The Greatest Wedding on Earth: The Mandarin-speaking heroine hosts a Cantonese radio program. She speaks fluent Cantonese and is willing to accept the new change ahead. Social assimilation is under way in the realm of popular culture—which has predominately been oriented toward the local Cantonese dialect. The popularity of radio broadcasts in the city signifies the rapid development of urban mass entertainment culture.
From The Greatest Civil War on Earth
The two antagonist fathers want to outperform each other in business as well as in their liking for local dramas and songs. Even the domestic flat becomes a contentious space, when in one scene they raise their voice so loud to sing to their favorite dialect operas in the hope of drowning the other out. Musical sound and linguistic accent feature prominently in the film to mark out the conflict of regional cultures.
The two men have to share the living room space in the rented apartment. The physical proximity and spatial contiguity in the frame visually recall the city’s problem of urban overcrowding and clashes between immigrants of diverse origins.
"I don't like Cantonese food at all." Food taste is as important a marker of cultural openness as the subject of linguistic tolerance in the film. The young woman seeks to forsake the allegiance to her own regional taste. The young's mindset also suggests a new urban mentality in which regional habits and flavors are increasingly disembedded from their origins of locality.
"Northern dishes are too oily and salty." Vice versa, the northern daughter wants to placate her future Cantonese husband by giving favor to his regional dishes.
The Japanese restaurant indicates the coexistence of foreign cultures and projects an affluent society in colonial Hong Kong. It serves as the setting for the reconciliation of the two rival fathers who finally settle a deal of business merger of their tailor shops.
From The Greatest Wedding on Earth
The utopian vision of achieving individual happiness and social integration is dramatically figured in a concluding marriage between the young pair in the comedy series produced by Cathay.
The Cathay films are known for the blending of traditional Chinese values with Western lifestyles. In the formulaic finale of the wedding ceremony in the comic series, the bride is dressed in the traditional Chinese wedding gown and ready to serve tea and pay respect to her parents-in-law.
In the third and last film of the North-vs.-South series, The Greatest Love Affair on Earth, Liu Enjia (left) plays a stubborn northerner and guardian of her girl and rejects her Cantonese suitor. Leung Sing-bo (right) performs in drag and impersonates the rich aunt of his Cantonese friend to seduce and deceive the northerner father.
In the filmic world, various filmmakers and companies of opposite political leanings, Cantonese and Mandarin productions included, took up the theme of the refugee problem and primitive, dreadful housing conditions. In Cantonese filmmaking, one of the prominent works that centered on the urban underclass in crammed tenement houses was In the Face of Demolition [Weilou chunxiao, the Chinese title literary meaning “the perilous building at dawn”] (Li Tie, 1953). This topical film was produced by Union Films [Zhonglian] , a collectively-run studio founded in 1952 by a group of progressive leftwing Cantonese filmmakers and artists.
Union Films disapproved of the shortsightedness and kind of malpractice prevailing in the Cantonese movie industry, which primarily produced low-quality opera and martial arts films as cheap entertainment. The Union Films workers emphasized the need for mass enlightenment by making realistic and socially-conscious movies that addressed social and family problems. In ways that echo the May Fourth spirit of social criticism and self-strengthening, In the Face of Demolition shows the lives of lower class residents of an apartment building who have to struggle through stormy times by means of mutual help and understanding. A realistic film, it features a gallery of character-types that include a second landlord, unemployed young teacher, righteous chauffer, old technician, faded dance hostess, and ugly capitalist. Screenplay structure and motif resemble The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky. [open notes in new window]
On the other side of the political spectrum was the Mandarin production, Half Way Down [Ban xialiu shehui, literary meaning “the semi-low class society”] (Tu Guangqi, 1955), produced by the rightwing Asia Pictures. The film was an adaptation of Zhao Zifan’s novel of the same name published by the U.S.-supported Asia Publishing Company in 1955. Half Way Down depicts a group of middle-class exiled Mainlanders — university graduates, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and the like — who are explicitly victims of Communist China, brought down to the level of subhuman existence in the refugee slums of Hong Kong. The film is obviously a work of anti-Communist propaganda suffused with the nationalist message of “Recovering the Mainland.” However, its portrayal of the urban lower class, sociopolitical indictment of the capitalist-cum-colonial culture of the city, and affirmation of communal solidarity of the downtrodden subjects make the film thematically affiliated with its leftist counterparts.
