All About Sylvia Chang

An actress, writer and director of tremendous accomplishment, Sylvia Chang is the subject of a New York retrospective.
Sean Gilman

If you wanted a crash course in Chinese language cinema of the past 40 years, you could do a lot worse than the series playing at the Metrograph from May 18 - 27 built around the career of Sylvia Chang. An actress, writer and director of tremendous accomplishment (as well as popular singer and playwright), Chang has been a major figure since the mid-1970s, playing important roles in both the Hong Kong New Wave and New Taiwanese Cinema, working with key directors King Hu, Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Edward Yang, Stanley Kwan, Johnnie To, Mabel Cheung, and Ang Lee. She’s played waifish ingenues and hard-nosed career women, exasperated mothers, bohemian artists, bourgeois matrons and ass-kicking cops. As a director, she’s brought special focus to women’s changing roles in domestic and family melodramas, creating sophisticated works that straddle the line between mainstream and art house. The Metrograph is playing 15 of her films, ten in which she’s the star and five which she’s the director. The series includes most of her best films: bona fide classics, underrated masterpieces, hard-to-find archival prints and recently restored works, ranging in genre from musicals and comic farces to romances and serious dramas. It’s a nifty encapsulation of one of the singular careers in contemporary cinema.

Sylvia Chang was born in Taiwan but spent time in her youth in both Hong Kong and the United States. She started out as a supporting player at the Golden Harvest studio in the early 1970s, though without much success (she did pick up a Golden Horse award for Supporting Actress in the 1976 Taiwanese film Posterity and Perplexity). In 1977, she appeared opposite Taiwanese star Brigitte Lin in Dream of the Red Chamber, an adaptation of one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature. The film was part of an attempt at reviving the huangmei genre, a peculiar musical style something like an operetta, with lush costumes and sets telling stories of romantic tragedies from China’s literary and folkloric tradition. Huangmei films like The Love Eterne, The Enchanting Shadow and Diau Charn had been the specialty of the Shaw Brothers studio in the 1950s and early 1960s, before they shifted gears into wuxia and kung fu movies. The leading director of the style was Li Han-hsiang, and Dream represents Li’s return to the genre after a decade spent in Taiwan trying to build a film industry there independent of the major Hong Kong studios (with limited success). As was conventional in huangmei opera, all the major parts, male and female, are played by women, which is why Brigitte Lin is playing the lead role as the adored son of a wealthy Qing-era family. He falls in love with his cousin, played by Sylvia Chang, a delicate, earnest, yet sickly young woman. The tragedy comes when Lin’s family schemes to have him marry another woman, without his knowledge, which breaks everyone’s heart with all the usual dire consequences. The film is unusual in the huangmei canon in that the first half hour or so is more or less a normal film, with most of the singing confined to an off-screen chorus. But as the sense of emotional doom builds, more and more of the film is expressed in song, until it becomes a full-blown opera by the end. Lin and Chang too bring a different dynamic to the genre than their predecessors, a more modern approach to acting than 60s stars like Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po. It’s a film out of time, straddling past and future.

One of Li Han-hsiang’s protégés at Shaw Brothers was director King Hu, who directed a huangmei film of his own (The Story of Sue San) before revolutionizing wuxia cinema with a string of highly influential works: Come Drink with Me at Shaw Brothers, and Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen in Taiwan, where he had followed Li in the late 1960s. In 1979, Hu directed two films made with Taiwanese money but shot in Korea, Raining in the Mountain, on which Sylvia Chang served as an assistant, and Legend of the Mountain, in which she co-starred. I wrote about the newly restored long version of Legend here at the Notebook a couple of months ago, so I won’t go into detail about it here. Suffice it to say it’s one of Hu’s best films and essential viewing if you missed it the last time it played the Metrograph. Around this time Chang also made her directorial debut, taking over the production of Once Upon a Time at the behest of Golden Harvest boss Raymond Chow after its director died in a car accident. This was in either 1978 or 1981, sources differ.1 In 1979, the same year as Hu’s two Mountain films, Chang starred in Ann Hui’s debut film, one of the first films of the Hong Kong New Wave, The Secret, which isn’t part of this series and as far as I know exists on video only in a very bad VHS version.

