In his essential book Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell examines a sequence in the 1986 film Peking Opera Blues where director Tsui Hark deftly coordinates the movements of his actors as they try to remain hidden from an inquisitive father (three of them, two men and a woman, are in his daughter’s bed and at least two of them shouldn’t be). It’s a short scene, only a couple of shots over a couple of minutes, and Bordwell uses it as an example of the simple virtuosity of Hong Kong filmmakers, how they are able, again and again, to make an exciting and fun sequence out of almost nothing, budget-wise, and specifically how Tsui’s mastery of cutting and framing keeps the whole sequence as light and airy as it is inexpensive. Peking Opera Blues’s less well-known precursor, the 1984 film Shanghai Blues, is essentially a feature length version of that scene.
The film opens with the night in 1937 when the Japanese bombing of Shanghai begins and the whole city erupts in panic and fire. Kenny Bee (popstar and star of a pair of euphoniously titled but not very good early Hou Hsiao-hsien films, Play While You Play (aka Cheerful Wind) and The Green Green Grass of Home) and Sylvia Chang (one of the brightest stars of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s, she’s also well an accomplished screenwriter (All About Ah-Long) and director (Tempting Heart, 20 30 40) find themselves under a bridge across the harbor from the rest of the city, which we see only in the kind of hallucinogenic orange William Cameron Menzies brought to the middle climax of Gone with the Wind. Bee and Chang, despite the fact that they can’t see each other, share the kind of blindingly momentous romantic moment war seems to inspire (see also, for example, Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock or Mervyn LeRoy’s 1940 Waterloo Bridge). They are quickly separated by the crowd, but vow to meet again at the same spot when the war is over. The rest of the film is then set in the chaotic interregnum between the end of World War II in 1945 and the end of the Civil War that would bring the Communists to power in 1949. Bee, a returned veteran, is trying to make it big as a songwriter while failing at a variety of increasingly clownish odd jobs (we saw him briefly as a literal clown in the prologue, now he’s a tuba player in a marching band, later some weird kind of promotional thing where he pops out of a box and plays a bugle). Rather than pay attention to his work, he tends to wander off whenever he sees a girl he thinks might be the girl from the bridge. One such woman turns out to be Sally Yeh (best known in the US as the woman Chow Yun-fat accidentally blinds in The Killer, and now that I wrote that, that song she sings is stuck in my head again), newly arrived in town and about to have her pocket picked. Bee gets the thief, but loses the girl, then the thief gets away with Bee’s own money. Then Yeh meets Chang, now a streetwise and weary showgirl, and ends up moving in with her, into a tiny apartment that just happens to be a floor below Kenny Bee’s home. The rest of the film will then follow various combinations of the three central characters and their inability to see each other.
Far too many people squeezed into ramshackle apartments where, despite the forced proximity, nobody ever really manages to see anyone else clearly. At least nobody on-screen: Tsui is careful to make all the action and failed interaction perfectly legible for the audience: we always know more than any given character at any given time. Tsui plays out the comic misapprehension scenario a few times in a few different ways as we get to know the three characters and familiarize ourselves with the spaces of their apartments. In an early scene, Yeh and Bee both go to the roof to hang laundry and just barely miss seeing each other. When she finally does see him, she almost loses her balance and, as she looks over the edge she hadn’t noticed to the street below, exclaims “Look where I may have fallen!” The film’s most extraordinary segment comes about halfway through. Chang and Bee, still not recognizing each other, are caught in the rain and he invites her to his room to change into dry clothes (he accidentally catches a glimpse of her changing, leading to consternation and profuse apology). Then Yeh, who now has a crush on Bee, pops in to visit him, which sends Chang into a closet. Then a buddy of Bee’s shows up, which sends Yeh into the same closet, but a separate part where she can’t see Chang. And while all this is going on, that same pickpocket from the beginning of the film is skulking about the edges of the frame, just out of sight of everyone but the audience. It is as perfect an example of the choreography of physical comedy and physical space, the comedy of escalation, as has been seen since the days of Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy.
This kind of romance, where the two heroes can’t see each other though they occupy the same space (same frame), dates back at least as far as Paul Fejos’s 1928 Lonesome, and Tsui appears to be specifically riffing on this tiny subgenre. The early shot of Bee and Chang’s separation in the crowd in particular recalls that early sound film, where the chaotic urban mass drives the lovers apart despite their (and our) strong desire to see them united. Johnnie To’s 2003 film Turn Left, Turn Right, one of his most underrated films (even among his romantic comedies, which are of course underrated as a whole. I think maybe it has a lower profile because it lacks any of his signature stars, with Takeshi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung instead of Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau or Louis Koo), follows that tradition as well, even adopting Lonesome‘s conceit that the two destined lovers are unwitting neighbors, sharing not only a building, but a wall. In Lonesome, the heroes just miss each other through their parallel stories, but they rarely share the same filmic space.
