The Wild, Wild Rose
English Title: The Wild, Wild Rose
Country of Origin: China
Director: Wang Tianlin
Producer(s): Robert Chung
Screenplay: Qin Yu
Cinematographer: Huang Ming
Editor: Wang Zhao-xi
Runtime: 128 minutes
Genre: Musical noir
Unemployed teacher Hanhua stands with fiancée Suxin outside the New Ritz nightclub where he reluctantly accepts work as a pianist, replacing Old Wang, whose wife is ill. Inexperienced Hanhua is mesmerized by singer Sijia’s ‘Habanera’ performance. A catfight ensues between Sijia and singer Meimei; Hanhua’s intervention angers her. A wager is struck between Sijia and her bandmates that Sijia can seduce Hanhua in ten days. Meanwhile, Fat Lin, sugar daddy of Sijia’s roommate Sherry, desires Sijia. She refuses, until she learns of Old Wang’s dire straits, so she sells herself to provide for his family. Sijia’s wild and seductive ways fail to win over Hanhua, but her good turn wins his heart, and surprising herself, she loves him too. They vow love forever, but he warns her never to leave him for another or he will kill her.
When the Cyclops, her criminal husband, reappears, a melee ensues, and the couple flees, believing Hanhua has killed him. Instead, he is only injured. Sijia waits while Hanhua does jail time. Reunited, the couple’s situation worsens as Hanhua’s drinking increases. Sherry discovers a destitute Sijia, and, disguising Sijia as Madame Butterfly, she arranges an audition for her. An overnight sensation, Sijia convincingly breaks with Hanhua, saying she has a new boyfriend supporting her, but really to save him from the Cyclops. Suxin and Hanhua’s mother also know of Sijia’s good heart, but inadvertently lead Hanhua to her at the new club, where he strangles her.
Over the opening credits, Deng Sijia, the ‘Wild Rose’ of the title, dances onstage, with her fancy footwork in close-up; this is her film, from start to (her) finish, and as such, she follows the line of doomed songstresses established by Zhou Xuan and Bai Guang. Mandarin musicals and melodramas dominated in Hong Kong from the 1940s into the 1960s, and the influence was so strong that a common saying was ‘a song in every film.’ What makes this one distinctive is that it is a musical noir. Director Wong Tin-lam, in collaboration with screenwriter Qin Yu and MP&GI general manager Robert Chung, chose the nightclub setting of many American films noirs. Shot in black-and-white, with creatively suggestive mise en scène and editing, the film moves in and out of shadows and cigarette smoke, exploiting low-key lighting with strong contrasts and stage lighting bringing various elements in and out of play. The songstress not only claims the stage space as her own, but invades the club space as she interacts with its clientele, and she is inexorably linked to disreputableness and danger, setting the tone and establishing pungent atmospherics where seduction, crime, and even love happen. Hardcore noir like Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) comes to mind. In that film, femme fatale Rita Hayworth performs a titillating ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ cum striptease, enticing men. Similarly, Rose manipulates her audience and toys with men, in particular Hanhua, making every word she sings count, from the expanding ‘L’Amour’ to the animalistic ‘Love’ and ‘Men,’ more spat out than sung in the ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen. She is aggressive, sexy, and on the prowl. The film-makers both satisfy the prevailing norm of strong female characters in an era when women ruled at the Hong Kong box office, and play with the makeup of the western noir protagonist, erasing the hardboiled male detective and replacing him with a strong but ultimately doomed woman.
Following the opening overture/credits, we get six musical numbers, mostly adapted from western opera, including Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, as well as a flamenco dance and a shi dai qu (Mandarin pop) number, ‘Jajambo,’ defining Hong Kong as an assimilation of East and West. The rearranged opera numbers modified rhythms but kept melodies intact and recognizable, and the lyrics close to the original but adapted to fit the themes of passion and destruction in relation to the modern, urbanized songstress. Chang’s singing and dancing strengths were highlighted, and because of her classical foundation and further training, she delivered. ‘Jajambo’ moves to the mambo beat of the modern. The operas, using diatonic scales and chromatic tone colouration, provide not only a nostalgic western element (established operas from a cultural canon used on a mid-twentieth century stage) but quote the exoticized East (the western operas’ depictions of and borrowings from the East) and Sinicized West (modernization transferred to Chinese tradition and culture). The ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen is sung in Mandarin and French; it dominates the film and establishes Rose as a wild seductress. But, as the final opera introduced, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly gets the last word, its suicide number achingly heartbreaking, due to Chang’s singing and acting abilities; close-ups reveal the tamed flower is well aware of the song’s meaning for her after sacrificing her happiness to spare her lover’s life. Ironically, Chang, cast against type as the bad woman, emerges triumphant and memorable in a woman’s picture in the mould of strong woman/weak male plotting in which she is destined to suffer at the hands of the very love she belittles for the majority of the picture. However, the unforgettable image and sound of her effervescent celebration of a woman in love in ‘Jajambo’ remains indelible, a happy ending, in a way.
Author of this review: Lisa Odham Stokes