The inspired "Shaw Sisters" retrospective at Metrograph focuses on women filmmakers who worked at the legendary Hong Kong studio. Two of the films—Maybe It's Love (1984) and My Name Ain't Suzie (1985)—were directed by Angie Chen. After directing a third feature, Chen turned to commercials and documentaries.
Chen's life encompasses a broad swath of Chinese history. Born in Shanghai, she and her family caught the last train to Hong Kong during the civil war. They relocated for a time in Taiwan, moving back to Hong Kong when Chen's father left his family for Germany. Chen won a scholarship to a college outside Chicago, then transferred first to the University of Iowa before enrolling at UCLA. While translating a screenplay, she met Jackie Chan, who made her his assistant director on Dragon Lord (1982), a martial arts film shot in South Korea.
Back in Hong Kong, Chen met Mona Fong, a production executive at Shaw Brothers who was looking for new talent. After hearing Chen's ideas, Fong rewarded her with a three-picture contract. It was a turning point in Hong Kong cinema. Young, Western-trained filmmakers like Karl Maka and Tsui Hark were reinvigorating genre pictures, adding ideas they learned from Hollywood and European filmmakers. Introduced at an early age to Hollywood movies by her parents, Chen remained a devotee of directors like Hitchcock, Tati, and Bergman.
In fact, the first idea she pitched to Fong was a reworking of Rear Window set in a rural village. An ensemble movie that veers from romance to thriller to comedy, Maybe It's Love starred Cherie Chung as a kept woman and Ken Tong as the mailman who adores her from afar. But it opens with an intense scene in which a young girl named Marble (Hsu Ke-Ying) is maimed by her drunken father. Sent to live with her grandmother, Marble becomes wrapped up in the villagers she observes, imagining stories about them that ultimately place her in peril.
"It's a tribute to Hitchcock," Chen said in an interview at the Far East Film Festival in Udine. "The young girl was looking at her neighbors and then got herself in trouble."
Maybe It's Love is a film of its time, with a synthesized disco soundtrack and blow-dry hairdos. But underneath the slapstick and chases is a frank account of sexual politics. The women in the movie may be smart, but they are trapped in confining social roles. More often than not, men turn to violence to control them. Chen and her cameraman Bob Huke tell much of the story in close-ups, using reaction shots to convey the shifting balance of power between characters.
Chen's second film, My Name Ain't Suzie, was a variation on a film she had admired as a child, The World of Suzie Wong (1960). In it she explores the bar girls and prostitutes in Wan Chai, a red-light district in Hong Kong. Like all of Chen's work, the movie was uncompromising in its depiction of the hardships in its characters' lives. An ostensibly hard-hitting Hollywood film like Klute avoided the sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and drug overdoses Chen's characters faced. Chen documented them head on, perhaps one of the reasons why My Name Ain't Suzie did not do well at the box office.
After a third feature, Chen left the movie business to direct commercials and teach. In 2012 she released One Tree Three Lives, a documentary about the writer Hualing Nieh Engle. Chen's most recent film, I've Got the Blues (2018), is an intimate look at painter and musician Yank Wong Yan-kwai. It is perhaps the most revealing of her films, one in which it is the easiest to detect her personality.
We spoke after a screening of My Name Ain’t Suzie at the Far East Film Festival. While catching up with her via email about the Metrograph series, Chen brought up the demonstrations wracking Hong Kong. "I got caught up with the extradition bill saga," she wrote. "Went on the street to strike, and got a bit stinged by the tear gas. I was sitting with the hunger strikers when the police started the tear gas bombs and the rubber bullets."
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the inspiration for My Name Ain't Suzie?
ANGIE CHEN: When I saw The World of Suzie Wong I was actually quite impressed. First of all, it opened on that ferry to Hong Kong, like it was bringing the city to the world stage. And then it had a big star, William Holden, and Nancy Kwan, this fresh, beautiful discovery. The movie was good Hollywood storytelling, especially the pathos when Suzie lost her baby in a mudslide.
Later in my life I saw that it was a male perspective telling the story, a male point of view. It was a love story about the tribulations of being a bar girl, a sex worker, but a male was telling it. Suzie Wong was redeemed because she lost her baby. That meant her past was gone and she was pure again, so she could go off into the sunset with William Holden.
NOTEBOOK: Was it tough convincing Mona Fong at Shaw to make My Name Ain't Suzie?
CHEN: When I pitched them the idea we didn't really go into detail. I just said it was going to be a film about bar girls. And then we wrote the script subsequently after the approval.
First of all, I decided there will be no sex in the movie. It would actually be easier to put sex in because it's about bar girls, and that would be good for the box office. So when I presented them at the end with my cut I think they were a little bit surprised.
During our research, we learned that of the women who were involved in the sex trade in the 50s and 60s and 70s, the ones who came from Shanghai were the sort of more elitist. Shanghainese always thought they're the best among of the provinces. My mother was Shanghainese, so I knew they were very proud women. And then there were the more southern Chinese, the Cantonese, and the Shanghainese always looked down on them, thinking they were not as good.
So this was a microcosm of Hong Kong, to which we added a mixed-race fellow, Jimmy (played by Anthony Wong). We called them Eurasian then. “Mixed” at the time was derogatory, people looked down on them because they were not pure.
