Frenzied Hong Kong musical about young people in show business
THE YELLOW MUFFLER (1971) is one of a number of musicals directed for Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong by Japanese director Inoue Umetsugu. I've seen three of the others he directed and reviewed one previously for IMDb (HONG KONG RHAPSODY). I've also seen and reviewed other Hong Kong musicals from Shaw Bros., including BLUE SKIES, THE LARK, and LES BELLES. THE YELLOW MUFFLER, the last of Umetsugu's HK films, is arguably the oddest of the group with an over-the-top melodramatic plot and a large group of young characters who come off as consistently naïve and immature throughout. The cast is strictly third-tier and the insipid songs subpar even for a musical like this. There are plenty of eye-rolling moments, but at the same time I found the whole thing fascinating. It's not quite like any other film of its type.
The main characters are three starstruck sisters and their magician father (Ku Wen-Chung), whose act is stale and old-fashioned yet he refuses to let his daughters join him or perform on their own. Eventually, he leaves Hong Kong to try to revive his career in Taiwan and takes the youngest daughter, Ziyin (Yueming Shen), while the two older sisters, Baihong (Betty Ting Pei) and Qinping (Irene Chen Yi-Ling), stay in HK to try to make it in show biz. After an unsuccessful stint at the nightclub where their father worked, they implore their songwriting friend Peilin (Paul Chin Pei) to get them jobs at the movie studio where his childhood buddy Jiang Xiliang (Tsung Hua) works as an assistant director. Jiang has ambitions of being a director and fashions a script for a musical that he hopes to pitch to the studio head. The sisters send letters to their younger sister telling her falsely that they've become superstars at the Crown Cinema studio, when they're actually working as stand-ins and stunt doubles for the studio's temperamental star, You Meng (Ling Ling). Their father goes blind and eventually returns from Taiwan with Ziyin and expects his purportedly successful daughters to take care of him and pay for an operation to restore his eyesight. They try to keep the truth from him as long as possible while Jiang tries to get his movie off the ground. In order to get the money to pay for the father's operation, Jiang makes a sacrifice that threatens his budding relationship with Baihong. There's a steady stream of additional twists and turns in the plot, many of which you'll be able to see coming well in advance.
Some of the songs are performed in nightclub, party and studio settings, while others are fantasy numbers, usually revealed to be dream sequences. The studio songs have colorful sets and a full complement of dancers as seen in one elaborate number with a "Singin' in the Rain" theme and a chorus line in raincoats holding umbrellas. The "yellow muffler" of the title, a fashion accessory meant to show camaraderie among Jiang and his team of future musical stars, inspires a lavish number that includes red and blue muffler segments as well. Some numbers erupt spontaneously as in the coffee house scene where Jiang and his film crew friends introduce themselves in song to the two sisters, welcoming them into their group and inviting them to join them in the communal "godown" (warehouse) where they live, continuing the song as they show them around the shabby, rundown space with such lines as "We're friends living in poverty," culminating in an elaborate group dance. Most of the songs are overly optimistic and basically consist of pep talks for the largely unsuccessful (and untalented) set of characters.
The film has none of the musical stars who enlivened the other Hong Kong musicals I've seen and few Shaw Bros. actors of any note. Tsung Hua, who plays the aspiring director, was largely known for his roles in swordplay films for Shaw, usually in supporting roles. Betty Ting Pei, who plays the oldest sister, was never a major star and is best known today as the woman who was with Bruce Lee when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Hong Kong in 1973. The character of an adolescent girl appears late in the film and is eager to join the musical troupe and get a part in their production. Her character's family connection is eventually revealed and plays a role in the fate of the planned musical. The actress who plays her, Niu Niu, is easily the liveliest musical performer in the film, making me wish she had entered the film much sooner. Niu Niu played a series of delightful characters in a handful of the studio's better martial arts films of the 1970s, including THE SWIFT KNIGHT, BRAVE ARCHER 2, INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN, THE SWIFT SWORD, and BRAVE ARCHER 3, all of which I've reviewed here.
It's always interesting to see Hong Kong movies depict their own movie-making process and here we get to see the crew at "Crown Cinema" shoot a wide range of films, including a period martial arts film. The director depicted, however, is supremely incompetent and uses the sisters as stunt doubles despite their complete and utter lack of training and experience. It's played for comic effect, but if actual Shaw productions were made this badly, no one would ever have gone to see them.
The film opens with the three sisters going to a theater to see HONG KONG NOCTURNE, an earlier film by the same director which had much bigger stars in the roles of three musical-minded sisters, Cheng Pei Pei, Chin Ping and Lily Ho. We see clips from that film's big musical finale, which outclasses any of the numbers in this film. Director Umetsugu apparently wanted to use his very last Hong Kong production to remind us of one of his best.
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