Thursday, 21 June 2018

Seven Little Fooks

Seven Little Fooks (七小福)  a reference to folklore tales about seven kids who bring good luck.  In this case, a group of boys being trained in Beijing opera.  But they are refugee kids in a community of exiles : in the south, their northern origins don't mean much. Gradually they grow up and find work in Hong Kong kung fu movies. This is a film about their teacher, Master Yu Zhangzong, struggling to maintain his art in a world that doesn't care.  An exquistely filmed movie, sensitive to changing social nuances. Essential viewing, even for those who know only kung fu, since Chinese opera is the root from which martial arts grew. To understand kung fu, and Chinese culture itself, you need to know the world of Chinese opera. But this is also a very personal story, based on real people and real memories.  Clue : the eldest boy is nicknamed "Three Hairs". Translate that as Sammo and realize it's Sammo Hung who still carries his nickname though he's famous today. And who is "Big Nose" ? The now ubiquitous Jackie Chan, a bigger star than many in Hollywood.  In the movie Master Yu is played by the adult Sammo Hung,  who has won many awards, but must treasure this, since he's portraying the man who shaped him.  So Seven Little Fooks, (directed in 1988 by Alex Law Kai chui) is about real people, caught up in an era of unprecedented change. Evocative music by Lowell Lo Koon-ting.

It's December 1st,1962, when much of Hong Kong was stilll pre-war tenement, houses built on terraces, where people share communal spaces, like the neighbour, a tailor, who works in the yard and can't stand the sound of the kids singing.  A new boy arrives.  "Can I do cartwheels all day and not study?" he asks. "Then I'll sign for ten years!", he squeaks. His mother's crying,  but it's best for him, though the contract she seals with her thumb print (she's illiterate) is severe. If kids die in training, no questions asked.  That was the traditional way.  Notice the kid's name is Chan Kong-sang, which means Chan "Born in Hong Kong", marking his parents brief respite after 20 years of struggle in war-torn China.  He's now Jackie Chan.  And so the kids learn tthe basics of Beijing opera, as much physical fitness and gymnastics as opera in the western sense. That's why they neeed to start young to be flexible.  The school is very old style. The kids live communal and have shaved heads like kids in the North used to do. The local kids mock them, singing a rude song which the subtitles don't translate ("baldies, baldies, butter up your butts"). The kids give a performance but Big Nose fell asleep. The audience walks out "They've gone home to the radio" scolds Master Yu - the radio and big theatres being where top quality operas were done : small troupes can't compete.  So they get beaten with canes.  Mrs Chan comes to bathe the kids - no plumbing - and knows he's been beaten. But he says "Don't cry". Opera school is tough but the kids think they're freer than the ones in regular school, chanting by rote.   When Master Yu goes out the boys march into town to collect charity rice. On their way back they clash with the fancy kids and there's a brawl.   The taunt "Four eye'd boys, blind as turtles!" (meaning kids with glasses). Ponder that detail, it's important.  Wandering far from home, they need to get back by bus, but haven't any money so they con the driver and later escape without paying.  Watch them use their opera athletics to escape from the top deck !

Meanwhile Master Yu and his friend Uncle Wah chat in a teahouse. They trained together as boys themselves, in Beijing. "Rain or snow, we'd get up early and train". For what ?  Few make it big in opera. Wah works as a stuntman and stand-in for stars.  Bruises and broken ribs "Thirty years of good luck, thirty years of bad" quotes master Yu. "And then you're dead" says Uncle Wah. To cheer him, Master Wu starts singing, in the middle of the tea house, and Uncle Wah  gets his dream, to sing again, for a public.  When Master Yu gets home, the Cantonese tailor confronts him because  the opera boys punched his kid.  Master Yu holds his ground and defends his kids. Tailor and Opera master swap insults : scholars are too weak to work, too proud to beg : actors are prostitutes.  Another witty retort not in the subtiles "Chicken piss!". But when the Lunar New Year comes, they all celebrate together. 

Gradually the boys grow up, doing shows in proper cinemas. They also discover girls. Big Nose tries to impress by rotating a pot on his head, but modern girls are more interested in guitar bands.  One day, the leader of a Cantonese female troupe asks for help, since Beijing boys are much better at gymnastics. Master Yu doesn't have modern social skills either. He wants to buy the female troupe leader a "western" birthday cake, but none of the traditional bakers do that. He has to travel all round town until he finds one. Alas, the inscription says "Happy 70th, Grandad!. So Master Yu can't read!  It's extremely bad luck, since the Grandad it was baked for died that morning..... Master Yu isn't the only one  not up with the times. The Tailor can't understand modern fashion. His son "borrows" for Big Nose  the fancy togs his Dad's made for western customers and the two go out together. But the girl prefers the nerdy tailor's son who can "sing Beatles" as the girl's kid brother says. "You Beijing opera types no-one wants". Big Nose goes back, dejected but he's missed a show. Sammo substituted for him, but Master Yu beats him for covering up Big Nose's disobedience and kicks him out of the troupe. Sinc it's been his life, he has nowhere to go.

But business isn't going well and the troupe is dissolved.  Sammo reappears crestfallen and is  welcomed by Uncle Wah.  Master Yu goes to Uncle Wah's movie studio to get work for the boys.  He's forced to cut up a group photo so their heads can go on the register. Uncle Wah, who has been working as a stuntman for years, is getting old and has too many accidents.  He blows his last chance and suddenly goes insane, climbing up into the roof space in the studio, mad with grief, re-enacting opera scenes. An amazing scene. Master Yu climbs up and starts to sing an aria from The Emperor and the Concubine, where the Emperor has lost his,kingdom, but his concubine remains loyal.   For a moment, Master Yu and Uncle Wah are back to be stars again, singing together. Uncvle Wah thinks he's an opera star again. then he's taken away in an ambulance.

Master Yu calls his boys together. He's spent 40 years in opera. Success or not, he's given it full committment.   The school is closed, the house is being demolished and the boys are starting out onn their own paths. so now he'll retire, abroad. He releases the tortoise he's kept for seven years to hold up his bed, feeding and watering it . Its back is strong and it it still knows how to walk.   Master Yu boards the ship, that's taking him away, forever.  "You persevered 40 years and so will we" says Big Nose. "Sammo look after them !" the master's last command.  When they're gone he looks at the gift they've left. A white paper fan with what look like scribbles. But when the folds are aligned the squiggles spell out 七小福, Seven Siu Fooks.  Below a photo of Master Yu who lived to a grand old age and his boys, now grown men.

PLenty moire on this site about Chinese movies, Chinese oopera and music, especially Cantonese. THis ius the only site in Englishwhich does these subjects from a wider social perspective.

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