As scholars have also pointed out, while this “lower depths” genre reveals the legacy of Gorky’s stage play, it also constitutes a “chronotope” of urban crowding. It presents a social microcosm that has fueled the imagination and critical attitude of Chinese filmmaking for decades. Another example of this kind of tenement drama is the varied popular production of The House of 72 Tenants, which underwent many revisions and adaptations from the stage to the screen, moving from the prewar Shanghai stage play to cinematic versions in postwar Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
In the early 1960s, the North-South urban film comedies must have evoked a cinematic memory of a whole genre of film works from the past decade dealing with urban overcrowding and social and economic disparity. While the comedies satirize ethnic and linguistic conflicts among urban migrants, they engage a diametrically different vision of societal development in new urban spaces than the kind of ideological outlook these films' cinematic predecessors adopted toward the refugee ghetto. There is a shift of cinematic settings (though a great deal of them are staged in studio sets) that is also remarkable. The North-South comedy series deal with the changing cityscape and the modern lifestyles of bourgeois inhabitants. In terms of characterization, the comedies delineate “petty urbanites” from different walks of life and professions:
Central to the film's new spatial representations of urban daily life is the way they depict neighborhoods of commercial shops and restaurants. In The Greatest Wedding, northerner Liu Enjia opens a Peking cuisine restaurant in the vicinity of a Cantonese-style restaurant run by the local proprietor Leung Sing-bo. The locational juxtaposition and opposition of the two restaurants mirror the regional conflicts of northern and southern cultures. It is because of the physical proximity and spatial contiguity between the neighboring shops that the two owners strive to undercut each other’s business in cutthroat competition. Liu seizes a big deal with Leung’s longtime patron by promoting his banquet with slashed prices, while Leung in revenge lures away Liu’s headwaiter. Meanwhile Liu gives out free beer to his customers and Leung quickly responds by hiring a crowd of fellow neighbors to partake of the free drink in Liu’s restaurant so as to upset his big offer.
In The Greatest Civil War, the character of Liu opens a swanky tailor shop next to an old fashioned one run by southerner Leung. Liu starts his business with a bang by launching a lavish cocktail party much to the displeasure of his Cantonese counterpart. Leung’s loathing of the northerner deepens as Liu goes to great lengths to offer fat commissions to tourist guides, henceforth crippling the business of his rival.
In spatial terms, the comedies portray emerging urban locales of commercial activities. The competing tailor shops and restaurants embody a microscopic urban corner of the merchant class, whose members have to face each other with enmity in cutthroat competition. In The Greatest Civil War, the two rivals not only have their business establishments in the same neighborhood, but they also find themselves coincidentally renting a room next to each other in the same apartment building; thus the two families share the same flat. The men's antagonism in business persists as well in their domestic life when the living room becomes a contentious space between the two.
A very funny moment has the characters of Liu and Leung pitted against each other, when they each try to tune the radio to their preferred dialect channels. The battle of the airwaves winds up with the two contenders singing their favorite operatic numbers (of course, in their respective dialects) in a falsetto voice in order to drown the opponent out. To reiterate, the dramatic element of sound (singing and talking) features prominently in these comedies. The spatial metaphor of high urban density (two families to a flat) complements the acoustic representations of chaos, conflict, and excommunication (between different dialects and meanings) among people.
To add humor and complication to the two characters’ domestic rivalry, a modernized and luxurious commodity called the refrigerator had come into the house in the beginning of the story. In Hong Kong of the early 1960s, buying a refrigerator was surely a sumptuous consumption that few households could afford. First, northerner Liu has brought it on “time payments” (a new way of commercial transaction). It later turns out that Liu has extravagantly spent more than he can pay for it. The appliance soon changed hands. Then Leung bought it back at a secondhand price. The domestic electric device becomes an eye-catching object of affluence and prestige and thus rivalry between the two men. (The camera repeatedly captures the towering presence of the electric appliance in the living room.)