At this time Chang was splitting time regularly between Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 1982, she starred in the first Aces Go Places, what would become the flagship series for the newly formed Cinema City studio, which would come to dominate Hong Kong filmmaking throughout the 1980s. Founded by a trio of comedians (Raymond Wong, Dean Shek and Karl Maka) and eventually incorporating Tsui Hark, Eric Tsang and Nansun Shi, Cinema City was the proving ground for directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, as well as providing a boost to the careers of John Woo and Tsui himself, whose trio of edgy first films had floundered at the box office before he joined up to make a series of madcap comedies for the studio. Tsui even appears in a small role as a theatre director in the first Aces Go Places, and would go on to direct the third installment in the series (Lam helmed the fourth and Shaw Brothers master Lau Kar-leung slummed it with the fifth). Eric Tsang directed the first two films in the series, a slapstick comedy about a bumbling detective (Maka) forced to team up with a suave jewel thief (Sam Hui) to catch an even more dangerous crook. Hui was a major Cantonese rock star, and had starred with his brothers Ricky and Michael in a series of highly successful comedies throughout the 1970s.2 Sylvia Chang plays a tough cop assigned to assist Maka. Not exactly playing the straight man (there is no such thing in a Cinema City movie), she nonetheless has little patience for Maka’s tomfoolery, and with her eye-popping anger she more than holds her own with the outlandish antics of her male co-stars, just as she matches them punch for punch in the stunt-fighting department. Aces Go Places is an extremely silly film, not even the best of its series (that would be the second one, I think, though most seem to prefer Tsui’s episode), and Chang’s character is very poorly served indeed in the final act, but it’s undoubtedly a seminal film in 80s Hong Kong cinema, and it’s a real treat to see Chang’s wild side.

That side is buried very deep in 1983’s That Day, On the Beach, the first feature by both director Edward Yang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In 1981, Chang was producing a Taiwanese TV series called Eleven Women and was looking to hire young directors. One of the people she hired was Yang, who had just quit his job as an engineer in Seattle to move home to Taiwan a join the film industry. His work on the series, and as an assistant on a friend’s TV movie (The Winter of 1905, on which Doyle also worked), landed him connections throughout the Taiwanese film industry, the youngest, most ambitious members of which would congregate at his house. The outgrowth of this was the New Taiwanese Cinema, led first by a pair of omnibus films (In Our Time, in which Sylvia Chang stars in the fourth segment, directed by Yi Ching, and The Sandwich Man) and then a pair of features, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys from Fengkuei and Yang’s That Day, On the Beach. In That Day, Chang plays a woman who meets up with an old friend she hasn’t seen in 13 years. In catching up, she tells the woman (who had been in love with Chang’s brother until their parents separated them in favor of an arranged marriage) the story of her life so far. Avoiding her own arranged marriage, she ran away from home and married her boyfriend. As he climbed the corporate ranks they led a life of luxury and boredom, until she realizes that he had been cheating on her, and his business partners as well. All this comes to a head one day when he appears to have drowned. Chang spends the whole day on the beach, reflecting on her life. With its complicated structure of time shifts and nested flashbacks, and framing device of a conversation between two older women looking back on their disappointing lives, the film very much looks forward to Chang’s own acclaimed 1986 film Passion, although that film lacks the beauty of Doyle’s images or the precision of Yang’s staging. That Day isn’t quite the masterpiece that Yang’s next several films would be, but as a debut film it’s a remarkable achievement. And Chang, buried as she is under a truly outstanding 1980s perm, gives one of her best performances.

