also called Hazel) is Hedy’s opposite: a slow talker with a blank way of enunciating each word. If Hedy has a stockpile of sneaky smiles that say she is up to no good, Susu’s one-note grin says she is game for anything, be it playing along with Hedy’s schemes or assenting to marriage.

Mother, vamp, tomboy, and innocent make for enough amusement to fill a feature, a sequel (Wedding Bells for Hedy [1959]), and a loose remake (Eat Drink Man Woman [1994]). In Our Sister Hedy, the comedy frequently derives from the characters’ interactions with the modern world. The film is a comedy of consumption (as in the opening scene, where a shop-owner allows the sisters to independently and unknowingly buy their father the same birthday gift) and a comedy of technology (as in the multiple moments of eavesdropping during phone conversations). In fact, many of the film’s simple pleasures come from the splendours of consumerist modernity. The Kong family has a giant, high-ceilinged house, unusual in cramped Hong Kong but not unusual in the cinema of MP&GI. They throw a Christmas party complete with decorations, music, a Christmas tree and dancing. The daughters are impeccably fashionable in their own ways: Hilda with her white gloves, Helen with her come-hither earrings and bared shoulders, Hedy with her shorts and pants, and Hazel with her teenage plaid. Marital success is measured by cosmopolitan achievement. After losing two previous boyfriends to Helen, Hilda snags a jet-set Europe-educated scientist living in Macao. Hazel marries an airplane pilot, and proves her worth at the end of the film by becoming a flight attendant. For 1950s Hong Kong, Our Sister Hedy represented a utopic vision of family and career improvized in a moment of social change, with all the youthful flair of its titular heroine.

Author of this review: Brian Hu