Thursday, 1 March 2012

Mambo Girl

Dazzling harlequin optical effects! The Mambo Girl dances for her friends the hottest, hippest kids in town  Later they hang out on campus (my old Alma Mater) and sing happy songs accompanied by harmonica quartet.This movie was made in 1957, soon after Bill Haley and the Comets launched Rock n Roll on the world and invented the Teenager. What's more, The Mambo Girl is a female role model, very different from Hollywood stereotypes of the time. She isn't even a stereotype of Chinese actresses, many of whom seemed to commit suicide and have sad lives.  This actress, Grace Chan Ge Lan 葛蘭 is healthy, assertive and living aged 80 in California.

The Mambo Girl  is so vivacious she lights up the lives of all around her.. She's talented, beautiful, adored and has a luxurious home and a blissfully happy family. What more could a girl want?

Papa Li (Liu En-Ja 劉恩甲) is an aimable toy shop owner who indulges the teenage crowd, though other people don't approve. There's going to be a big party for The Mambo Girl's birthday but something goes wrong. It turns out that she was adopted and she's not "true born" like her younger sister. Although there was a lot of adoption in Chinese society, often it was fairly open. But the Mambo Girl (Li Kia-ling) was found in an orphanage and had no idea. She's traumatized. "Mum and Dad can't sing or dance", she thinks, "Who did I get my skills from?".

So she runs away from her sheltered home and goes to look for her genetic mother. Crying and alone on a rooftop over the city, she has a vision of her mother appearing in the sky, singing of comfort and love. The orphanage gives her a name, Yu So-ying, who used to be a dancer. So Kai-ling  goes to seedy nightclubs to track the person down. She watches an exotic dancer called Margo the Z Bomb, a tough looking white woman who's more contortionist than dancer. It's a horrible image of sexuality and degradation. Kai-ling thinks, Gosh, no, that can't be.

A foki (waiter) in the nightclub suggests she speak to the toilet attendant. It's a lowly job, the woman has clearly had a hard life and had seen better times. She sees how wholesome and pampered Kai-ling is, so she tells her firmly  that she's not her mother. Kai-ling is bereft and doesn't know what to do. But her friends play her a recording of her singing on a huge reel to reel tape machine. (!). She then ng realizes that it is her art that will give her life meaning, not her parentage, and that she owes it to society to bring happiness to others.  So she returns to the Li family home, where the party starts again. Kai-ling dances and sings, she's in her element once more as the Mambo Girl, whoever her parents may be. Outside, we see the foki and the toilet attendant looking on, and walking away. Are they her birth patents ? No matter, they love her too much to change her new life.

This is a fabulous film for the dancing, singing and acting. Glorious! Lots of famous stars like Papa Li (Liu En-ja in one of his finest roles). Mona Fong (the toilet attendeant), before she became a producer and movie mogul at Shaw Brothers Studios and partner of Run Run Shaw (still alive aged 105). Peter Chen Ho (as boyfriend)  at the start of his career.

But it's also interesting in terms of Chinese filial values. Family is fundamental to Chinese sense of self. But Kai-ling's mother loves her so much that she'd rather the girl be happy with the Li family and have a future. For me this movie is heartbreaking. In the 1950's, after decades of war, there were millions of traumatized people. Every character in this film is a displaced person, away from their birthplace.  Even genial Papa Li and his wife were refugees, Mandarin speaking exiles in Cantonese Hong Kong. They'd struck lucky. Many ohers struggled,  like Yu So-ying, the toilet attendant. Thousands of kids in orphanages, until they, too, went out into the world.  Mambo Girl is available on DVD and online (if you search under Chinese title (曼波女郎). It's in Mandarin, with English and Chinese sub titles.

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