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Screening Room

Looking at a 'Softer Side of Hong Kong'

September 06, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With "The Softer Side of Hong Kong: The Films of Stanley Kwan and Clara Law," the Monica 4-Plex will present on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. throughout the rest of September four films simultaneously, one for each of its screens.

Law's "Farewell, China" (1992) presents the harshest view of life in New York imaginable--so much for "softer." Frustrated by the lack of educational opportunities during the Cultural Revolution, a young wife and mother (Maggie Cheung) perseveres mightily until she at last obtains a visa to continue her studies in international trade in the United States.

Never mind that it defies credibility that she'd head for Manhattan without any contacts whatsoever; what lies in store for her is terrifyingly believable. Shocked to be asked for a divorce and then losing contact with her completely, her loving husband (Tony Leung) follows her to New York, entering the country illegally.

"Farewell, China" takes on raw, epic dimensions as Leung's desperate search for Cheung is intercut with flashbacks to what has been happening to her. What emerges is a portrait of Chinese immigrants struggling to survive under truly terrible conditions.

Again supported by Leung, Maggie Cheung also stars in Kwan's "Actress" (1992), a remarkably perceptive film biography of Ruan Ling-yu, who was as mesmerizing as she was ill-fated. Ruan was one of the greatest actresses ever to face a camera, combining the delicacy of Lillian Gish with the sensuality of Greta Garbo.

The daughter of a servant and the scion of the rich family for whom her mother worked, Ruan was dogged throughout her all-too brief career by publicity surrounding her birth and later on, her love life.

Kwan's "Rouge" (1988) is an exquisite supernatural fable, an opium dream of a movie that re-creates glamorous Hong Kong of the '30s and then plays it against the city's teeming, workaday present to illuminate and contrast the changing relationships between men and women. The story focuses on the ravishing Fleur (Anita Mui), whom we first meet in 1933 in a luxurious brothel and then see again in 1987, inexplicably not looking a day older and apparently searching for a long-lost lover.

"Rouge" turns upon the old Chinese belief that a day in the spiritual world is roughly equivalent to 50 years on earth. As Fleur and her weak-willed lover (Leslie Cheung) embrace, in an old movie-style close-up, Kwan pans to the glittering skyline of 1987 Hong Kong, and in that moment we are whisked more than a half-century forward as the still-youthful Fleur enters a newspaper office to place a notice in the personals column. What emerges from Kwan's shifts between past and present is a protest of the folly of women, who, out of ingrained custom, sacrifice themselves for men unworthy of them.

There's also a strong feminist flavor to Clara Law's ravishing "The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus" (1989), an erotic, romantic fable set simultaneously--and seamlessly--in the past and in the present. Law is a real virtuoso, bringing terrific visual flair to boldly stylized glimpses of antiquity only to cut to the fast, decadent, hard-edged luxury possible in today's Hong Kong--and all the while shaping her actors' portrayals precisely to her purpose.

The lovely Joi Wong stars as a ballerina in China who becomes increasingly convinced that in an earlier life she was known as the Golden Lotus, who becomes entangled with her brother-in-law as well as a lover. It's a predicament that Law feels unfairly earned Wong, in Chinese myth and literature, the designation as "the No. 1 slut in ancient Chinese history." *

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Premiere Showcase also continues at the Monica 4-Plex with "The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk II," which opens Wednesday for a one-week run. A lively, successful sequel that again shows off the uninhibited imagination of director Corey Yuen and his writers, it finds our blithe, acrobatic hero (Jet Lee) involved in the anti-Manchu Red Flower Society and a potential romantic triangle. As before, the sensational comedian Josephine Siao is back as Lee's lusty martial artist mother in this delightfully knockabout period.

Information: (310) 394-9741.

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