Since travel by air was rare, the film shows the audience what an airplane looks like, how it operates and …
... what it is like to travel on an airplane.
Pilot Lei Daying reprimands Lin Kepin for not adhering to the “ethics of service” and forgetting to serve the needs of a demanding customer.
Through the eyes of Lin Kepin, the film leads audiences to explore the beauty of Free China, Taiwan, …
... as well as the modernity of Taiwan.
Lin Kepin sings of her love of Taiwan, the “Treasured Island,” where everyone “has food to eat and enjoys a good life.”
The two lovers enjoy themselves in downtown Singapore.
Odeon, the crown jewel of Cathay’s theater empire.
Lin Kepin tells her mother that she is not ready to marry because her dream is to be free, to be a modern professional woman.
Kepin is frustrated by lack of advancement in her career. The manager tells her that the airline company’s administration and particularly pilot Lei Daying are very concerned about her and care for her because of her talent and devotion to her work.
Kepin’s supervisors helped her solve a problem with a difficult customer.
Lei Daying apologizes to Kepin in a tourist area of Bangkok for his rudeness to her because of his “total immersion in his work, which has made him become like a machine part.” Kepin, of course, understands.
At a party, the company awards Kepin with a certificate celebrating her successful promotion to senior air hostess.
Many critics have pointed out that during its peak of production between 1957 and 1962, MP&GI Mandarin-language films were predominately sleek, glamorous musicals, comedies, and urban romances that exhibited markedly obvious Hollywood influence in plot construction, generic conventions, and camera movement.[open notes in new window] This influence was no surprise. In the 1950s and 1960s, a period in which the Cold War division between Freedom and Communism was rampant and the North-South divide was clear-cut, U.S. popular culture dominated Asia. Hollywood became the “universal” standard of filmmaking. In the public mind, Hollywood represented the culture of modernity and the power of the capitalist system. Above all, it represented the standards of modern life and taste that Asians (or other developing people) should “incorporate” if they wanted to “modernize” their lives and culture. Indeed, Loke was known for his passion for Hollywood spectacles and had extensive business and personal connections with the U.S. film industry. Most of his top lieutenants, such as Robert Chung, had received training in the United States. And many of the leading writers and directors at MP&GI had worked in Voice of America radio or honed their filmmaking skills by watching, reviewing, or translating Hollywood films (in Shanghai and in Hong Kong).
At the same time, available research indicates that Cathay-MP&GI was inadvertently entangled in the Cold War politics of anti-communism. Inadvertently because as a “son of the Yellow Emperor” in Singapore-Malaya, Loke traced his ethnic connection to the ancestral land of Confucian civilization. He was reported as getting furious at a Hong Kong press conference when a reporter raised doubts about his Chineseness since he could not speak Chinese. He responded by telling everyone that he was no less a Chinese than anyone else because of his cultural heritage and his loyalty to his Chinese ethnicity. Like most overseas Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s, he identified with “Free China” – Taiwan — as the custodian of Chinese culture and thereby the only legitimate Chinese government. According to Sha Rongfeng, a Taiwan movie executive closely associated with the Nationalist government, Loke was closely connected to Taipei, so much so that in the early 1950s Nationalist officials arranged with him to extend loans to Yonghua to help it survive. Moreover, all MP&GI’s employees came from the anti-Communist exile community, and some of them were connected to Nationalist cultural officials.
These concerns for modernity and anti-communism come through powerfully in MP&GI’s prestigious picture, Air Hostess (Kong zhong xiaojie, 1959), which won the prestigious Jinding prize at Asian Film Festival. Directed by the well-respected scriptwriter-turned-director Yi Wen, who started his career in writing film reviews in wartime Shanghai, Air Hostess was a big budget film with an impressive cast – namely Ge Lan, Qiao Hong, Su Feng, and Lei Zhen — and involved location shooting in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand. It was also one of the first Hong Kong films shot in Eastman color. These high-cost, high-tech production strategies became the films’s selling points, while also serving to highlight its main theme: what it means to be modern in a rapidly changing Asia. The film represents modernity by showing an emerging Asian airline business as an incubator of a new transnational capitalist corporate culture and tracing the impact of this capitalist culture on the changing gender relationship in the “modernizing” Asia. As a publicity article of Air Hostess puts it:
Air Hostess centers upon the search of a young woman Lin Kepin (played by Ge Lan) for a meaningful career and her evolving romance with airline pilot Xu Ke (Qiao Hong). Typical of MP&GI Mandarin productions, all the characters in the film come from a cosmopolitan middle-class Shanghai migrant background. They move around in a Mandarin-speaking community and live in spacious, well appointed apartments (filled with such modern amenities of the time as pianos, big sofas and refrigerators). They enjoy a life seemingly devoid of the kinds of poverty and social and economic difficulties most people were suffering in the colony at the time. As a Mandarin-speaking minority in a predominately Cantonese population, in the fifties and sixties, they were proud of (or nostalgic for) the cosmopolitan cultures they had left behind in the mainland and their modern lifestyle there; they remained aloof from (if not contemptuous of) the local society.
