Tuesday, 3 July 2007

The House of 72 Tenants (1973)

Chinese title: 七十二家房客

The House of 72 Tenants (1973), Chinese comedyThis is quite easily the most important film in HK cinema. At the very least the most important HK Cantonese film. Before you jump at me, let me point out that I didn't say this is the most entertaining, or the most commercially successful, or the most critically acclaim movie in HK cinema. But it's the milestone - in the truest sense - film in HK cinema.

This film heralds a new era for HK film industry. It had found its own voice, literally. This is the 1st Shaw Bros movie that's recorded in Cantonese - the indigenous dialect of HK people. Before this film, all SB movies were recorded in Mandarin.

Not that there were no Cantonese speaking movies being made before this film, there were plenty, but they weren't made by SB.  And SB was the film studio in HK before 1970s. More importantly, the Cantonese films made outside SB were all of low quality. The locals called these 粵語殘片, which translated quite literally means, "Cantonese lame films". Of course, the terms were labelled in hindsight.

All higher quality movies in HK cinema before the 1970s were recorded in Mandarin by such major studios as SB and Cathay. The best and most well known directors in SB like Li Han-Hsiang, King Hu, Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen (the director of this film) and actor like Jimmy Wang Yu were all born in Mainland China. Not made in HK. Of course, the founder of SB, the Shaw Brothers, went to HK from Shanghai.

The 1970s is a turning point in HK film industry in more ways than one. Apart from the change of dialect in the HK film production, with the rise of Golden Harvest, the stranglehold of SB on HK film industry is over. HK cinema truly entered a new era in the 1970s. Bruce Lee and the Hui Bros also played pivotal roles in this transformation. They were followed by Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Lau Kar-Leung, Gordon Liu, John Woo,  etc. The rest is history.

This movie marks the turning point in the HK cinema, which in terms reflects the turning point in HK's society, and HK's place in the world.

In the 1950s and 60s, HK was just changing from a fishing village to a bustling trading port. In other words, it was still an economic, and cultural backwaters. One can't expect such place to produce any high quality filmmakers. So the local filmmakers made 2nd rate Cantonese movies. Bear in mind that this was several decades before the age of the internet, and digital revolution. We have things easy today.

In the 1930s and 40s, before Chinese Communist took hold of China, Shanghai was a Chinese film mecca. It entered a Gold Age of cinema during this time, interrupted briefly by Japanese invasion.

With the communist victory of 1949, a crop of the best Shanghai filmmakers fled China, and quite a percentage of them took refuge in the then British colony of HK. They continued to make films there. Needless to say, because their background is in Mandarin, they made films in Mandarin.

Well, that's not true, filmmakers don't make films based on their own dialect, but it depends on the dialect of their market audience. Indeed, these Mandarin speaking films weren't made for local consumption. In the period from 1950s to 1980s, majority of HK locals couldn't speak Mandarin. And so these Mandarin speaking films were made in HK, but for overseas Chinese, most of whom could speak Mandarin (this is hardly surprise if this was, say, electronic industry. Similarly, the most products made in China in the 1980s weren't for the local Chinese consumers). This is because in the period of 1950s to 1970s, most SE Asian countries were far more prosperous than HK (in particularly Malaysian, and Thai markets). Hence far bigger market for Mandarin films than Cantonese film.

But by 1970, HK transformed itself into one of the four Asian Tiger, and its economy begun to leap while at the same time the economies of the SE Asian countries remained stagnant. SB saw this sea change, and decided to make HK films for HK locals. Since overwhelming of HK locals can't understand Mandarin, films that made for local market has to be recorded in Cantonese.

The fact that the box office of this film surpassed Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973) when it was released speaks volume, and demonstrated the market potential for Cantonese film (Enter the Dragon was originally dubbed in Mandarin, following the main trend in HK film industry. Now we've the Cantonese dubbed version. After all, Bruce Lee grew up in HK, and spoke Cantonese. In fact, he appeared in 23 Cantonese films where he delivered Cantonese dialogue before he left HK for USA at the age of 18).

Because SB made Chinese films for overseas Chinese, and their movies therefore tend to draw inspiration from Chinese culture. Wuxia, martial arts, Huangmei Opera, and ancient Chinese historical epic were the biggest and best drawcards for SB. Very few movies deal with the events and topics relating to HK where the movies were being made. Well, that was before the 1970s. After 1970s, the HK cinema put their focus squarely on HK as their films are now selling to the locals. Since then, the HK local crime drama has taken over such genres as wuxia, and historical epics. They still were being made, but has been sidelined.