In Shanghai Blues, they’re almost always in the same space, often literally not seeing each other but just as often looking right at and not recognizing each other, while at the same time every peripheral character in the film seems to be actively attempting to avoid being seen by someone else. A timid young girl at the nightclub where Chang works hides from a lecherous gangster. Yeh mistakenly joins a modeling audition (a Calendar Girl-type contest) and is appalled by people looking at her (and then when she later gets the job, she’s mobbed by men everywhere she goes – her fame has made her unable not to be seen). Even the film’s only really villainous character is a rich guy who tries to roofie Yeh at a party. True to form he first drugs the wrong woman, then when Yeh gets drunk and passes out anyway, the bad guy still manages to sleep with the wrong woman. (An aside: I have no idea why, but drug-induced date rape appears to have been in the air as a plotline in 1984 Hong Kong, you can find it as well in Patrick Tam’s bizarre romantic comedy Cherie, where Chor Yuen keeps trying and failing to drug Cherie Chung). In the To film no one is intentionally hiding, it is instead apparently chance and fate (and the machinations of other potential lovers) that prevents the destined couple from meeting, though through much of the film we see them together in the same frame. Tsui sets his avoidance dances in confined spaces (tiny apartments, backstage dressing rooms), but To’s are set out in the open: a fountain in a public park, a street corner, a sidewalk (a similarly choreographed scene plays out as well early in Romancing in Thin Air, itself a kind of compendium of all of To’s romantic comedies, where Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo wander outside the grounds of the hotel, oblivious to each others’ presence despite occupying the same film frame).
This idea of seeing and not being seen seeps into every corner of Shanghai Blues, a film about a brief space between two apocalypses. In the other two films, there is a force that keeps the lovers apart, and the films are as much about the things that control us as they are about romance and love. Lonesome is all about the city as labyrinth, a part of the city symphony subgenre of films in the late 20s and early 30s (Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, À Propos de Nice, People on Sunday, even Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) a time of rapid urbanization throughout the Western world. As people flocked from the farms and the countryside to new, anonymous urban centers, cut off from the family and communal structures that had supported their lives for generations the fear of becoming lost in the crowd (or The Crowd) was palpable. Turn Left, Turn Right is about chance and fate, the interplay of which forms one of the thematic cores of To’s work, expressed across genres in romantic comedies and gangster epics alike. But in Shanghai Blues there is no outside force at work, but rather chaos itself. They’re seen and not seen not because of some sociological or metaphysical interplay, rather the choreography of the comedy sequences is an expression of the contradictions of their impossible lives. The lovers find themselves in a world that’s lost all its moorings, a world defined by the dislocating effects of war and an irrational, tragic hope for the future. A world where everyone is trying to keep their head down and get by, hoping nobody notices them, while they dream of becoming a star. It’s about people who have just barely lived through one war and aren’t sure that what comes next won’t be much, much worse. Two key quotes: First from one of the band of disabled and homeless veterans who now live under Chang and Bee’s bridge: “We didn’t survive the war just to die here. Our time will come.” Second from Chang herself, as she turns down an old friend who proposes to her as he’s leaving Shanghai for Hong Kong. He asks if he has any hope. Her reply: “I have hope. If I give it to you, I won’t have any more.” Their world is the in-between, defined by contradiction, controlled by chaos. They are here and not here, visible and invisible, smashed together and pulled apart.
Like most Hong Kong comedies, actually like most Hong Kong films in general, Shanghai Blues is broad in every sense of the world. The colony is a world of extremes and that’s reflected in its cinema: garish, gorgeous, vulgar, sublime, bloody, lush, romantic, nihilistic. Tsui Hark, a dominant force in Hong Kong film for almost 40 years now, embodies each and every one of those extremes, often all smashed together within the same 100 minute film. In his best comedies (the two Blues films and 1985’s Working Class, as well as 1995’s Love in the Time of Twilight), the cartoonish slapstick is leavened with intricate plot structures, intricately constructed set-pieces and an earnest wistfulness underneath a youthful strain of punkish anarchism. Peking Opera Blues ends with its heroes, having (finally) joined together to save the day, riding off vowing that they’ll meet again soon, though we know with historical hindsight that the contingencies of the wars (the film is set in the years just before the Japanese invasion) make that extremely unlikely. Similarly, when two of the heroes of Shanghai Blues leave the others behind as they board the train for Hong Kong, we know they too will never see each other again. Just another pair of couples here and gone, lost in the churn of history.
And then as the one train leaves, another pulls into the station. A young woman gets off, wearing the same plain dress that Yeh wore when she arrived in Shanghai, the same dress Chang wore when the bombs started falling. As Yeh had been, she’s pushed by the crowd to a giant billboard display, an advertisement for night club where a giant arm holding a fan swings back and forth across an image of a half-naked woman. She joins the motion of the crowd, their heads bobbing back and forth, left to right in perfect time with the movement of the inverted pendulum.