The Wild, Wild Rose (1960)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-02-14
“The Wild, Wild Rose takes its basic structure, some of its characters and much of its music from the opera music by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy from a novel by Prospero Merimee. The opera was first performed at the Opera- Comique in Paris and has been in the repertory ever since. But while the similarities are clear, so are some of the differences, particularly regarding race and class which are central to the opera but definitely not to the movie.

Carmen is not only a gypsy but a Spanish gypsy, an outcast in a society that itself was seen as strange, exotic, foreign, hot and lushly romantic to the French petit-bourgeoisie that were the audience for the opera and the novel. She is as different as can be from those who gazed at her representation. Deng Zijia couldn’t be such a character; while she was not of the respectable world of Liang Hanhua we see from the very first scene that the nightclubs of Wanchai are literally only a step away, as Liang Hanhua bids goodnight to his fiancé on the steps of the New Ritz to start his new job playing the piano in a bar. The only real distancing that happens is a few times when Liang, his mother and his fiancé talk about how “those people” in the nightclub are different—vulgar, loud and cheap—than decorous people like themselves. Zijia and her friend live in a large, airy apartment while Liang and his mother share two small rooms. Old Wang, the piano player who Liang replaces, lives with his family in half of that space. But Zijia is one bad night or one angry customer away from living in the street herself, so there really is no class difference the separates the characters. Race, of course, doesn’t enter into it all, or at least so it seems to this gweilo viewer watching almost sixty years after “The Wild, Wild Rose” was made—everyone is Chinese, everyone speaks the same dialect of the same language.

The music used in the movie is amazing. The score is an example of Orientalism—based as it is on Bizet’s work it could be nothing else—with seeming exotic touches added to straightforward (but masterful) melodies based on the diatonic scale and are fantasies about “the Other” firmly rooted in a Western point of view. Passages that have a pentatonic overlay; rhythms that are distorted, stretched and compressed into emphatic dance cadences and unprogrammatic chromatic tone coloration are all characteristics of some forms of non-Western music but the “Orientalizing” factor is how they deviate from but always return to the Western scale and harmonies. So we have a vaguely Eastern sound firmly rooted in Western music in a movie based on a 19th century French opera, a movie made entirely by Chinese artists.

Zijia’s first song, in which she accompanies herself on the guitar, is the Habanera from "Carmen" with its first verse transposed and simplified so it can be done in a nightclub. She even switches from Mandarin to French for the final "L'amore, l'amore". The Habanera must be one of the best known fragments of the western musical canon, having been used in countless cartoons, commercials and background music in movies. As an indicator of sultry feminine carnality it is unsurpassed. The other two big numbers are just as well known: “La donna e mobile” the misogynistic aria given to the super-cynical Duke of Mantua from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and “Un bel di vedremo” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”, one of the strangest combination of setting, song, singer and audience reaction ever put on film.

The Madame Butterfly aria comes toward the end of the movie, when Zijia, having been fired from the New Ritz, is trying to make a comeback even though she has been blackballed by her former employer. Her loyal friend sets up an audition with a club owner for Zijia, disguised as (I believe) a Japanese signer. She is singing “Un bel di vedremo” which is as Japanese as the Grand Canal or Mt. Vesuvius from an Italian opera by that master Orientalizer, Giacomo Puccini but the club owner rhapsodizes about the new Japanese singer.

Enough about the music. Wong Tin-Lam is a master filmmaker who created a perfectly claustrophobic atmosphere in the shadowy world of slums, nightclubs and mean streets where working class Hong Kong rubbed shoulders with high rollers and petty criminals. High-contrast lighting in the nightclub scenes emphasize that what really counts is happening just out of sight in the deep shadows. The apartment Zijia lives in when we first meet her is bathed in soft light, a lovely place and a refuge from outside. The shack that houses Liang and his mother is tiny and opens directly onto the street. When Zijia and Liang are caught in their downward spiral of drink, deceit and disintegration their rat hole of an apartment has only enough light to show their collapse. There are some very striking sequences that could have been from American film noir masters, even including those with slatted light from Venetian blinds and disorienting very low angle shots.

Wild Rose is a wonderful character. She is a femme fatale, a woman driven by uncontrollable eroticism, a hooker with a heart of gold, a cynical saloon singer and a guardian angel for those in need. With a scary husband just released from jail, a quickly failing relationship with a bass player and her heart set on seducing the innocent Liang Hanhua she is consumed with passion. She finds the time to help out Old Wang, whose wife is dying because he can’t afford an operation, sleeping with the egregious Fatty Lin in return for exactly the amount Wang needs, not keeping a dime for herself. Grace Chang inhabits this character wonderfully. Chang manipulates the movie audience to keep them rooting for Zijia keeping us in the palm of her hand as easily as Zijia does with the various men in her life.

Zhang Yang delivers a searing performance as Liang. He is completely in love with his fiancé, desiring only to make enough money to support them and his mother after they marry and clearly not a part of the nightclub crowd. He is surprised when Zijia hands him the music for “La donna e mobile”, asking “You are going to sing this?” as if he couldn’t imagine anyone in the club even having heard of Verdi. When his facade cracks, though, he collapses completely, beating a gangster half to death and taking his money, running from the police and then taking the entire rap himself, absolving Zijia. His continued descent into impotent drunkenness, pleading with Zijia to stay with him under any circumstances is heartbreaking.

Liang’s mother and his fiancé plus Zijia’s husband, the fearsome Cyclops, are one note characters—the first two start as good hearted loving people and end the movie that way while the third is vicious when we first encounter him and stays vicious. The artists who portray them nail their characters perfectly.

“The Wild, Wild Rose is an artifact of days gone by but remains an enthralling and impressive movie.

Highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 9