China Girls, Redux
Wong Kar-wai's Hua Yang De Nian Hua
A while back, I wrote about "China Girls," those anonymous women who appeared briefly alongside color strips in film countdown reels (as pictured above), an industry practice used to calibrate color balance and tone from 1928 to 1992 before the advent of digitalization made them unnecessary. (Why the term "China Girls" was used to describe them is anyone's guess; they were also sometimes referred to, in more politically correct language, as "projector girls" or "Kodak girls.")
I had first discovered them thanks to a short film by local filmmaker John Heyn (Heavy Metal Parking Lot, 1986), "Girls On Film," which remains the definitive celluloid collection of images of these women.
I thought about China Girls again last night as I was watching a short film by Wong Kar-wai that was included on the Criterion DVD release of his film In the Mood For Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000). This 2 1/2-minute film, "Hua Yang De Nian Hua" (2000) is, like Heyn's film, an edited collage of images of "China Girls," only in his case these really are women from China, being images of long-gone Hong Kong actresses preserved in the Hong Kong Film Archives. Wong Kar-wai said he made this short film, which was shown at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, as the inspiration for his In the Mood For Love project, which is not just a story about unrequited love but a reflection on and a yearning for a bygone era: early 1960s Hong Kong. At this time there was a community of first generation, post-1949 refugees from the People's Republic of China, especially from Shanghai and the Cantonese provinces, who had relocated to the British colonial port city to star life anew. Whatever the reasons, this was also the most productive period in the history of Hong Kong cinema. According to the Hong Kong Film Archive, 2,200 feature films were made during this time, including some of the best in its long history. (It was also a time marred by several sensational movie suicides, including those of actresses Tu Chuan, Lin Dai, Kitty Ting Hao and Loh Ti.)
I don't know any of the actresses (I wonder if any of the suicide victims mentioned above appear) or the films these clips are taken from, but the film provides a good visual reference to what Wong Kar-wai was thinking about and where he got his source images and fashions for the look and feel of In the Mood For Love. DVD program notes state that it includes scenes from vintage Chinese films that were considered lost until some nitrate prints were discovered in a California warehouse during the 1990s. Wong Kar-wai then set his montage to a "goldie oldie" song by Zhou Xuan. This song is also included on the soundtrack to In the Mood for Love.
You can watch this short film on YouTube: Hua Yang De Nian Hua. See what you think.
"Countdown To Ecstasy: China Girls" (Accelerated Decrepitude blog)
Hua Yang de Nian Hua (Wikipedia)