In fact, flight attendant, the profession that conjured up glamour and a modern lifestyle, was invariably associated in the local mind with “northern” migrants (that is, with people from anywhere north of Canton). For example, in another pf MP&GI’s popular comedy, Wang Tianlin’s The Greatest Civil War on Earth (Nanbei he, 1961), a Cantonese-speaking businessman (Leung Shing-bo) concluded after just a quick glance at a pretty woman in an air hostess uniform that she is no local girl because
So Air Hostess focuses on this diasporic community’s changing lifestyle, attitudes and gender relations to project a trajectory of an emerging culture of capitalist modernity in Asia.
Reminiscent of MP&GI’s 1957 musical Mambo Girl (Manbo nulang), which launched Ge Lan as a superstar in Hong Kong, Air Hostess opens with a nicely constructed party scene in which the beautiful stylish Lin Kepin sings of her dream of “Flying to the Sky” (Wo yao fei shang qing tian) to an admiring well-dressed crowd. She yearns for freedom, a life of glamour and professional fulfillment, and above all the thrills of jet-setting around the globe. When the scene cuts to her at home, we see her arguing with her mother, refusing to marry a boring looking man, whose desire is to keep her in the role of traditional housewife. Rather she wants to pursue her own dream – that is, to become an air hostess.
In the 1950s, few people traveled outside of Hong Kong (or any parts of Asia in this regard) and even fewer traveled by airplane. The airborne experience of modernity was totally alien to most of the audience. The choice of air hostess as a subject of the film, to symbolize modern life, probably came from Loke, a tireless jet-setter who hopped from city to city to make business deals or pursue his varied personal interests. Loke owned several luxurious hotels in the region and was also on the board of the fledgling Malayan Airline and Cathay Pacific Airline. In fact, as if to show what airplane travel and an airborne experience were like, the film contains several long sequences detailing a series of vigorous (or humiliating) tests as well as various kinds of drills and training exercises that Kepin and other girls have to go through in order to become an air hostess. These include language drills, the correct way of moving through the airplane cabin, the proper way to walk and speak with style, and the correct manner to serve coffee to passengers. These scenes seem to be taken directly from airline publicity shorts; they are probably informative to a curious audience but generally lack entertainment value (except probably the sequence describing a series of physical tests all the applicants have to go through with only minimal clothing, which might have aroused the voyeuristic desires of some audience members.
As part of their work, Kepin and other air stewardesses (played by Ye Fen and other starlets) live like modern-day gypsies, stopping over at cities around Asia. Asia becomes a region of interconnected nations which they have access to. This allows the film to showcase the modernity of Singapore, with montages of skyscrapers and Cathay-owned movie palaces, or the exotic beauty of Bangkok. The film's imagery gives the audience an impression of watching a “travelogue” showcasing the beautiful scenery and recent achievements of Southeast Asia. But most controversial at the time was a long scene featuring the “progress of Free China” – depicting a modern, luxurious hotel in Taipei and other Taiwanese tourist attractions (e.g., Wulai Falls). The Ge Lan character is also shown singing a “Song of Taiwan” at a hotel reception to express her affection for the island. The song includes such lines as:
Critics in Hong Kong were quick to point out that the film contained much pro-Taiwan propaganda, celebrating the capitalist development, U.S.-supported industrial modernity and beauty of Free China. It did this in implied contrast to the poverty and turmoil of the mainland, thereby lending itself to the Cold War crusade of anti-communism. Such a critique might be accurate, given Loke’s identification with the Nationalist government and the pro-Taiwan sentiment among most of his employees at MP&GI. But only further research can ascertain any institutional connections between Cathay Organization and the Cold War politics in Asia.
Critic He Guan (who was to became famous the martial arts film director Zhang Che) points out a contradictory characterization of Lin Keping, which reveals the gender politics of Air Hostess. He observes that her character lacks coherence and is therefore not convincing. Although she is portrayed as defiant and independent, refusing to obey her parents so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a professional woman, she allows herself to accept with little show of inner tension all the seemingly unfair, unreasonable rules and make-dominated culture of the airline company (which included the distinct corporate hierarchy and the prohibition against any “personal life when in uniform”).
She also falls in love with the muscular pilot Xu Ke, a devoted company employee who strikes today's viewers as a male chauvinist totally oblivious to her feelings and desires. The pilot subjects Keping to various forms of public humiliation in the interest of the airline company. For example, in one scene inside the cockpit, Keping is smilingly serving coffee to the pilots, who are all men; but Xu Ke seems to be so engrossed in his work that he pays no attention to Keping. And in the following sequence inside the cabin, when Keping chitchats with a passenger, Xu Ke comes out from the cockpit to reprimand her in front of everyone for failing to serve the needs of other passengers. She almost breaks into tears.
