LES BELLES -- eye-popping Hong Kong musical with Lin Dai
LES BELLES (1961) is a Hong Kong musical in color and widescreen starring one of the most high-powered HK female stars of the era, Linda Lin Dai. It's got a host of lavish musical numbers with a full troupe of chorus boys and girls in exotic costumes. The musical sequences are a mix of full-blown Latin-themed song-and-dance numbers and quieter Asian-themed dance pieces. There's a Can-Can number and one "modern" piece with a spider web and a spider theme. Then there are the impromptu songs performed when the chorus girls and boys are offstage, such as when they sit on opposite sides of the aisle on a plane to Japan and sing back and forth to each other.
Intercut with the musical numbers is a standard romantic comedy plotline about the manager (Peter Chen Ho) of the dance company placing a personal ad and getting the best response from a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is his lead dancer (Lin Dai), with whom he has an antagonistic relationship. When they arrange their first meeting, they each send a confederate in their place, creating complications that delay the inevitable smooth course of true love. About midway through the film, the entire company heads to Japan for a series of performances and the rest of the film takes place there.
The problem here is that the romantic comedy parts, as funny as they sometimes are, don't mesh well with the musical numbers. After a few early scenes, we never see the company rehearse and never see the hard work and preparation required for the performances. The principals seem to have a lot of time on their hands if they can place and answer personal ads and generate so much correspondence.
The musical numbers are not the most intricately choreographed, nor do they seem too rigorously rehearsed. The sets for the numbers are fairly simple backdrops, like something you'd see in a small theater production or on an old TV variety show. This isn't Bollywood here, nor is it Busby Berkeley. But it remains eminently watchable, thanks partly to the sheer verve and energy of its star, Lin Dai. The lead actor is Shaw Bros.' top romantic leading man of the era, Peter Chen Ho. In a supporting role, as the owner of the dance company, is Kao Pao Shu, who went on in the 1970s to become one of the very few female directors of kung fu films.
Overall, the film has the bright, sunny, Eastmancolor look of big-studio Hollywood films of its era and, as such, should seem very familiar to western viewers. The sets for the various hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and rooming houses are huge and brightly lit. Some of the music will sound familiar to western viewers, particularly "In the Mood for Love," which, not coincidentally, happens to be the title of Wong Kar Wai's celebrated HK romantic drama of 2001 which happened to be set at the time this film was made. LES BELLES was directed by Tao Qin (or Doe Chin, as spelled on the DVD case), who directed other films with Lin Dai, including LOVE WITHOUT END (1961) and THE LOVE PARADE (1963).
LES BELLES is newly available as part of Celestial Pictures' DVD line of restored Shaw Brothers films released in remastered editions, letter-boxed, subtitled and uncut. Curiously, the aspect ratio on this particular title seems to be a bit off, with some information cut off on the far sides of the frame. Also troubling is the lack of subtitles for the songs. Still, given the film's age and previous unavailability, we're grateful for what is otherwise a high quality restoration.
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