Both Liu’s vanity in displaying his wealth and Leung’s opportunism in fighting for a luxurious object can be aptly described as “conspicuous consumption” (as Thorstein Veblen calls it in The Theory of the Leisure Class , 1899, a classic study of the U.S. middle class and their consumption predispositions in the modern industrial society). In other words, the men's longing for possession reflects middle class aspirations for wealth and the good life. While their territorial fight over domestic space echoes the themes of congested urban living and conflicts of regional dialects and cultures, more significantly it is bourgeois lifestyle and aspiration that constitute the comedy's narrative logic.
It is their lust for economic power and urge for business success that initiate these confrontations between northerner and southerner. The Greatest Civil War touches on the latest consumption pattern of the middle class and fierce market competition in the restaurant business. It also treats the two tailor-shop owners as aggressive entrepreneurs who try to edge each other out of the market. The film gives a glimpse of the early phase of finance capitalism, however, when toward the end we see the Cantonese tailor acts as a moneylender. He tries to make the best of his capital when his tailoring business has declined. By a comic twist of fate, then, his neighbor Liu begs to borrow money from him when the northerner’s firm is driven to near bankruptcy. It comes as no surprise that Leung will turn down Liu’s appeal. Liu soon retaliates by badmouthing Leung in the face of Leung's company partner who is convinced to break up their association later.
The bourgeois wish to acquire affluence and comfort, and the domestic conflict which that striving creates are recurrent themes in many studio productions. Among them, Our Dream Car [Xiangju meiren] (Yi Wen, 1959) stands out as an obvious example. The film exposes how a newlywed couple struggles to buy a motorcar. Eventually that experience turns out to affect their domestic lives and even put their marriage at risk. In the film, the husband and wife are white-collar workers who rent a room in a shared flat. With very little extra money to afford a new car, they skimp on their own needs and work hard to save some money for the down payment on the car. The film shows the bourgeois thrill of buying and owning this modern vehicle by providing details about taking driving lessons and the daily routines of operating a car. It presents the dilemma of how the Chinese middle class might fit into the new social system while maintaining the integrity of the family. Like other MP&GI urban films, Our Dream Car responds to the process of a city growing up by introducing the audience to the logistics of car mortgage, insurance, salesmanship, and the banking system, practices that are characteristic of a large city’s commercial development and modernization.
The Cathay film world forged a modern outlook in its productions by utilizing modern technology, initiating a studio management and star system, and assimilating popular genres (romantic comedy, musical, and melodramas). It did so in the Hollywood fashion. Expressions of urbanity and embrace of capitalist modernity were themes in a great many urban film dramas and comedies in this period. The studio produced popular films showing urbanites' modern daily lives. As critics have noted, the films often
Yet the films also stage clashes between traditional and modern morality, between individualism and valuing the family. As a film scholar suggests,
For a film industry that mostly consisted of Chinese émigrés and a cultural elite supported by overseas Chinese capital, the Hollywood mode of filmmaking promised up-to-date systems of industrial production, mass reproduction, and consumption for a modernizing city. This aesthetic appropriation of Hollywood styles could aptly express and foresee the modern lifestyle and culture of an emerging middle class. For the filmmakers of the Chinese diaspora, more intriguingly, their image of the West was less inspired by colonialism than by the Hollywood modern.
As regards the North-South film comedies, Zhang Ailing, the screenwriter, was responsible for their sensibility in regards to cultural collisions and urban touches. Zhang, a renowned Shanghai-born writer, left China a few years after the establishment of the Communist regime. She wrote a number of screenplays for MP&GI after she settled in the United States. An inveterate movie fan, film critic, and creative writer from the sophisticated cosmopolitan background of Shanghai, Zhang was an admirer of Hollywood movies and well-versed in melodrama, urban dramas, and especially screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Scholars point out that Zhang’s screenplays — these include The Battle of Love [Qingchang ru zhangchang] (1957), A Tale of Two Wives [Rencai liangde] (1958), The Wayward Husband [Taohua yun] (1959), June Bride [Liuyue xinniang] (1960) — mostly deal with urban romances and sexual battles reminiscent of the Hollywood screwball comedy.