HK Cantonese Cinema never looked back. In the subsequent decades, all movies coming out of HK are Cantonese films. And so the history of the 2 dialects in HK cinema is really the history of Mainland China and HK. The wax and wane, ebb and flow of the prosperity of these 2 regions.

If this article explains anything, it explains why all HK movies have Chinese subtitles. This is because while HK film industry has switched to make Cantonese films, but they still want to sell to the overseas Chinese market, and solved the problems of Chinese audience who speak diffeent dialects. Chinese subs come to the rescue. So there's a long and complicated history behind the Chinese subtitles in Chinese cinema. The interesting side effect of switching to Cantonese dialogues resulting in more overseas Chinese understanding the Cantonese dialect via HK films.

Before the 1980s when Mainland China closed itself off, most of the Chinese culture that foreigners experienced via films and food are in fact Cantonese culture. The food they ate in Chinese restaurants in Chinatowns of the cities of the world are mostly Cantonese. As far as foreigners were concerned, Cantonese culture was Chinese culture. This was because while China was shut off, HK is the Chinese cultural gateway to the world, the ambassador of Chinese culture. Of course, things have gradually changed since the 1980s.

The review of the movie Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) I wrote shows how the socioeconomic status are closely linked by these 2 dialects. Before 1970s Mandarin is considered a dialect of the educated folks. This is unquestionably true. As locals only speak Cantonese in HK in daily life, you can only learn Mandarin in schools.

With the isolation and economic collapse of Mainland China for the 3 decades before the Opening-Up in 1978, in the 1980s Mandarin is associated with the dialect of the northern country bumpkin cousin. This idea is being explored in Comrades: Almost a Love Story.

So what I said predated the period occurs in the movie Comrades: Almost a Love Story, you could see the changing social statuses closely associated with the 2 dialects. The Mandarin started as the high-class dialect in the 1950s to 70s, then slowly the Cantonese surpasses Mandarin with HK's rise in prosperity, and the 2 dialects' social status reversal is complete by 1980s when Mainlanders appeared as HK's northern poor, provincial, unsophisticated cousin. One can easily see that the social status of these 2 dialects is undergoing reversal once again in the next few decades as Mainland China's economic rise continues. After all, when foreigners study Chinese, they study Mandarin, few take up Cantonese.

Take Shanghai the once Paris of the East before WW2 was a centre of Chinese language film was displaced by HK when it becomes the Asian Tiger economy. Today, HK's prosperity is tied closely to its status as financial centre is being challenged, and might be displaced by Shanghai as the financial centre of China in the not so distant future.

You could say that before this movie, HK only made Chinese language film, after this movie, HK made HK films.

A Simple Life (2011) is a 1st Mandarin speaking film that was made in HK since The House of 72 Tenants (1973). This is separation of almost 4 decades. Is this the beginning of a new trend? Or just one hit wonder? Only time will tell. Instead of aiming only for local and overseas Chinese market, the Mainland Chinese market is the 2nd single largest movie market in the world, and soon overtaken USA as the biggest.

No Mandarin speaking films were made  in HK at the moment because an easier solutions are already available. Many Cantonese films are simply dubbed into Mandarin to make into the Mainland market. Sometimes, they even add a few Mainland actors into a movie to increase draw in the Mainland market. A Simple Life is a 1st that it's originally recorded in Mandarin (and I don't aware of a Cantonese version. There's no need to. There're Chinese subtitles).

Oh, I almost forgot. I should talk a little about the movie The House of 72 Tenants (1973).

Many talents who have been working for SB in making Mandarin films involved in making this film. Chor Yuen, who has been one of the 4 most important SB directors directed this comedy. Yueh Hua(岳華), who had been a long time actor appearing in many SB Mandarin speaking including such iconic film as Come Drink with Me (1966) now appeared in this comedy speaking his native Cantonese (born in Shanghai). Lily Ho, who played leading ladies in more SB films than one cares to remember, also appeared in this film. It's an interesting experience for SB movie fans who are Cantonese speakers.


The House of 72 Tenants (1973)
For audience who had seen the House of 72 Tenants,
they would find the set in Kung Fu Hustle rather familiar
Because this is a landmark HK film with box office success, it has been parodied by other movies. The best known of this was being done by the HK's King of Film Parody Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle (2004) where many main characters, and even the set were borrowed from The House of 72 Tenants.

Why 72? I'm guessing, it's because it's made in 1972...

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