10 classic Chinese romances
2005-03-14 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew Huang
If life is a journey of intertwining joys and pains, then the fortitude needed during those low points is essential for survival. For anyone going through a forlorn period, there are few better ways to relive your past highs than by experiencing it vicariously through a movie - the dream-making machine designed to send us flying past the ruins of our emotional past.
Maggie Cheung, left, and Tony Leung in "In the Mood for Love." Most of the time, a memorable romance works best with a sad ending because nothing moves the audience more than unrequited love. That said, a few happy-ending movies also make this list.
All the classic Chinese romance movies appeared in the second half of the 20th century because greater China was too fraught with political turmoil to concern itself with romance during the first half century.
1. The Kingdom and the Beauty
Directed by the celebrated costume drama master Li Han-Hsiang, "The Kingdom and the Beauty" in 1959 recounts the ancient folk tale about the playful Chen Te of the Ming Dynasty, who dresses up as an ordinary civilian for fun and ends up falling in love with a ravishing beauty Li Fong in the country side. After the romantic courtship, King Chen Te goes back to the imperial court and returns to his old ways of frolicking and womanizing. Realizing that her beloved king would not come back, Li Fong is heartbroken and falls ill. At the behest of Li Fong's brother, the remorseful king orchestrates a lavish wedding carriage to go to the country to propose to Li Fong. Unfortunately, upon his arrival, the king gets enough time only to profess his love for Li Fong before she dies.
"The Kingdom and the Beauty" is made in the Chinese musical style "Huang Mei Tiao" or "Yellow Plume Tune" that was in rage in the 50s and 60s. Shaw Brothers Studio's top superstar Lin Tai portrays the role of Li Fong. The legendary Lin Tai possesses that rare combination of Caucasian sculptured facial features and Asian elegance. During her reign at the Shaw Brothers as its top leading lady, the beauty starred as the female lead in the studio's every major production. However, despite her superstardom from all those romance movies, her personal life was played out like one of her more heart-wrenching movies. Lin commited suicide at the age of 31.
2. "Madam White Snake"
Directed by Yue Fong, "Madam White Snake" in 1962 recounts the popular tale of a forbidden love affair between a white snake and a handsome male student. Set in Soong Dynasty, the story is about a white snake which has practiced Taoist magic for 1,000 years in order to take the human form. White encounters the handsome Hsu during a journey in the famed West Lake. The two fall in love, become married, and have a child. Unfortunately, one day a monk named Fa passes by, recognizes the snake, and vows to break up their union. Angered by Fa's threat, White goes to Fa's Gold Mountain Temple to wage a battle with her supernatural power. With a new pregnancy weakening her power, White loses the fight. Fa imprisons White under a giant Bell. Unable to help his beloved wife, Hsu crashed himself against the bell and dies.
Released by Shaw Brothers, the movie's lead is again the legendary Lin Tai. The classic romantic scene is the West Lake encounter where Hsu borrows an umbrella from White while sailing on a boat in the rain.
3 "Love Eterne"
"Love Eterne" in 1963 is the all-time most popular love story in Chinese history. It's been called the Chinese equivalent of "Romeo and Juliet" except that it's aimed at adult audience. More aptly, it's the Chinese equivalent of "Gone with the Wind" - the all-time most popular Chinese movie if you factor in inflation and ticket sales.
The story of "Love Eterne" recounts the forbidden love affair between the poor male student Liang and the heiress Tsu. Set against China's Soong Dynasty when women were expected to learn only the wifely crafts such as cooking and embroidering, Tsu dons male attire in order to go to study in an academy and falls in love with Liang. After graduation, Liang promises to visit Tsu but is delayed. When he arrives at Tsu's family, he finds the beautiful and saddened Tsu already betrothed to a man from another wealthy family by her parents. Liang goes back home depressed and dies shortly. On her wedding day, Tsu jumps out of her wedding carriage half way and jumps into an abyss miraculously opened up by the tomb of Liang. The two lovers' spirits fly away together as butterflies.
There have been numerous movie or TV version of "Love Eterne." The most popular and definitive one is the 1976 movie version directed by master Li Han-Hsiang. The movie was so popular that audiences lined up for blocks in order to purchase the tickets. Many fanatics even went to see the movie in theaters 10 to 20 times. In an interview with the New York Times three years ago, Ang Lee also cited "Love Eterne" as the movie that influenced him the most.
4. "Outside the Window"
Brigitte Lin, the most famous female star and the love goddess of the Chinese world, made her film debut in this movie in 1972. Adapted from the best-selling debut romance novel by Taiwan's Chiung Yao, "Outside the Window" is a semi-biographical story about a young female student who falls in love with her teacher and ends up marrying him. However, after the marriage and a child, the heroine is forced to seek divorce and walk out on her family due to social pressure.
This debut novel jumpstarted Chiung Yao as the most successful romance novelist of all time in modern China while the movie catapulted Brigitte Lin as the most successful Chinese female star in the 20th century. Because of its controversial subject matter of teacher-student relationship, this hugely famous movie was banned and was rarely seen by the audience.
5. "Dream of the Red Chamber"
Directed again by master Li Han-Hsiang, this 1977 movie adaptation of the acclaimed and popular Chinese novel is considered the best version among the numerous adaptations. The story of "Dream of the Red Chamber" tells the interweaving love stories, friendship and enmity among a cast of over a 1000 characters in an aristocratic family in the late Ching Dynasty.
A young Brigitte Lin dons the male costume to portray the male lead Chia Pao-yu while the young Sylvia Chang portrays the female lead Lin Tai-yu. The core of this adaptation is the romance between Chia and Lin. Chia and Lin grow up together and have come to consider each other life mate. However, at the night of Chia's wedding, he discovers that he has been tricked and that the real wife the family has arranged for him is the other cousin Pao Tsai. Betrayed, the fragile Tai-yu ends up dying. Facing the death of his beloved and a newly discovered corruption case that threatens to undo the entire clan, the disillusioned Pao-yu becomes a monk and disappears.
