In June 1964, Chinese film history changed forever. Previously, Southeast Asian cinema had been dominated by two families — the Shaw family, headed by Run Run Shaw, and the Loke family, headed by Loke Wan Tho. The latter was a veritable empire that owned rubber plantations, banks, cinemas, and a movie studio called Cathay. Founded in 1953, Cathay specialized in urbane, Westernized musicals and comedies, whereas Shaw Brothers Studios, with its muscle-headed nationalism, was shooting squarely at the lowest common denominator.
Shaw made money, but Cathay earned the prestige with such high-class talent as screenwriter Eileen Chang (author of Ang Lee's new film, "Lust, Caution"). But on June 20, 1964, fate would vault one company over the other for the rest of time. With both film studios in attendance at the Asian Film Festival in Taiwan, Loke Wan Tho and Run Run Shaw were each invited on a sightseeing tour. Run Run begged off, Loke agreed to go, and when the plane carrying him, his wife, and his chief executives crashed, Cathay crashed with them. Today, Shaw Brothers rules the memories of Chinese film fans and Cathay's stable of stars are long forgotten.
And what was it that was lost? Mainly the screen presence of Grace Chang (though she did not perish in the crash), the Julie Andrews of Hong Kong, and while a new series at the New York Film Festival called "Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios" is supposedly an overview of the entire studio, it's really a showcase for her considerable charms.
"Mambo Girl" (1957) kicks off with a close-up of Ms. Chang's legs clad in black-and-white checked harlequin pants standing on a black-and-white tiled floor, and that shot alone vibrates with a barely-contained excitement. Earlier that year, Ms. Chang had starred in "Booze, Boobs, and Bucks," but when Loke Wan Tho saw her doing the mambo in a nightclub, he instantly green-lit a film built around her singing and dancing skills.
Ms. Chang's wonderfully expressive face — all sly, sleepy sensuousness before it cracks open into a megawatt grin — is the anchor for this musical about a spoiled little rich girl who discovers she's adopted. Its dark center is a long, silent scene in which a disconsolate Ms. Chang wanders up onto the roof of her house and is serenaded by the ghost of her biological mother, who mourns her lost daughter. There's no comfort for this orphan except the glittering, Hong Kong nightscape, a poignant message to millions of politically orphaned Chinese souls. The movie ends in an orgy of mambo madness, with even stoic dad joining in on the fun, while over in China the anti-Rightists campaign was underway with 300,000 citizens branded traitors and rounded up. In Hong Kong, however, it was an all-night party where everyone was welcome, no matter their background.
Peter Chen plays the romantic lead in "Mambo Girl" but really, who cares? Actors at Cathay were an endless gallery of nobodies, with the faces of civil servants and spines of spaghetti, no match for the radiant screen goddesses who surrounded them. Chang Yang is the worst of the bunch, starring in the two-parter "Sun, Moon and Stars" (1961) as a moron with commitment issues who's finally kicked to the curb by his three glamorous costars: Ms. Chang, Lucilla You, and Julie Yeh.
In "Sun, Moon and Stars," Chang Yang plays Jianbai, a student who goes out to the country. In short order, he messes up the arranged marriage of good-hearted, A-lan (Lucilla You), forgets about her when he arrives at university and meets his foxy cousin, Qiuming (Ms. Chang), and then ditches her to join forces with student activist Yanan (Julie Yeh), who is first seen giving a patriotic speech on a train. Jianbai is a grade-A drip, and as China goes to war against Japan, these women endure arranged marriages, disease, frontline combat, leg amputations, and bombings while he floats about wringing his hands like an impotent ghost. Chang Yang also, unfortunately, shows up in the opera noir, "The Wild, Wild Rose" (1960), which is considered one of the greatest of the Cathay films. Here he plays another weak-willed loser, this time a schoolteacher fallen on hard times who becomes a pianist in a seedy nightclub. Out of the shadows comes Ms. Chang, singing her heart out and driving him insane with her beauty. With a story based on "Carmen" and pop songs adapted from Western operas, "The Wild, Wild Rose" reveals a dark side of Ms. Chang that she claims "terrified" her during filming. But it's just another lame duck role for Chang Yang, who will always be in her shadow.
Even the peripheral character actresses in Cathay films are more distinctive than the male leads, like Kitty Ting Hao, who plays Ms. Chang's little sister in "Mambo Girl" as an intense bundle of adolescent nerves. Tragically, 10 years after "Mambo Girl" wrapped, she killed herself at 27.
But it's not her suicide that hangs over "Mambo Girl" like a dark omen of things to come; it's the nightclub number "Have Fun Tonight." The singer is Mona Fong, a handsome, horse-faced woman who would go on to marry Run Run Shaw. Famously insecure, Fong assumed a producer's role on virtually every single Shaw Brothers film and made sure that all of the Shaw Brothers superstars from that day forward were men. And so Cathay's legacy of screen divas was erased from history by both a plane crash and a wannabe starlet with an axe to grind.