However, Chang did not receive a Golden Horse nomination for That Day, On the Beach. She did win Best Actress in 1981 for My Grandfather, a Taiwanese film by director O Chun-hung, which is the only film playing in the Metrograph’s series that I haven’t seen. She got a Best Actress nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Aces Go Places, which is somewhat surprising, but then that organization had a weakness for Cinema City comedies in its early days. She was also nominated there for Tsui Hark’s 1984 film Shanghai Blues, which would be my pick as the single best film in the Metrograph series. Less well-known than its companion, 1986’s Peking Opera Blues, it’s a screwball comedy with Chang, Kenny Bee and Sally Yeh. On the eve of the Japanese attack on Shanghai, Bee and Chang meet under a bridge at night, falling instantly in love. After the war, Bee returns to Shanghai to look for her, but doesn’t know what she looks like. Unwittingly, he moves into the tiny apartment one flight above Chang’s. Yeh plays a pickpocket who attempts to rob Bee, moves in with Chang, and dreams of stardom. It’s old school Hollywood filmmaking—comparisons to Lubitsch or Paul Fejos’s Lonesome are not unwarranted—a bittersweet look at the lunacy of a world turned upside down by decades of war and chaos. Chang’s melancholy and soulful performance is the film’s heart, the core around which Yeh and Bee’s crazier antics swirl. Chang also had an impact on Tsui behind the scenes. In an interview cited by Lisa Morton in her The Cinema of Tsui Hark, he says “Sylvia encouraged me to explore what female psyches could bring to a male persona. She kept telling me that females were richer subjects, more complex than guys and at first I questioned that. By stretching the dimensions of the gender of the characters in that movie (Shanghai Blues), I realized she was right. Her thinking enhanced the whole movie and much of my thinking.” Over the next decades, Tsui would distinguish himself from his peers like John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To in his focus on female characters, and it seems fair to say that may have been at least somewhat due to Chang’s influence.

After Shanghai Blues, Chang continued at Cinema City for the next few years, making Aces Go Places sequels and starring in romantic comedies like Clifton Ko’s Chicken and Duck Talk, with Michael Hui, and Seven Years Itch, with Raymond Wong. That film, inspired by the horny husband in Billy Wilder’s Marilyn Monroe film, is pretty dire, Chang is just about the only good thing in a film overwhelmed by Wong’s casual misogyny. It was the second film director Johnnie To made for Cinema City (the first was another Wong vehicle, Happy Ghost III, which co-starred Maggie Cheung), and only the third since his 1980 debut (he spent the intervening years in television). The next year he made his first big hit film, The Eighth Happiness, a wacky Lunar New Year comedy starring Wong and Chow Yun-fat. It was the number one film at the Hong Kong box office that year, a feat which To and Chow repeated the next year, with All About Ah-long. Vastly different from anything To had made up to that point, Ah-long is a kind of Kramer vs. Kramer story with Chow as a slovenly former motorcycle racer who barely makes ends meet while caring for his young son. Chang plays the boy’s mother, who returns home to Hong Kong and wants to retake custody of the child, which means moving him to a life of wealth and ease in America, where she’s a director of commercials. Chang and Chow co-wrote much of the script, but the ending, which I won’t spoil, is pure Johnnie To. About it he said to Stephen Teo, “It was the first film in which I could line everything up in one go; as the film that was really made from my own thoughts. I am grateful to Chow Yun-fat, who gave me many of his own insights, and also to Sylvia Chang, who actually wrote the treatment and was involved in the production. She disagreed with my ending but I told her that I was making the film because of the ending. It may be flawed, but I insisted on it.” Chang, Chow and To made another film together in 1990, the goofy but warm comedy The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon, but then didn’t work together again for 25 years.

In 1989 and 1990, Chang also starred in two films by key Second Wave Hong Kong directors, filmmakers who came along just a few years after the New Wave had fizzled out. Mabel Cheung’s Eight Taels of Gold is a delightful romantic comedy that pairs her with Sammo Hung, a young man who returns home to the countryside after having struck it (relatively) rich in the big city, while Stanley Kwan’s Full Moon in New York, finds her in the United States, paired with Maggie Cheung and Mainland actress Siqin Gaowa. The women are all immigrants, from Taiwan (Chang), Hong Kong (Cheung) and Shanghai (Siqin), and as their lives intersect in Manhattan they become friends. Cheung is a restauranteur and real estate speculator who breaks up with her longtime girlfriend after falling for a man. Siqin is newly arrived and married to a businessman who doesn’t seem to like her very much. And Chang plays a bohemian aspiring actress (we get to see her Lady Macbeth) who shuffles from couch to couch and learns some unpleasant things about her father. Like most of Kwan’s early films, Full Moon has an entrancing rhythm and is more concerned with mood than plot, a character study where action dissipates in favor of an overwhelming melancholy.