In 1977, seven different movie studios in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan all announced their plans to make a movie adaptation of "Dream of the Red Chamber." The race was, and studios scrambled to complete the movie and produce the best version. In the end, several small studios and TV stations released their version of "Dream of the Red Chamber" all in 1977. However, when master Li's movie opened, audiences flocked to the theaters and made it an instant classic.
6. "An Autumn Tale"
This romance classic in 1987 is directed by the acclaimed art-house Hong Kong auteur Mabel Cheung with superstars Chow Yun Fat and Sherie Chung as its leads. In the greed decade of the 80's when romance was out and gangster flicks, action films and ironic comedies were in, this classic worked through the audience's cynicism to become a hugely popular romance movie.
"An Autumn Tale" recounts an unlikely romance between an attractive Hong Kong student studying in New York and a street-smart but sincere guy Boat who makes his living by bullying his way through the Chinatown streets. Li is a beautiful college student who moves from Hong Kong to study in New York in order to accompany her boyfriend, a handsome but womanizing heir of a wealthy family. Upon arriving in New York, Li finds out that her boyfriend has landed a new girlfriend already and is moving to Boston.
Heart-broken, Li spends her days in a dazed state. Concerned and smitten by this girl from a differerent world, Boat takes Li out to cheer her up. An unlikely romance starts to blossom between these two. On the day of Li's birthday, Boat prepares a party for her. Unexpectedly, Li's ex-boyfriend shows up to claim that he still loves her. The next day, Li moves to Boston with her ex boyfriend.
Years later, Li comes back to New York to take a stroll on a beach with her niece. Li tells the niece that she used to have a dear friend who dreamt about opening a pier restaurant on this beach. The curious niece asks, "do you mean the restaurant over there?" Li shows up at the entrance of the restaurant with Boat ecstatic but speechless. Finally, he manages to utter the sentence "table for two?"
Chow has since moved on to become an international superstar mainly working in Hollywood. Chung has retired but continues to be movie legend chased by fans and the media.
7. "A Chinese Ghost Story"
Produced by Hong Kong master Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-Tung, "A Chinese Ghost Story" in 1987 tells the forbidden love story between a beautiful female ghost and a poor male student. Adapted from a short story from China's ancient ghost fable collection "Liao Tsai Chi Yi," the screenwriter's outlandish turns the original four-page story into a full-fledge cinematic masterpiece.
The story starts with an astonishing prelude of a mysterious beauty who tempts a male student and then sucks his spirit and blood dry. This ravishing beauty is a ghost named Hsiao Chien who is controlled by a 1,000-year-old tree monster who uses her to seduce innocent males and drain away their spirits. Hsiao Chien encounters the gentlemanly student Ning and falls in love with him. However, a monk who lives nearby decides to interrupt and kills Hsiao Chien but finds out that she is a ghost with a kind heart. A final showdown between the tree monster camp and the monk proves that justice wins when the monster is killed. However, it's time for Hsiao Chien's ghost to leave and go to be reincarnated as a new person in her next life. The saddened Ning sees his beloved one go.
This enormously successful movie catapulted Taiwanese actress Joey Wong to superstardom and confirmed Leslie Cheung as the superstar of his generation. "A Chinese Ghost Story" spawns two sequels and ushered in a craze of romantic ghost movies in the 90's.
8. "New Endless Love"
Directed by the acclaimed Hong Kong director Derek Yee in 1994, this heart-warming tale about the romance between a girl with a cancer and a down-on-his-luck, struggling Jazz singer strikes a chord among many audiences' hearts. The movie propels Miss Hong Kong and acting newcomer Anita Yuen Yong Yi to superstardom and wins her the coveted best actress award in Hong Kong's version of the Oscars for her movie debut. It also established character actor Lau Ching Wan as a box office draw. Hong Kong superstar Carina Lau takes a supporting role here as the glamorous and ambitious ex-girlfriend of the singer. The movie's enormous popularity also propels the theme song entitled "New Endless Love" from the film's soundtrack to the top of Taiwan's KTV. To this day, the song "New Endless Love" remains the number must-sing song in any KTV session.
9. "Comrade, Not a Love Story" a.k.a. "Tian Mi Mi"
This heart-felt movie directed by Hong Kong's Peter Chan 1996 lures the current reigning superstar Maggie Cheung out of her hiatus in France back to Hong Kong for yet another classic movie.
Cheung portrays mainland Chinese Qiao who grew up in Canton and is fluent in Cantonese while Lai plays the other mainlander Xiao. The two move to Hong Kong to seek new lives. Qiao orders the innocent Xiao around to run errands for her. A love starts to develop between those two. After bungled attempt to make money in the stock market, Qiao becomes broke and ends up working as a massage girl in the red light district. When a gangster who frequents Qiao has to run from the police, she decides to follow him to repay his kindness. Separated by fate for many years, Qiao and Xiao ends up running into each other in New York's Chinatown.
10. "In the Mood for Love"
Hong Kong master's moody masterpiece "In the Mood for Love," starring superstars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, is a classic that seems dull the first time but grows on you after each repeated viewing. The story recounts the doomed love affair between a journalist and a married woman in 60's Shanghai.
Tony Leung won the unprecedented glory of Best Actor Award in Cannes for this role while Christopher Doyle and William Chang shared the Special Technical Prize in Cannes in 2000. Even for a director acclaimed for his supreme taste in esthetics, the art direction and visual beauty of this movie arguably ranks as the most beautiful work in Wong's long body of works.