It's Always Spring


In a 95-minute film that has nine songs performed you don’t expect much time left for an intricate plot and that is certainly the case in this 1962 Cathay musical. It is primarily a vehicle for two of its biggest female stars – Cathay’s two in-house sultry sex bombs - Julie Yeh Feng and Helen Li Mei. Not only do they get the lion’s share of the acting screen time, but Julie gets to sing her own songs while Li Mei is dubbed by Winnie Wei Xiuxian. On the soundtrack though Li Mei sings her own music and you can find some of her music available on the Internet for sale*. So this is a film primarily for fans of either of these two actresses or fans of Yao Min who was one of the top songwriters of the day.
The writer of this little soufflé was none other than Chang Cheh with a script as far away from heroic male bonding as one can imagine. He was one of Cathay’s writers before he left for the Shaw Brothers in 1963 where he eventually got the opportunity to direct. One has to wonder how the history of Hong Kong cinema might have changed if he had been allowed to direct these urban female oriented films for Cathay or if he had gone to them with this crazy idea, “how about letting me direct a male driven masculine sword fighting film?” and if they had agreed. Later - much too late - Cathay did try to move into the martial art arena but Chang was long gone. Chang came to Hong Kong to work at the request of Helen Li Mei in 1958 and then later joined up with Cathay in 1960 and wrote scripts for “Song without Words”, “The Girl with the Golden Arm” and “You Were Meant for Me” as well as for this film. He also apparently wrote some of the lyrics in the songs!
Though this seems ready made for a diva drama of combating giant egos – think Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in these roles – the film only edges around the corners but refuses to be little more than a tame exchange of competing songs with everyone playing by the rules. Aileen (Julie Yeh Feng) is a well-known singer from Singapore who has come to Hong Kong in search of employment – one suspects that there must be reasons for this – a broken heart, a scandal perhaps – but none of her background is ever revealed. When the press asks her if she prefers Hong Kong men to Singaporean men, she replies, “Men from Singapore make good husbands, while men from Hong Kong make good lovers”. She brings with her a younger coltish sister Xiaolin (Zhang Hui Xian - ("Fairy, Ghost, Vixen") who is also an aspiring singer and hits high on the adorable scale. With the help of connections, she gets the shipping magnate Xu (Roy Chiao) to assist her in obtaining a job at a hotel nightclub where she meets the bandleader, Zhengsheng (Kelly Lai), who immediately falls for those big eyes and full figure.
Problems arise though when Haiyin (Helen), the “Hong Kong Singing Queen” gets wind of this – Xu is her man and Zhengsheng is her brother – and she sees this “other” woman encroaching on her both professionally and personally. So she goes to the manager of the nightclub and insists that she be hired to sing instead of Aileen – but in a bind he hires both women and has them sing on alternative evenings. This is good for us as we get to hear a series of songs over the film sung by both actresses. But no one here ever gets really nasty – I was looking for a “buckle your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride” scenario – but everyone plays it with kid gloves. Li Mei and Chiao have a nice mature chemistry that was also revealed in the film “Death Trap”, but the chemistry between Julie and Kelly is thinner than the air in the Andes – he is like a shy frat boy putting his head in a volcano. There are a number of Cathay supporting players on board – Tien Ching as Haiyin’s number one fan, Liu Enjia as Aileen’s fan, Wu Jiaxiang as the television manager, Cheung Kwong-chiu as the flower deliverer and a few others that I wish I could identify as I see them in a lot in these Cathay films (two of them on the left and right pictured below).
This didn’t strike me as one of Yao Min’s better scores – “Air Hostess”, “Cinderella and her Little Angels”, “Les Belles” struck me as more tuneful – but there are a few fine numbers here – the Won Ton song, the terrific duet with Julie and her sister and the ribbon song in which Helen twirls this long ribbon for great visual effect. Both actresses are good singers and you can find CDs of Julie’s work though I have yet to come across anything of Helen’s. Yao Min was sadly suddenly to die in 1967 at the age of fifty and right before the Shaw’s began their string of terrific musicals.

My rating for this film: 6.0

* Thanks to Malcolm Tay for this information on the music. He also provided a link to hear Li Mei sing.

"If you're interested to hear what Li Mei's actual singing sounds like, paste this URL into your
browser and press "Enter":

mms://202.172.229.226/RadioRSI/chinese/RSI_C_0530Sun2030.asf

If you have Windows Media Player, the player should be able to play this. This is a streaming audio file of a
Li Mei segment on Radio Singapore International, which has a weekly, 30-minute special on old Mandarin pop.
It's conducted in Mandarin, unfortunately, but the songs are all sung by Li Mei."