It is clear that the modernity Air Hostess projects is markedly gendered. The airline company as a modern transnational corporation functions in the film as an expression of Western Fordist-Taylorist capitalism, which demanded total dedication and emotional identification of individual workers to the mass production regime of hierarchy, rationality, and discipline for the sake of maximum profits and efficiency. According to industrial capitalism's proponents, the system was seemingly harsh and impersonal only because of its efforts to create a disciplined, efficient work force dedicated to serving the corporate mission (and social good). It was actually thought to be a humane, fair system rewarding the best and most hard-working, dedicated of its workers. Clearly pilot Xu Ke represents the “masculine values” of rationality, discipline, and fairness celebrate by Fordist-Taylorist capitalism.
That is why the airline manager (played by Tang Zhen) tells Keping in the climax scene that despite the company’s strict and rigid demands on all its employees and Xu Ke’s roughness and seeming obliviousness to her feelings, the administration and Xu Ke care deeply for her. And in a rare light-hearted scene where Xu Ke, looking uncomfortable, apologies to Keping for his rudeness and insensitivity in scolding her in front of all the passengers. Instead of complaining, Keping, seen in close up, replies understandingly:
Their romance begins to blossom. Keping is a woman who pursues her modern dream and yet whose relationship with Xu Ke is marked by a set of patriarchal values associated with capitalist corporate culture. Thus modern life, Air Hostess seems to suggest, entails not just glamour and luxury, but most importantly also the ethics of hard work, discipline, and professionalism required by the modern capitalist system. Only by incorporating these modern “masculine” values could Asia be able to transform itself into a region of wealth and power.
Aside from Air Hostess, Cathay-MP&GI had produced a string of successful films in the 1950s and early 1960s – including Yue Feng’s comedy Battle of Love (Qingchang ru zhanchang, 1957), Tang Huang’s Sister Long Legs (Chang tui jiejie, 1960), Yi Wen’s’s melodrama Mambo Girl (Manbo nulang 1957), or Wang Tianlin’s romantic comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth and family drama Father Takes A Bribe (Xiao ernu, 1963). These films were popular in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia and won prestigious prizes in the Asian Film Festival and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival. And Loke’s charisma and the glamour and stylishness of his stars put MP&GI (as well as Hong Kong Mandarin cinema) in the limelight. According to the research of Emilie Yeh, Cathay was planning an ambitious (co)production plan in Taiwan in 1962-1963 as a way to expand both its production facilities and its market shares there.
Behind’s Loke’s charm and signature smiling face, MP&GI had never made itself a financially self-sustaining studio. According to Cathay’s Chief Accountant Heah Hock Meng, even with a few hits, MP&GI was always in red and its operation depended entirely on the money Loke took out of his family business. By 1963, it had lost a total of over HK$ 6 million, while Cathay was rapidly expanding its circuit of theaters and distribution networks. Tensions were mounting between Singapore and Hong Kong regarding budgetary control and personnel decisions. That led to Robert Chung’s resignation in 1962. This was followed by Loke’s premature death a year later. Soon afterwards, MP&GI was renamed Cathay as part of an overall restructuring to bring it under firmer control of Loke’s low-profiled successor, Chuk Kok Leong.
The success of Loke in recruiting many of the best artistic talents to MP&GI and its rapid expansion of market shares in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia intensified the rivalries with the Shaw Brothers. In 1957, Run Run Shaw came to Hong Kong and declared he would modernize and globalize Chinese-language cinema. Shaw Brothers built the largest film studio in Asia, the Movietown in Clear Water Bay, and the studio launched an “age of color” production in an attempt to edge out the Cathay-MP&GI’s black-and-white films.
Cathay’s expansion to Hong Kong brought capital, a new business strategy and a Hollywood-styled studio system to reinvigorate the Mandarin cinema industry. Many of its most successful films, including Air Hostess, brought to the screen depictions of the many forces that were in the process of sweeping Hong Kong (and Asia) into momentous socioeconomic transformation. And its rivalries with the Shaw Brothers spawned a “golden age” of filmmaking in the 1960s, during which Hong Kong film extended its market reach to all the Chinese communities across the globe. Recently Wong Kar-wai’s films brought the memory of this “golden age” back to us with, among others, his nostalgic look at the colony’s Shanghai diasporic community in In the Mood for Love and his playful uses of the transnational image of air hostesses in Chungking Express. Such works remind us elegantly of the complexly embedded relationship of Hong Kong cinema of today with its varied, complex past.