Some believe that Zhang’s cinematic models could have been taken from such sophisticated Hollywood comedies as Bringing up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), while they were localized versions with Chinese ethics and family values. Zhang’s screenwriting certainly gave an added eclecticism to the MP&GI output, as seen in her renditions of foreign dramatic texts within local Chinese settings. The Battle of Love was an adaptation of The Tender Trap by Max Shulman. The Greatest Love Affair on Earth, the third and last film of the North-South series, goes beyond the formula of linguistic conflict. It takes its main plot of gender mix-ups and transvestism from Brandon Thomas’ play Charley's Aunt.  Zhang’s adaptation turns the farce into a social satire of money-grabbing society; it also mocks the Chinese tendency to worship things foreign and from the West.
In light of the common thematic trope of courtship and marriage in both Chinese and Hollywood film traditions, however, the MP&GI urban comedies have striking variations and differences from their Western parallels, which illuminate the local flavors of the Chinese films in their own context. A scholar even put the North-South films under the rubric of the “realistic comedy” since they cope with the realities of social and ethnic integration and acculturation.
Crucial to the refined screwball drama is the presence of fast-paced, precisely timed, witty, sarcastic dialogue between the characters. (The screwball genre became popularized during the early sound era and had much to do with the advent of sound technology in Hollywood filmmaking.) The fast exchange of clever repartee between the fictional characters, often courting couples, indicates the sophisticated maturity of the cosmopolitan urbanites in this Hollywood genre. In the North-South series, however, we find more lively slang expressions and homegrown speeches that appeal to an indigenous audience. In the Chinese genre, cross-dialect nuances play an important function as the characters make daily conversation laced with folk humor. Colloquial expressions and puns effectively structure the dramatic gags and punch lines, leading to comical actions and even physical fights in the films. In fact, as Wang Tianlin recalled, because Zhang Ailing was not familiar with the Cantonese dialect and the local Hong Kong situation, his team had to improvise the gags and comic moments during shooting. The Cantonese actor Leung Sing-bo had a great deal of creative input, with his improvised acting and colloquial slang generated on the spot. Stephen Soong also revised and enriched the Cantonese parts in Zhang’s original scripts.
The successful MP&GI comedies demonstrate the importance of the elements of linguistic utterance and performance as the films humorously dwell upon the details of local daily life. Unlike the elegant Hollywood screwball genre, the North-South series mixes high and low vernacular with a narrative interest in the quotidian and everyday. Besides language sensitivity, the films also use food cultures and eating habits to highlight and even parody certain cultural clichés among the common folk. While Chinese restaurants and domestic space are contested war zones for the fathers' generation, the young lovers have romantic encounters in Western-style eateries and coffee houses. The urban locale of the Westernized restaurant stands for “modern space” —
Finally, a Western-style teahouse is where the fathers come to negotiate terms of a marriage alliance. In a riotous “fight scene,” however, the two old men cause havoc in the teahouse with frantic punches, fighting in their respective regional schools of kung-fu. As the comedy balances verbal accusations with slapstick actions, it combines lowbrow and middlebrow taste and playful and anarchic actions to please local moviegoers.
Food provides both a backdrop (the restaurants) and a recurring symbol of cultural prejudice vs. openness. Culinary taste becomes an indication of cultural tolerance that makes for good martial relationships. In The Greatest Civil War, the Mandarin-speaking girlfriend (Ding Hao) tries to appease her future Cantonese husband by claiming that “Northern dishes are salty and greasy.” They will have Cantonese cuisines at home after their marriage. The Cantonese daughter (Bai Luming) says to her Mandarin-speaking suitor that they will stick with Northern food in the future.
In The Greatest Wedding, the character of Ding Ho passes an instant cooking demonstration to prepare a delicious dish of Cantonese turnip cake in her virgin visit to her prospective in-laws. The food joke illustrates the truth that claims about a distinct local flavor or about the fixed identity of a regional culture are untenable. We see in the film this can simply be produced and transported — in this episode, the heroine can make a good turnip cake with just a cooking menu in hand! By implication, the boundaries of regional and local that defined many previous social relationships are no longer meaningful as these kinds of boundaries become dissolved in a metropolitan setting.
