Exhibition Feature Article: The Time We Laughed Together

Exhibition Feature Article: The Time We Laughed Together

(Text: Ka Ming)

All the best comedians in the history of Hong Kong cinema had designated partners.

Take, for example, Sun Ma Chai (aka Sun Ma Si-tsang) and Tang Kei-chen. Their films from the 1950s can still make audiences laugh after so many years. Sun Ma started in Cantonese opera and was practically a veteran performer by the time he began making films. He always looks free and spontaneous on screen. He reportedly never followed scripts, insisting instead on improvising in front of the camera, and Tang was the partner who bounced off him best. The two worked together on a series of ‘Two Fools' films, with Sun Ma playing the clever, scheming lead and Tang playing the stuttering fool who was always reprimanded by Sun Ma. The rapport between them makes them one of the most adorable screen couples in our cinema.

One of their best films is Wrong Connection (1959). Set at a time of high unemployment, the film sees the fools so desperate to make a living that they dress up as women to find work at a hotel. In their cross-dressing roles, Sun Ma and Tang are hilariously kitschy with their assumed femininity (Wrong Connection was released around the same time as American comedy classic Some Like it Hot, creating an interesting east-west contrast). In the film, Sun Ma's character, while in drag, meets a resident, played by Law Yim-hing. When Law is harassed by a rich man, she asks for help from Sun Ma, who ‘cross-dresses' as a rich, flirtatious playboy. This man-as-woman-as-man twist makes this film a stand-out example of a Chinese-language film dealing with gender confusion. Sun Ma's improvised jokes as the playboy are hilarious, as one should expect.

Both Sun Ma and Tang were slim and small in stature, their less-than ideal physiques manifestations of the difficult living conditions Cantonese cinema films of that era were fond of portraying. Yet, their characters are eternal optimists who are resilient enough to sustain them to the happy endings at the films' conclusions. A few years later, Hong Kong comedies underwent a shift, giving way to a pair of characters whose physical appearance were very different. They were Leung Sing-por and Liu Enjia, a plump pair of actors, starring together in films made by Motion Picture & General Investment Co Ltd. MP & GI productions are marked by class and elegance, made with high production values for the time. Stories take on different concerns, their lead characters no longer worried about putting food on the table. Hong Kong saw an influx of post-war migrants from the Mainland around that time, and the resulting cultural clashes were captured comically in Leung and Liu's three ‘North-South' films.

Liu played a Mandarin-speaking newcomer from the North who often clashed with the Hong Kong-born, Cantonese-speaking Leung. They are business competitors in both The Greatest Civil War on Earth (1961) and in The Greatest Wedding on Earth (1962), tailors in the former and restaurant owners in the latter. And they are constantly at war, not only on the business front but also looking down on each other's cultures. Their language differences are a major source of conflict. An off-hand comment by Leung in Cantonese, about Liu's frivolous spending, escalates into a battle when Liu misconstrues the comment as meaning "an imbecile". A famous Cantonese opera performer, Leung had a wide range of expressions, unique comedic timing and a talent for improvisation. In the best set piece of The Greatest Civil War on Earth, Liu becomes so annoyed by Leung playing a Cantonese song on the radio that he begins belting out a Peking opera performance as revenge. Leung counters with a Cantonese opera performance of his own. The battle of the tongues ends up a battle of decibels, disturbing the sleep of their own children.

The younger generation is an important subplot in the ‘North-South' films, creating a contrast between the perspectives of different generations. While the older generation draws borders as they battle for supremacy, their children are curious about and even envious of each other's cultures, socialising behind the fathers' backs in spite of the language barriers. It's surprising to see that films from 60 years ago are so open-minded about the integration of Hong Kong and Mainland cultures.

It appears that Hong Kong comedians are all fond of cross-dressing. Sun Ma Si-tsang and Tang Kei-chen did it, and so did Leung Sing-por. In The Greatest Love Affair on Earth (1964), the third film in the ‘North-South' series, Leung dresses up as a flirty rich woman in a hilarious performance that many call a highlight of his comedic career. It's worth noting that Hong Kong has always been in the unique position of having local and Hollywood films being shown at the same time, giving Hong Kong audiences a balanced diet of both East and West, as well as plenty of inspiration to local filmmakers. Sun Ma Si-tsang and Tang Kei-chen's ‘Two Fools' films have traces of silent comedies by Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, as well as references to teddy boys, cowboys and Elvis. While Some Like It Hot and Wrong Connection had their share of commonalities, the former truly did inspire Every Cloud Has Its Silver Lining (1960), which saw Sun Ma and Tang as two men who cross-dress as members of a female dancing troupe to run away from loan sharks. Leung Sing-por's cross-dressing in The Greatest Love Affair on Earth may have also been influenced by Some Like It Hot (though the script by Eileen Chang was partially adapted from the British play Charley's Aunt). Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the influence of Some Like It Hot encompasses three generations of Hong Kong comedies — Michael Hui's Happy Din Don(1986) is another local take on the Hollywood classic.