As a look at geographically displaced women, Full Moon looks ahead to the next two dramas Chang would direct, 1992’s Mary from Beijing, in which Gong Li tries to make it as a Mainlander in Hong Kong, and 1995’s Siao Yu, in which René Liu (a pop singer making her film debut) plays a Taiwanese immigrant in New York. Siao Yu began life as a project for Ang Lee, for whom Chang had played a small role in the art house hit Eat Drink Man Woman. When Lee was offered the job directing Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, though, he passed the project on to Chang. Liu plays a young woman who works in a sweatshop while her boyfriend, also in the US illegally, works in a fish market. The two pay Hill Street Blues star Daniel J. Travanti to fake a marriage to Liu, so that she can get citizenship. The movie is basically Green Card, except rather than immigration being a complication for snooty French slobs, it’s a life and death situation for people living at the very margins of capitalism. It’s also blessedly free of romance, Liu and Travanti instead forming a touching and wholly chaste friendship. Chang shows a deft eye for location, capturing an older, dirtier version of the city, its late night streets and tiny, cramped apartments.

Chang’s next film as a director was 1996’s Tonight Nobody Goes Home, a kind of melding of Eat Drink Man Woman with the Lunar New Year tradition of films like The Eighth Happiness or Alls Well Ends Well. But the film after that, 1999’s Tempting Heart, was her first truly great film as a director, beginning a string of exceptional work that with one minor hiccough (the 2008 oddity Run Papa Run) continues to this day. Chang plays Cheryl, a film director who, after a chance sighting of an old lover, has an idea for a screenplay. She invites a young writer (William So) to collaborate and the two of them hash out a story, which we then see play out on-screen, interrupted occasionally by the two writers discussing character, motivation and theme. The script doesn’t change as the two discuss it, this isn’t a Hong Sang-soo-style destruction of narrative reality, rather the way we see the people in the story (the young lovers played by Takashi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung, whom Johnnie To would reunite in his most underrated rom-com, Turn Left, Turn Right, and the third part of their triangle, Karen Mok) evolves as their creators have new thoughts about them, developed over several days or weeks of working. Eventually, we come to question just how much of the film Cheryl is creating is fictional, and how much based in reality, which in turn raises the question of how autobiographical, and therefore therapeutic, the film is for Chang herself. Shot by Hou Hsaio-hsien’s regular DP Mark Lee Ping-bing, Tempting Heart is Chang’s most beautiful film, rife with the deep reds and blues one can only find in Hong Kong movies.

20, 30, 40, from 2004, takes a similarly temporally expansive view of love, albeit from a wholly different angle. Three women, Angelica Lee, René Liu and Sylvia Chang (in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, respectively), suffer a series of romantic setbacks and reversals before setting themselves aright and moving on with their lives. Lee arrives in Taipei from Malaysia hoping to make it as a singer. She works for a kindly but apparently burnt-out producer (Anthony Wong) who writes songs for her and her roommate, played by Kate Yeung. The two girls dash about the city with big dreams and maybe fall in love. Liu plays a flight attendant who gets sick of her itinerant life and wants to settle down, but has trouble finding a suitable match, considering all her boyfriends are either married or abusive or very far away. Chang plays a florist who discovers her husband has been cheating on her and gets divorced, only to embark on a series of comic misadventures on the dating scene, including a romance with a guy who is way too into exercise and a friendship with The Other Tony Leung. The various characters all intersect at one time or another, though they don’t interact, leaving open the possibility that they are three different versions of the same woman. All three actresses are terrific, and the film has a bouncy rhythm and crisp images, genuinely funny and moving at the same time. Lee gives probably the best performance, as she did in Chang’s 2002 film Princess D, a fascinating mash-up of Millennium Mambo and Weird Science co-starring Daniel Wu that really should have been included in the series.

Lee would reunite with Chang for 2015’s Murmurs of the Heart, a family melodrama about a boy and a girl who are separated when their parents divorce, the girl going to live with the mom in Taipei while the boy stays on the small island off-shore with the dad. Now grown up, the girl (Isabella Leung) is an artist, pregnant and suffering from depression and haunted by memories of her mother (Lee). Her boyfriend is an aspiring boxer with his own set of unresolved issues with his father, while her brother, whom she hasn’t seen or heard from in years, works as a tour guide shuttling between the island and Taiwan. One night he gets caught in a rainstorm and finds himself in a bar, where strange things are afoot. Chang’s oblique approach to the narrative is bewildering at first, but as the relationships and family history become clear, and a dash of magic is thrown in, the film becomes a mesmerizing fable of family love across time, with some of Chang’s most striking imagery and a first-rate performance from Leong, making her return to cinema after a decade in retirement.