NOTEBOOK: What was it like directing at the Shaw Brothers studio?
CHEN: When I got back to Hong Kong in the early 1980s, besides myself there was only one tea lady, the lady in charge of coffee and tea, and one costume assistant. That was it—no other women. By the time of Maybe It's Love there were a handful of female directors, maybe four or five.
Women weren't allowed to sit on the equipment cases on sound stages because that would bring bad luck. They would really scream at you, the crew. When they would see a woman, anyone, the cast or an extra or anybody who just wanted to sit on a case, it was "Butt out."
So I witnessed that, but I didn't say anything at the time. When I got my own film, I did an experiment. On the set, I saw this case, and I sat down. And then I waited for a response. Nobody said anything.
I think what I wanted to do with my films was give a bigger voice to women. Because in those days there really weren't a lot of women in power. In kung fu films, women were flower vases. So I decided to have really strong women characters.
NOTEBOOK: You make some references to The World of Suzie Wong in your movie, like a long, mid-level tracking shot through the Lucky Bar, or the costumes Mei-li (played by Pat Ma) wears.
CHEN: Yes, that was one long take by Bob Huke. He shot Maybe It's Love. He also did the overhead shot of Mai Lin's brothel, the one that showed all the little cubicles from above. That was a novel idea. We built the whole thing in the studio. The camera was up on the light tracks. I was so surprised they allowed me to do that because I know it was quite costly.
But that's what making movies is all about. I mean, if you want to have breakthroughs, you want to do things that haven't been done before. Whenever I do a new film, I don't want to repeat myself, not themes or techniques.
NOTEBOOK: The Lucky Bar location is really extraordinary.
CHEN: That was a real street. They were going to demolish a building right in Wan Chai. We rented it and built the facade of the Lucky Bar right there. I think we blocked off the street for maybe two weeks. And we did the whole thing you know the whole experience in two weeks.
NOTEBOOK: What was your shooting schedule?
CHEN: It was like 30 days, 30 or 40 days in three months.
NOTEBOOK: This was the debut feature for Anthony Wong, who's gone on to an award-winning career. What did you see in him?
CHEN: I believed that he was the role. What I mean is he didn't consciously try to act, he just played himself. And that made the movie. There was all this anger, this angst in him that all came out, very naturally, without pretense.
NOTEBOOK: How did you develop the character with him?
CHEN: I don't recall a lot of rehearsal. I just gave him the background, you're looking for your father. Basically, providing the background for the actor to deliver what he feels.
NOTEBOOK: Pat Ma portrayed Mei-li at several different ages, a difficult job. Can you talk about working with her?
CHEN: Both she and Anthony work, I think, instinctively. They weren't method actors, they weren't trained. So they're very, very natural. In those days, for actors and actresses you basically learn as you do it.
NOTEBOOK: So how do you work with a performer who may not have technical skills?
CHEN: Back in the old days, the director would guide you, where to sit, how to do it. Even at times when to laugh, your expressions. If they didn't like what you were doing, they would show you.
When I was studying film, we took method acting classes. The teachers would tell us how to work with actors in terms of not directing them, but giving them a task. Also giving as much information about the character as you can, a strong backstory. So I basically tried that.
We had a scene we couldn't include because they were so strict about ninety minutes, the movie can't be any longer than ninety minutes. It was a scene with five marvelous young girls who had never acted before. I used the method of invoking your senses, especially the sense of smell, use that to bring back a time when you're really sad, distressed, capture that moment. And when we rolled camera everyone on the set just started to gasp.
I would never say, this is wrong, this is not right. I would just say, let's try it another way.
NOTEBOOK: How you focus on day-to-day problems, the details of life, your movie is almost a documentary.
CHEN: You know, in the last ten years I've made three feature-length documentaries. First of all, I wanted to tackle things that I haven't encountered yet. Secondly, documentaries are real life, so you have to be honest. Maybe that's why I often seem to be working on the periphery. I mean, I'm not really considered mainstream. I'm always on the periphery. Even with My Name Ain't Suzie, I only did one more feature before I went into making television commercials. I left features for a long time.
NOTEBOOK: Was that by choice? Because Suzie was not a box office hit.
CHEN: It's by choice. I just decided that my films didn't seem to be to be in sync with Hong Kong at the time. My parents were very Westernized, so my whole frame of mind was very different. Also, after three movies I wanted to take a break. It was very tough making a living. The director's salary was miniscule, so I had to translate subtitles and do this and that on the side just to survive. I thought, okay, maybe it's time to take a break. So then I went into making television commercials, which meant I could support myself.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you think Suzie wasn't a success?
CHEN: When it was released I had a bit of a row with Mona Fong. I don't think she liked the edited version. We had an argument, and I think somehow, uhm, it became sort of like a bastard child. It never really got a proper release, so to speak. It disappeared pretty quickly.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think when you see it now?
CHEN: I think it gets better. You have to look at it in a different context, at the time it was made. I think it would be different if I remade it. It's difficult for me to be a sort of impersonal filmmaker. I've always had this kind of naiveté about work. That's why my documentaries are so important, they are completely independent. But we still don't get enough distribution exposure.
"Shaw Sisters" runs August 23 – September 8, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York.