Significantly, the northerner daughter in The Greatest Wedding can also speak fluent Cantonese and she hosts Cantonese radio programs in the city. Radio broadcasts as a form of popular culture in the 1950s and 60s signified the newest urban entertainment, and in fact they helped shape a common culture among people with different tastes, preferences, and mother tongues. This kind of "mixture" in the films' plots and characterizations clearly shows that even dialects or food tastes do not sufficiently define the localities and identities of a people involved in the process of assimilation that comes with urbanization. Language and cultural differences, it seems the films are saying, will not pose the same problems for a new generation of urbanites.
Writers on the Hollywood screwball comedy have often discussed its socioeconomic implications. Critics have generally criticized the genre, which dominated the Depression-era U.S. screen, as escapist entertainment or a fairy tale for its portrayal of middle-to-upper-class society. But some argue that this kind of comedy was also scripted around engaging social commentary. For instance, the sexual confrontation and courtship between the screwball couple are often emblematic of differences in social class and ideology. One classic example, It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), brings out the romantic antagonism between an heiress and a middleclass journalist. Working out these antagonisms through courtship and marriage, therefore, emerges as the film's central theme.
Once we translate this utopian fantasy of classless society into a Chinese social context, we observe that the opposition in these Chinese comedies deals less with antagonistic lovers or the battle between the sexes than with disputes between family patriarchs. The narrative revolves around young lovers’ efforts to gain the father’s consent to their marriage. In The Greatest Wedding, the young couple hoodwinks their parents and feigns elopement so that the fathers have to give up their opposition. In the finale, the wedding ceremony takes place first in a church and then in traditional Chinese style, showing the blending of Western and Chinese cultures in the colonial Chinese-speaking city. The thematic undercurrent of the film shows
Marriage, then, takes on great importance as a way of legitimizing people's need for social assimilation and harmony. The young people assert their conjugal rights when they disregard the patriarch’s restrictions and establish a Western-style nuclear family for their own future. The bonds of matrimony embody at once youth's social aspirations and hopes of upward mobility as they venture to dismantle the older generation's social and cultural prejudices.
Whereas the MP&GI comedies poke fun at regional divisions, life style differences, and linguistic confusion between southerners and northerners, the films' narratives provide an important symbolic integrative force to “unite” ethnic groups and families into modern citizens who have common values and orientations. In the ending of The Greatest Civil War, both the Shanghai and Cantonese tailor-fathers run into serious debt. The upcoming marriage also leads to the timely clearing of all their debts, as the two warring family heads decide to arrange a merger of the two shops into “The United Tailors” (Nanbei he). The film ends with the unification of the two rival tailor businesses and the patriarchs' common commercial goal to upgrade their products so as to target at the European and U.S. markets. The battle of words and wits between the two tailors finally dissolves into a mutual understanding of each other.
Obviously the romantic interplay between the young siblings leads to the psychological change in the father figures and so to the business merger. Ultimately the film’s “marriage” of the two business ventures, the north and south, which provides its subtle statement on Chinese communities in diaspora, for whom aspirations of social and economic affluence override ethnic divisions. The film's ending serves as a social allegory of Hong Kong's gradual urbanization and industrialization. The city underwent a transition from a poor shelter for Mainland Chinese refugees and immigrants to an industrial town and a modern metropolitan city, supported by the Western forms of civil governance, industrial capitalism, and the free enterprise system.
These urban comedies reflect the mentality of Cathay cinema — well remembered for its projection of bourgeois Chinese families and communities in social modernization. Some have considered the Cathay pictures as providing “escapist” amusement and as popular genre films with no realistic connection with the times — since Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s saw a series of events of political turmoil, social unrest, and the continuing influx of refugees. Yet, in churning out mass-reproduced entertainment and in turning to popular Hollywood genres for inspiration, Cathay cinema catered to an emerging urban public. In lieu of shying away from the center of the motherland and the national politics of the time, Cathay films responded to societal changes and the pressures of modernity in a positive way. They provide new images of city life as increasingly commercialized, modernized, and urbanized. The North-South comedies have a localized focus on changing familial relationships and urban lifestyles, are invested with a new imaginary of the Chinese modern, and offer a timely metaphor for a society set for its economic miracle and metropolitan development.