Friday, April 4, 2014

To Rose with Love (Hong Kong, 1967)

I am here not so much to review To Rose with Love as to simply let you know that it exists. This is good news, especially if you speak Cantonese, because parsing the film without English subtitles is a bit of a chore. In response to a confused email from me, Durian Dave of Soft Film informed me that, while not a sequel to Chor Yuen’s Black Rose films, per se, it is "considered to be the third part of Chor Yuen’s Black Rose trilogy” (he also provided me with a link to an English language synopsis of the film, which was mucho helpful). That may sound cryptic, but as I watched the film, it made more and more sense.

With To Rose with Love, Chor reunites most of the major cast members from his 1965 film The Black Rose and its immediate sequel The Spy with My Face. The only conspicuous absence is that of Connie Chan, who was either too big at the time for the sidekick role she played in the earlier films or too busy with the twelve other films she made in 1967. Remaining are the glamorous team of Nam Hung -- who was both Chor’s partner in life and in the Rose Motion Picture Company, which produced the film -- and Patrick Tse Yin. Also on the roster is Chor’s dad, Cheung Wood-Yau, in the role of Detective Chan, the sworn enemy of the masked female bandit/avenger The Black Rose -- or, to elucidate by reference to an equally obscure film series, the Juvet to the Rose’s Fantomas.

The hitch here, however, is that none of these actors are playing the same characters that they did in the previous films. True, Nam Hung and Tse Yin’s relationship still exhibits the same flirty antagonism as before, and she is still portraying the Rose’s alter ego, but in this case, rather than the glamorous socialite Chan Mei-yu, that alter ego is Ko Ching-yam, humble nurse to the disabled uncle of Tse Yin’s character, Ma Chim-ho -- who is here a civilian turned amateur sleuth, rather than the detective played by Tse Yin in the original.

Could To Rose with Love then be considered an early example of the series reboot? Perhaps so, given that, in keeping with that tradition, it, while possessing charms of its own, does not quite live up to the expectations raised by the original. No doubt, if there had been an internet in those days, it would have offered little respite from the howled objections of those who felt that Chor, with this treatment, had somehow “ruined” the character of the Black Rose (or, worse yet, had “raped” their childhoods -- a mean feat in the case of a reboot made just two years after the original).

Personally, I choose to see such fiddling as a testament to the iconic durability of the character; No director, writer or star -- even Ben Affleck -- has the power to “ruin” Superman, Batman, or Spiderman, as much as they might try, because those characters’ DNA is written into a vast shared culture, providing an indelible blueprint that exists outside the realm of interpretation. At the same time, I think it is this very durability that invites tampering in the first place, that tempts a creatively restless director like Chor to rearrange those iconic elements. Rose, a chivalrous bandit of fixed iconography, with roots in both Chinese pop and folk culture -- as well as the star of a beloved and massively popular film series -- suits such purposes to a tee.

And To Rose with Love, despite my early doubts, does eventually reveal itself to be a Black Rose film, albeit one in which the Rose herself is a pretty rare presence. Instead the spotlight is given over to Patrick Tse Yin, at the time a formidable star of Cantonese film in his own right. As the film begins, a valuable heirloom willed to Tse Yin’s character by his recently departed father is apparently stolen by the Black Rose, prompting the appearance at the father’s old mansion of Detective Chan and his men. From this point, the film becomes something of an old dark house thriller, with Ma Chim-ho, the nurse Ko, and Detective Chan making their way through the many secret doorways and corridors in the mansion’s seemingly bottomless interior. There is even a nifty bit of business where a door is opened by dancing out a particular melody --- Dance Dance Revolution style -- on a giant keyboard that’s imbedded in the floor. While inarguably evocative of that scene in Big, this reminded me even more of something you’d see on The Avengers, a likely influence upon Chor at the time.

As that indicates, Chor applies the same stylishly mod visual approach here that he did to the previous Rose films. Nam Hung’s outfits are fabulous, as are the interiors to both the mansion and a swinging go-go club that we catch an all-too-brief glimpse of. The director further exhibits a graphic, pop art sensibility in his approach to the frame. Scene transitions frequently see the end of the previous scene and the beginning of the next being presented in split screen, reduced to small frames within a black background. I may be wrong, but some of the zooms that then bring us into the new scenes seemed more like camera moves than optical effects, which would suggest that these transitions were done in camera and that perhaps that black background was an actual physical partition between camera and actors. In any case, however they were accomplished, these comic book touches are just one of the elements that make the film fun to watch, no matter how little of it one (me) is able to comprehend.

Despite boasting fight choreography by series regular Tong Kai, To Rose With Love can be called an action film only by the standards of the most corpulent shut in. Instead, much of its running time is taken up with talking and everyone pointing guns at one another without firing them. Truly, gun pointing is what has taken the place of hand gestures in this film’s universe. That is, until the final act, when Nam Hung finally shows up in her Black Rose gear to expose the true perpetrators of the robbery and Chor, seemingly in an effort to make up for lost time, crams in a rapid series of multi-participant fist fights, poison gas attacks, and other pulse quickening action set pieces. The delayed gratification has its desired effect, as the Rose, in her familiar cat suit and cowl, by this point has upon us the impact of the reappearance of a long lost and beloved relative, retroactively softening the blow of all the hand wringing and impatience that lead up to her welcome return.

Admittedly, I’m kind of an idiot for watching To Rose With Love the way that I did, because the expectations that I had based on the earlier films lead me to be almost immediately confounded by what it seemed, in all its untranslated Cantonese glory, to be instead offering. Thus I would only recommend doing so to the most dedicated completist. The rest of you should hold out for the deluxe, subtitled and extras laden boxed set of the Black Rose films that somebody should have put out by now yet inexplicably hasn’t. The film seems to lack some of the narcotic romanticism of the original Black Rose -- admittedly a tough standard to live up to -- but there is enough dialogue being spouted to suggest that, were it understandable, there could well be greater emotional depths to be plumbed. Until then, it remains a secret door that this gweilo has yet to completely unlock.

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