Sometimes, the times truly do make the hero. In the 1970s, Hong Kong society — and its films – entered a new era. The Hui brothers' densely packed comedies ruled the box office and broke records. Not only does Michael Hui have the comic rhythm and humour of Leung Sing-por, he also finds inspiration from silent films and Western comedies, creating with his two younger brothers, Sam and Ricky, a comedic trio reminiscent of The Marx Brothers. Michael often plays the petty, frugal boss who puts profit above all else, a demonstration of the Hong Konger's consuming desire to strike it rich. However, his films always end with the realisation that human relationship is more important than profits and benefits. Even after Sam left the trio to make films for Cinema City, Michael continued to work closely with Ricky.

Ricky's role in Michael's films is like the one Tang Kei-chen plays in Sun Ma Si-tsang's movies, that of the sidekick. The major difference is that while the scheming characters that Michael played often get his just desserts, Ricky's characters — routinely bullied by Michael's characters — often get a taste of success thanks to sheer dumb luck. In The Private Eyes (1976), Ricky plays Michael's assistant in a private detective firm. When a cinema is threatened with a bomb, the owner brings the explosive device to Michael for help. Michael then asks Ricky to risk his life and tests the authenticity of the bomb, but Michael is the one who ends up getting hurt. In Security Unlimited (1981), Michael, playing the head of a security guard unit, asks his men to learn how to drive inside the office so that the company can save money. However, Ricky's character is such a terrible driver that he accidentally sends the company car — and Michael's character — into the sea. In Chicken and Duck Talk (1988), Ricky's character quits his job at Michael's roast duck restaurant out of protest and joins an American fried chicken franchise. The pair ends up fighting on the street dressed as a chicken and a duck while promoting their respective eateries in their mascot costumes.

Michael Hui's influence on comedy reaches far and wide. One of those influenced is Stephen Chow, who wore his inspiration on his sleeves during his television days.

Stephen Chow and Ng Man-tat is another cherished pairing in Hong Kong cinema. Their films include All for the Winner (1990), Fight Back to School (1991), Royal Tramp (1992) The Mad Monk (1993), Love on Delivery(1994), A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora's Box (1995) and Shaolin Soccer (2001). Chow and Ng began working together on television, at the TVB network. Their collaborations during those days, such as in the shows The Final Combat (1989) and The Justice of Life (1989), were already infused with the subversive, oddball mo lei tau (nonsensical) humour that would later become Chow's signature. The two play father and son in The Justice of Life, with Ng as the parent whose indiscretions prompt frequent ridicules from the son. One running gag has Ng go into a tai chi frenzy whenever Chow sings the song ‘The General's Command', which is repeated in the later film All for the Winner, in which Ng loses control whenever Chow calls his character ‘Third Uncle'. The duo's interactions in real life were equally hilarious, becoming favourite fodder for newspapers' entertainment pages. At one point, they even had a public vow of bonds — with the older Ng declaring himself the godson of the younger Chow.

‘If you can guess, I won't be called ‘God of Cookery!' The core of Stephen Chow and Ng Man-tat's comedy is indeed rooted in unpredictability. Their gags sometimes leave audiences not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In The Mad Monk, Ng's character comes down to the human world from Heaven to remind Chow's character that he's actually a god. In that scene, the legendary warrior Pindola of folk tales played by Ng is merely a mad man with the mental capacity of a baby. However, don't underestimate the subversive power of mo lei tau; it can also be a philosophy to live by. For example, when bombarded with heavy-handed reasoning, one can always rebuke with a quote made famous by Chow: ‘are you just talking?' The ‘why so serious' logic probably got started then. When the people are consumed by a feeling of helplessness because of a future that is uncertain and worrisome, this can be very therapeutic.

This essay is a remembrance of those brilliant comic pairings that we used to watch on the silver screen. It was a time we could truly laugh together.

(Translated by Kevin Ma)

The views put forward in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Hong Kong Film Archive.