Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Teddy Girls (Hong Kong, 1969)

As one of the more prolific and thematically adventurous directors in 1960s Cantonese cinema, Lung Kong found it wise to placate his backers by alternating his output between lucrative crowd pleasers and the ambitious social dramas that seemed to be closer to his heart. 1969’s Teddy Girls is one of the latter. And while the film boasts a level of grit and violence uncommon to the relatively conservative Canto cinema of its era, it is nonetheless a far cry from the many more exploitive depictions of the delinquent schoolgirl that would come pouring out of various corners of Asia within just a couple of years. Held up against, say, one of Norifumi Suzuki’s Terrifying Girls High School films, for instance, Teddy Girls comes across as something more akin to Rebel Without a Cause; a slick yet sober A-list entertainment that gains added cachet through its sincere desire to address a pressing issue of the day while at the same time still cadging some of the edgy glamour associated with youthful rebellion.

To bear the burden of personifying at-risk Hong Kong youth, Lung chose Josephine Siao, whose popularity with Cantonese cinema audiences at the time was second only to that of one woman industry Connie Chan. After starting out as a child star, Siao had spent much of the 60s starring in wuxias and the occasional Jane Bond entry, but, by the time of Teddy Girls, had for the most part left such roles behind in favor of appearing in dramas and comedies. Nancy Sit, another of the belles of 1960s Canto cinema, also makes an appearance, and one of the joys of watching Teddy Girls is seeing these actresses, so often called upon to exemplify wholesome heroines, stretching their acting wings to portray cold-eyed teenage hard cases.

As the film begins, Siao’s character -- a teenaged child of privilege who is named Hsu Yu-ching but called “Josephine” by friends and family -- is hauled into court after being involved in a brawl at a discotheque. Her mom (Teresa Ha Ping) pleads for leniency, blaming her own failings as a parent for Josephine’s wayward ways. But when the judge lets her off with probation, Josephine says that she would rather be confined to a reformatory than sent back home, where -- as a later flashback reveals -- mom is too busy lolling around in bed with an oily hoodlum (played by Lung himself) to be at her father’s deathbed during his final moments, and who, when reminded by a servant that Josephine’s birthday is coming up, simply hands the kid a wad of cash to throw herself a party and fucks off.

Josephine is thus sent to a reform school run by the progressively-minded rector Du (Kenneth Tsang Kong), who believes in effecting positive change through encouragement rather than punishment. Josephine endures the expected hazing at the hands of her fellow inmates, but eventually bonds with a group of toughs lead by the steely Ma Pi-shan (Sit), and soon seems to be making progress. That is, until she receives word that her mother has committed suicide, having been swindled out of her money by the aforementioned hood. Bent on revenge, Josephine schemes with Ma Pi-shan and two other girls to make an escape.

As comparatively genteel as it may be, one thing that Teddy Girls does share in common with the Japanese pinky violence films is its depiction of its protagonists as being the inevitable losers of a rigged game -- and that thanks to the simple fact that they are women in a man’s world. Violence may be presented as an option to be frowned upon, but, under such circumstances, it is also hard not to see it as these characters’ only recourse. And so, upon making their break, Josephine and her cohorts’ separate paths carry all but one of them toward a brutal reckoning with a male betrayer. In Sit’s case, it is the deadbeat father of her out-of-wedlock child, and in the case of the prostitute Sussie (Mang Lee) it is her cheating boyfriend and former pimp. Finally, all converge upon the apartment of Josephine’s nemesis, as rector Du, the film’s lone example of masculine virtue, desperately searches the night in hope of finding them and averting catastrophe.

Perhaps somewhat predictably, Teddy Girls (a term that seems to be used as a catch-all for delinquent youth with no apparent connection to the British subculture that spawned it) ultimately shows us that the crooked path leads to tragedy and that society is to blame. Happily, Lung Kong has the sense to balance the earnest didacticism with which these points are laid out with a corresponding level of flash and style. This is, after all, a movie that closes with Kenneth Tsang Kong delivering a lengthy lecture about the causes of delinquency (which amusingly include “those films that show brutal fighting”). So it helps that, to make that medicine go down more easily, Lung avails himself of most of those thrills that the JD genre places so closely within reach. These include, of course, brutal fighting, but also wild dancing to that devil rock and roll music, angsty teenage melodrama, and endless scenes of young actresses in Capri pants copping loads of threatening attitude. I’m also happy to report that the sobriety of the message doesn’t preclude such whimsical flourishes as the improbable, funhouse layout of Josephine’s mom’s apartment, or the arty, self conscious minimalism with which certain courtroom and funeral scenes are staged.

All of which is to say that you don’t have to be of moral mind to be entertained by Teddy Girls, although the strong performances by its young leads do go a long way toward inviting our empathy and compassion. It also should be noted that the film is worthwhile for providing a window onto what may have been an abiding concern for Hong Kong society at the dawn of the 70s, especially to the extent that the causes of teddy girl-ism enumerated therein seem to be products of creeping westernization. Nonetheless, the fact is that the violent transgressions of female juvenile offenders hold an allure that no amount of high-mindedness can dampen. Certainly anyone with a conscience would hope for these girls to eventually turn their lives around and find salvation, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t also want to watch them break stuff along the way.


memsaab said...

Can I be a Teddy Girl?

Todd said...

I know, right? I want to be one too.

Idrian said...

Looks cool...

I wonder how many films are there who combine message and a cool, hip way to deliver it.