A Tale of Three Cities, The Soong Sisters
Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung visited San Francisco’s CAAM Fest with her latest film, A Tale of Three Cities (2015) and a retrospective screening of The Soong Sisters (1997). Educated in her native city and at NYU’s graduate program, Cheung excels at sweeping historical melodramas. At the festival, she and screenwriter/producer Alex Law spoke of the challenges of staying true to the real-life people portrayed.
Covering the same period as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), Three Cities is based on incidents in the life of Jackie Chan’s parents. Law chronicled Chan twice before, in a 2003 documentary and in the 1988 drama Painted Faces (Qi xiao fu) about Chan’s apprenticeship in the Beijing Opera School.
Ironically adopting the name Charles Chan when he fled to Hong Kong, Jackie Chan’s father was born Fang Daolong. The movie flashes back and forth in time, beginning in 1951 when Fang worked in the British Embassy’s kitchen, struggling with repetitive duties and the Cantonese dialect [Perhaps in jest, Jackie Chan confided to screenwriter Law that he could barely understand his father’s strong accent].
In a flashback to the 1930s, Fang (Lau Ching-wan) is an enforcer and spy for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces as they battle the Communists in a deeply divided China. Fang meets Chen Yuerong (Wei Tang) when she and her young daughter try to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint. He’s a killer with a soft heart and an eye for the ladies, apparently. Yuerong is wary of him even after he lets them keep their opium. On top of that, the daughter gets to raid the fruit basket. What is he after, wonders Yuerong?
After more intrigue and pitched battles between the warring factions, the couple meets again. Widower Fang has two sons and widow Yuerong was left with two daughters when her husband was killed in a blast. Quicker than you can say Brady Bunch, they decide to team up. They’re both single and Chinese, so what’s the problem? You guessed it. The mother-in-law.
Fang is good with a gun and can sing Peking Opera, but he’s nearly illiterate, boasting that he knows “five characters!” Despite their poverty because of the war, the Chen family is from the educated upper class.
There are lighter moments and elements of a “buddy picture” when Fang flees to the countryside and meets up with the thin, bespectacled Hua (Jing Boran) whose ineffectual personae masks his deep cover.
In the Hollywood Reporter, Clarence Tsui writes that “Cheung and Law have floundered under the heavy weight of history” and notes the film’s “disappointingly low box office returns in mainland China.” By contrast, the mostly Asian American San Francisco audience embraced the movie, with fans caught up in the epic scope of a well crafted spectacle.
The Soong Sisters was Cheung and Law’s earlier foray into the past and featured the all-star lineup of Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh and Vivian Wu in the true story of three sisters at the epicenter of modern Chinese history from the early twentieth century. The film begins with the proverb, “One loved money, one loved power, one loved her country.”
The eldest sister Ai-ling (Michelle Yeoh/Khan) had the good fortune to marry China’s richest man, H.H. Kung (Zhenhua Niu) becoming Madam Kung. Ai-ling is the stabilizing influence, the most even-tempered of the three.
Ching-ling (Maggie Cheung) is headstrong and marries the revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen (Winston Chao) despite the objections of her father, the wealthy Christian missionary, Charlie Soong (Wen Jiang).
Finally, May-ling (Vivian Wu) is captivated by the dashing young Nationalist Army officer Chiang Kai-Shek (Hsing-Kuo Wu).
The film opens during the sisters’ carefree childhood. That changes when they’re sent to America, both for their education and to keep them safe in a turbulent time. They return as modern young women when foot binding was still in practice.
Ching-ling follows Sun Yat Sen when he’s exiled to Japan. When he returns to China, he becomes president and she the First Lady, of the new republic. Unity doesn’t last and soon the Nationalists are at war with the Communists. According to the movie, Sun Yat Sen urged inclusion of the Communists in the government. He dies in office before that becomes a reality. After his death, Ching-ling sides with the Communists. That puts her at odds with her sister May-Ling who is by then married to the Japan educated Chiang Kai-Shek, the head of the Nationalists. During the war with Japan, the sisters push for a truce and temporarily get one.
The casting is perfect all around. Maggie Cheung and Vivian Wu’s characters are most often at the center of the drama with less focus on Michelle Yeoh’s Ah-ling. At CAAM Fest, I asked Mabel Cheung about voice dubbing. She said that Maggie Cheung’s voice was dubbed because her “Mandarin isn’t very good.” Cheung further revealed that the director herself dubbed Cheung’s English dialogue.
Cheung assembled an international crew, including Arthur Wong [Crime Story (1993)] and production designer Eddie Ma who’s also a Jackie Chan regular. Randy Miller [The Fast and the Furious (2001)] and Kitaro composed the score. Japanese costume designer Emi Wada [Ran (1985), House of Flying Daggers (2004)] created the period costumes.