2015 was a big year for Chang, with two other projects represented in the Metrograph series. First is Office, directed by Johnnie To and adapted by Chang from her play Design for Living. A musical about three generations of workers at a high-powered company, Chang plays the boss working below Chow Yun-fat’s CEO, while his daughter starts at the firm and carries on a romance with another young worker. But the heart of the film is in middle-management, where Tang Wei, against her better judgement, fudges some numbers to benefit the man she loves, Eason Chan, with disastrous consequences. It’s a musical, with songs co-written by Lo Ta-yu, the Taiwanese singer and songwriter who also did music for All About Ah-long and several other Johnnie To films. But the most striking aspect thing about the film are the open plan sets, which in their bright lines, blues, golds and blacks recall the expansive and haunting Art Deco designs of 1930s Hollywood, Busby Berkeley crossed with Fritz Lang. Chang is magnificent as the film’s villain, a role she rarely got to play, while Chow is every bit her match, in both acting (his best, most subtle, performance in years) and villainy.

Also in 2015, Chang starred in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. A story told in three acts (in three different aspect ratios), it follows Zhao Tao from her young adulthood as part of a love triangle in 1999, through her estrangement from her husband and their son in 2014, into the future, to the son’s life as an immigrant in Australia. Chang figures in this third act, where she plays the boy’s English teacher and the two have an affair. As a film about motherhood, and about familial love as it changes a deepens and grows weird with time, Chang’s casting is certainly no mistake: what Jia has made is a kind of Sylvia Chang movie, adopting her tactic of splitting a story across time (Passion, Tempting Heart, 20, 30, 40 (sort of), Murmurs of the Heart) to make a truly unexpected kind of melodrama. And not just unexpected because Jia had a reputation as a maker of austere, minimalist, politically-committed films. With his recent films, Jia has been translating the concerns of his early work (his grand theme being the destruction of land and lives left behind as China has modernized economically over his lifetime) into the traditional genres of Chinese cinema. 2013’s A Touch of Sin translated ripped from the headlines tragedies into the modes of wuxia storytelling, yet completely set in the present and wholly realistic. Mountains May Depart follows a similar path, but with the Changian melodrama and its central concerns with the role of women in the family and society and the relationship between a mother and her children. That Chang herself plays the mother surrogate in the third act’s Oedipal romance is absolutely perfect.

Finally, the Metrograph’s series comes to a close with the New York premiere of her 2017 film Love Education. She plays a woman who, after her mother dies, insists that the woman’s dying wish was to be buried next to her husband. The problem is that the guy has been buried way out in the country for years, under the watchful eye of his first (and possibly only) wife (the marvelous Wu Yanshu). Chang’s attempt to strong-arm the old woman into letting her dig up her father’s bones so they can be moved to the city becomes a kind of nationwide scandal after her daughter (Lang Yueting), who works as a reporter for an Oprah-style talk show, films the fight. The various sides settle in for a siege, as neither Chang nor the old woman can track down the proof of marriage they need to make the case that they should have custody of the body: the files have disappeared, everything has disappeared in the chaos of 20th century China. And so each generation reflects on love and what it all means, neither faction able to compromise. Famed Fifth Generation Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang plays Chang’s husband, who may be having an affair, while Lang’s boyfriend may be helping to raise the son of an old girlfriend, a child that isn’t even his. The talk show, and its culture of public confession contrasts jarringly with the deep reserve of the old woman’s unyielding devotion to the man who abandoned her decades earlier, and Chang’s in-between desperation, her frustration at not having everything her way, is both unlikeable and understandable. Like every Sylvia Chang movie, Love Education is easy to watch, it looks beautiful (shot by Mark Lee Ping-bing) and has plenty of comedy to leaven its darker and sadder moments. But beyond that it’s a deeply thoughtful work, as clever as it is humane.


1. The IMDb and Wikipedia say 1981, while the Hong Kong Movie Database and Frederic Dannen and Barry Long’s Hong Kong Babylon say 1978. My guess is that 1978 is the correct year, but I don’t have a really good argument for why that would be.

2. Michael, who directed the Hui Brothers films, in fact was the first true genius of Hong Kong cinematic comedy, and is more than worthy of a retrospective of his own.

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Sylvia ChangLi Han-hsiangKing HuEric TsangEdward YangTsui HarkJohnnie ToStanley KwanJia ZhangkeLong Reads
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