The Greatest Wedding on
A few minutes into this 1962 Cathay release I
felt a sense of disappointment when I realized that this wasn’t a true
sequel to the classic film, The Greatest Civil War on Earth. One might
easily have assumed it would be since it is directed by the same person
(Wong Tinlam), has all six of the major actors returning and “Civil War”
ended with two couples in love and seemingly headed for the marriage alter.
The two feuding families in Civil War sneaked affectionately under my skin
and I was looking forward to their story being continued. As it turns out,
this film revolves around two entirely different families, but from a thematic
perspective it covers much of the same “us vs. them” territory and the
actors take on much the same personalities as in the previous film.
Both films use two families to symbolize the antagonism
within Hong Kong between the natives and the large inflow of refugees from
the Mainland – split into the Northerners and those from the Canton region.
This was a real issue in the early 1950’s as Hong Kong was almost overrun
by the massive stream of Mainlanders coming into Hong Kong due to the civil
war that took place in China after 1945 and then the imposition of Communist
rule upon that country in 1949. More than 2,000,000 refugees (referred
to officially by the British government as “squatters”) moved into the
city at this time, more than quadrupling Hong Kong’s population.
As in any city overrun by refugees, Hong Kong
was not prepared for this onslaught of people and did not have enough housing,
schools and social services to deal with it. For a number of years the
British policy was to do nothing for these refugees, simply letting them
fend for themselves. This created social and economic conflicts as many
of these penniless refugees not only spoke a different language but also
had different customs and different tastes. Many of the Northerners were
from the Shanghai region – including much of Shanghai’s film community
and their business entrepreneurs who considered Cantonese “as uncouth provincials”*.
This influx of both film people and the now large numbers of Mandarin speaking
populace led Hong Kong towards developing a dual language cinema
- that during the 1960’s and 70’s was to tilt heavily towards Mandarin
with the popularity of the Cathay films and the soon to be domination of
the Shaw Brothers. By the time this film was made in the early 60’s many
of these “regional” conflicts had settled down and the film could thus
look at these antagonisms in a humorous manner.
These films comically explore these cultural differences
by having two family heads come in conflict with one another over everything,
but in the end the message that clearly emerges is that they are all Chinese
and must learn to live together in this small crowded city. The families
in this film consist of the Northern one with the father (Liu Enja), his
wife (Wang Lai) and their two grown up children (Kitty Ting Hao and Kelly
Lai Chen). On the other side of the fence we have the patriarch (Leung
Sing-bo), his wife (Ma Hsiao-ying) and their two adult children (Christine
Pai and Cheung Ching). When Liu Enja opens a competing restaurant
– with Northern cuisine – across the street from Leung, tempers and insults
fly with a regional tint to them (in “Civil War” they opened competing
tailor shops). Both fathers are adamantly against their children marrying
anyone but someone from their own cultural background.
Not surprisingly, Kitty falls in love with Cheung
not knowing that their fathers hate one another but certainly realizing
their opposition to marrying outside of their culture. So they both try
and pass themselves off in front of the other parents as being either Northerners
or Cantonese – but eventually this ruse falls apart when the parents meet
- and all hell breaks loose. It is of course only a matter of time before
Kelly meets Cheung’s sister – and in a very sweet scene they are literally
star struck with each other and just stare at one another for hours in
the grip of total young love.
Most critics seem to deem this Eileen Chang scripted
follow-up a lesser film than the first “Greatest on Earth” film (there
is one more called The Greatest Love Affair on Earth) and it not very originally
covers much of the same story with minor changes, but I actually found
the comic elements in this one to be much funnier than in the first. There
are many scenes which play out wonderfully slyly here – Kitty pretending
to be able to cook a Cantonese dish (turnip cakes), Cheung trying to pass
himself off as of Northern origin with his woeful Mandarin, the dowry scene
with two lists of gifts as long as the father’s arms and the terrific scene
in which the two fathers battle each other in a restaurant (Leung pretending
to be a disciple of Wong Fei-hung and some of the scene scored to Dick
Dale surf music!) while the waiter (Tsang Choh Lam) looks on and adds up
the damage. Language itself as one would expect plays a large role in the
film as both Mandarin and Cantonese are mixed constantly – and both are
often teased – as in Leung’s character’s name sounding like “nonsense”
in Mandarin, while Liu’s character’s name sounds like “insanity” in Cantonese.
Whoever did the subtitles did a fine job in depicting these play on words
to a non-Chinese speaker as myself. Though certainly the offspring and
their romances get a large share of the screen time, it is really the two
fathers who carry this film with very funny performances and great comic
timing as they bounce off one another like old cranky friends.
My rating for this film: 8.0
* Quote and figures from "A Borrowed Place
– The History of Hong Kong" by Frank Welsh
The DVD is all-regional even though it states
Region 3 – like all the Cathay films.