Air Hostess

By the second half of the 1950’s a strong middle class was beginning to emerge in Hong Kong with money in their pockets that allowed them to begin buying consumer goods that had been out of their reach not too long before and to go on holidays to other parts of the world. Many of the Cathay films inhabit this middle class world in which modernization is being introduced. Our Dream Car is about a young couple purchasing their first automobile, in Our Sister Hedy many of the conversations are crowded around the telephone, a new refrigerator takes center stage in The Greatest Civil War on Earth and here the ease and comfort of international air travel is an indication of a changing Hong Kong.
One of the biggest symbols of this entry into the modern age was the air hostess – immaculately tailored in their shape fitting jackets and skirts with a cap perched jauntily at an angle on their head. It was a new age and they romantically represented a yearning to go beyond the city walls of Hong Kong – to discover a world that most had seen only on movie screens. Of course, the film company (called MP&GI at this time) also had ties to an airline (Malaysian Airline) company partly owned by its founder Loke Wan Tho – and this film often feels like an advertisement to travel and see the world. It is a calling to become part of the global experience. Ironically, Loke was to die in an airline crash in 1964.
Grace Chang, Soo Fung and Julie Yeh Feng
For some of us, this film was a lovely trip back in time – when the planes were propeller driven and you stared out of the window with fascination at the whirling blades, when you had to walk across the tarmac and board the planes by movable stairs, when the hostesses were young and stunning, when you received silverware to eat with, when passengers wore formal attire, when you felt like you were on an adventure – that a plane was a magical carpet ride to somewhere new and exciting. At least that is how I fondly and admittedly vaguely recall it. I remember as a child flying with my parents from New York to Calcutta – a forty-hour trip in those days with berths to sleep in and cheerful hostesses doing their best to keep the food coming. Now of course it’s all speed and economy – get you there fast and leave the comfort behind* – perhaps unavoidable in these times when people feel they have to be connected to something or someone every minute of every day. Still watching this film brought back a flush of nostalgia when walking up those stairs and getting the window seat was more exciting than anything in the world.
Grace, Roy Chiao and Kelly Lai
Another theme that runs through this film is the modern woman. Back in those days there were certainly not a lot of opportunities for women to take on positions of prestige and independence – and admittedly there is some truth as one character states in the film that air hostesses are simply waitresses in the sky – but they had a huge status in society (as Cathay hostesses still do in HK where they are talked about by some friends in tones of awe and one senses from a film like Chungking Express that they still represent something romantic and sexy in the consciousness of people) and this was a career path for some – as long as they didn’t get married! Most airlines in those days (and until fairly recently I believe?) had a policy of only hiring single women and if you married you had to leave the company – and this is the case in this film.  But a woman was making a statement by becoming an airline hostess – that she was adventurous, modern, independent and that she wasn’t simply marriage fodder – though of course many hostesses ended up meeting the man they would marry on the job – either pilots or often wealthy passengers!
The film focuses on three single women who all join up for their own reasons – Grace Chang wants to prove that she is not a “canary in a cage” – much to the chagrin of her mother (an actress who also plays her mother in Mambo Girl) who has a nice wealthy man ready to marry her, the shy Soo Fung joins basically to be with her friend Grace and Julie Yeh Feng appears to be looking for the glamour that this lifestyle presents. Once accepted they have to go through a period of unusual training – how to deal with disorderly and irritating passengers (though probably nothing like the fellow who defecated on the serving cart a few years ago!), how to serve coffee while balancing a book on their head (don’t try this at home), life jackets, announcements, the proper smile and so forth.
All along the weak, the unfit, the wandering minds are being weeded out and only the strong survive to service people like you and me. Grace is the teachers pet – Ms. Kang – and often her character seems to be the character from Mambo Girl a few years before – and as in that film everyone loves Grace – and as in that film she stops from time to time to sing a song! Soo Fung proves too shy to be a hostess in the sky and instead gets stuck behind the counter. There is a touching little scene of her reaching out to a model airplane and sadly twirling its propeller – and then the film dissolves to the real thing that she can’t attain. Julie’s main problem is she has a body that suggestively curls like smoke slowly crawling through a window  - or as Ms. Kang notes, she walks “like she is swinging a hula hoop”.
Soo Fung, Ms Kang (?), Roy and Kelly
After this, the film basically turns into a travelogue as Grace travels to Taipei, Singapore and Bangkok and walks about town. Seeing her tour the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok was a special pleasure – it looks much the same as it does today but no people! She also has sparks fly between her and a pilot played by a handsome Roy Chiao – of the romantic and fighting kind. Soo Fung hooks up with Kelly Lai Chen while Julie stays footloose and free. There isn’t a lot of drama in this film at all – and not much of a story really – but it captures a wonderful mood and a different era beautifully and somehow in its simplicity manages to be surprisingly touching. I went on about Grace Chang in my review of Mambo Girl and I could do so again – she is even more fabulous in color (the first color film from Cathay) as you are blown away by her radiant smile and dancing eyes. She has an astonishing ability to draw the viewer into her emotional orbit – when she smiles you feel wonderful for her, when she is heartbroken you want to hurt the person who caused her this pain.
Though the film is not really a musical in the sense that there are lavish or unrealistic musical numbers – Grace does sing four songs – all quite lovely (A Taiwan Tune, Fly Me to the Blue Sky, I Love Calypso and Bell Chimes at the Temple) from composer Yao Min and lyricist Yi Wen (a.k.a. Evan Yang who also directed this film as well as Mambo Girl). Yao Min was considered one of the finest film song composers at the time and was involved in many of the musicals for both Cathay and Shaw Brothers (Mambo Girl, Calendar Girl, Les Belles). It is only in "I Love Calypso" – which is somewhat derivative of “I Love Cha Cha” from Mambo Girl – in which Grace twirls about the dance floor. According to The Cathay Story – the film and particularly the song "A Taiwan Tune" came under heavy criticism by leftists for its portrayal of a happy Taiwanese people and thus its implicit knock at Communist China.
Perhaps the most marvelous thing about this 1959 film (besides Grace Chang’s smile) is the wonderfully saturated Sirkian colors that make this look like an old postcard at times. The film’s color scheme is constantly drenched in various shades of blue that suggest flying in the sky and the flesh tones are suffused with rich exaggeration – everything is so colorful and expressive. The film just has retro-cool all around it - you almost expect Sinatra to board the plane and break out into "Come fly with me. Lets fly, lets fly away"!
I have read complaints about the DVD and a radiation problem that had made viewing it difficult – but I have to say that I did not notice it at all while watching it – and only noticed it when I was capturing images a foot away from my monitor. Also, I realized that this region 3 disc played fine on my region 1 player when I put it in by mistake. There are clearly some little bits missing from the DVD - a later reference to Grace almost quitting that we missed earlier on,  a couple of ugly edits that feel as if something went amiss - and according to the book "Mandarin Films and Popular Songs" (that shows a picture of the trainees in life jackets that the DVD does not have) the length of the film is 105 minutes while the DVD runs 102 minutes.

My rating for this film: 8.0

* the above statements of the current situation on airline travel are mainly directed at U.S and European carriers – flying most Asian airlines – Singapore, Thai and Cathay in particular – are still excellent experiences and the hostesses are still young and beautiful!