Monday, January 9, 2012

Cinderella and Her Little Angels (Hong Kong, 1959)

Confronted with a film like Cinderella and Her Little Angels, one has cause to wonder just how many of life’s cruelest unpleasantries could be smoothed over by the warmly familiar conventions of the romantic musical comedy. Parodies like The Producers and Cannibal! The Musical, after all, not only mine the absurdity of setting real life atrocities to a jaunty musical score, but also highlight that form’s ability to defang and co-opt such horrors. Thus it’s not unthinkable that such a production could get our toes tapping to the sadly commonplace yet no less grim spectacle of child labor and sweatshop peonage.

A slick product of Hong Kong’s Cathay studio, Cinderella and Her Little Angels tells the story of Xiaolin (Umetsugu Inoue favorite Peter Chen Ho), a shy tailor employed by a swanky Hong Kong clothing shop. Xiaolin is smitten with Danning, a girl from the local orphanage, but has yet to work up the nerve to make his move. Fortunately, the shop has a mannequin that bears an uncanny resemblance to Danning on which he can practice, which isn’t creepy at all.

And why would Xiaolin be familiar with a girl from the local orphanage, you may ask? Well, that, apparently, is where all of the shops garments are made, with Danning basically serving as a cheerfully trilling galley master, urging her fellow orphans –- hunched to the task of sewing away with fingers both tiny and teenaged -- ever forward in their arduous labors through the power of uplifting song. A sample lyric:

You are sewing and I am packing
If you aren’t quick, you can’t get things done
Don’t look around, hurry up, hurry up
Even with no sleep we must try our very best

Danning is played by Linda Lin Dai, a versatile actress whose fame at the time enabled her to work as a free agent for both of Hong Kong’s titans of Mandarin language cinema, Cathay and Shaw Brothers. In 1961 she would sign a contract with Shaw, entering a period in which she would break the record for most awards for Best Actress received at the Asian Pacific Film Festival. Sadly, her suicide in 1964, at the young age of 29, would cement her legendary status, initiating a period of public mourning that saw her funeral inundated by thousands of fans.

And, indeed, Lin Dai’s beauty and charm are hard to miss in Cinderella and Her Little Angels, making it no surprise when Xiaolin’s boss, upon setting eyes on Danning during one of her rare visits to the shop, beseeches Xiaolin to recruit her as a model for his upcoming fashion show. This is a decadent proposition for the modest Danning, but wary of the underfunded orphanage’s desperate need for renovation, she relents, hoping to cover the costs with her modeling swag. Less easy to convince is the orphanage’s conservative headmistress, Madame Kong (Wang Lai), who ultimately must be kept in the dark about Danning’s moonlighting by means of a variety of comedic ruses, most of which somewhat preposterously involve Danning’s aforementioned mannequin lookalike.

Danning, needless to say, proves to be a natural as a model. And the fashion show, accompanied by sung narration from and off-screen chorus, is the clear centerpiece and highlight of Cinderella and Her Little Angels. The salt of Hong Kong, as presented in the film, are not too receptive to the distinctly Western peculiarities of modern fashion, as exemplified by Madame Kong, who calls the “Brigitte Bardot” style sample gown that Xiaolin brings to her “weird”, refusing to have her charges participate in its manufacture. Thus the fashion show sequence seems manifestly intended as a primer for the film’s audience, and as such bears all the hallmarks of a society in the throes of transition, with all of the deep ambivalence that that entails.

This last, I assume, explains why the otherwise chirpy ditties delivered by those unseen singers contain some couplets that seem both perversely and hilariously judgmental. Of a kimono it is said, “Westerners are naughty. They treat it as nightgown.” And, as for another stylish -- and relatively conservative -- evening ensemble:

Look at this new coat
It’s exciting with chest and arms exposed
Modern people like to be sexy
They love to expose their body

Composed by Yao Min, Cinderella and Her Little Angels’ songs, though delivering some harsh medicine, are relentlessly upbeat in tone. And dammit if, along with the winsome performances by the film’s leads, they don’t contribute to it being one of the most charming musicals about cheerful orphans conscripted into forced labor that I’ve ever seen. Toward the end, the singing becomes virtually wall to wall, with the songs providing an ongoing narration describing things that we’re already clearly seeing take place on screen. And if you had any doubt about how things ultimately turn out:


memsaab said...

" being one of the most charming musicals about cheerful orphans conscripted into forced labor that I’ve ever seen."

I don't know if this is good or bad, but you are probably the only person on earth to whom I WON'T say: "Isn't it the ONLY charming musical about cheerful orphans conscripted into forced labor that you've seen?"

Todd said...

To which I might say, "Perhaps, but one doesn't want to assume."

Michael Barnum said...

One of my all time favorite Hong Kong films!