Cantonese actress Yu Lai-zhen (1923-2004) performed for more than three decades, impressing audiences with her unique singing and signature martial arts. Many of Yu's films delivered supernatural elements, with her roles as a headless empress and a "foot-binding" heroine among the most appealing. Yu's performances also won her acclaim as the "Queen of the Art of Dan", the title referring to the role of a "dan", or female leading actress, in Chinese opera. Next year marks the 10th anniversary of Yu's passing. As a tribute to this outstanding actress, the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA)'s "Morning Matinee" in January and February will feature Yu's Cantonese opera films, martial arts films and contemporary dramas to showcase her diverse performances in different genres.
Titled "Yu Lai-zhen, Queen of the Art of Dan", the series will feature nine films. The films being shown on January 3, 10, 17, 24 and 25 next year respectively will be "The Skeleton Tower under the Sea, Part One" and "The Skeleton Tower under the Sea, Part Two" (both 1965), "The Battle between the Seven Phoenixes and the Dragon" (1962), "A Half Bed Space" (1964) and "The Broom Spirit" (1959). On February 7, 14, 21 and 28, the films to be screened respectively will be "Riot in the Imperial Palace" (1960), "The Maid who Led an Expedition to Conquer the West" (1959), "Prince Tailone" (1961) and "A Pretended Ghost" (1961).
To complement the screenings, a seminar entitled "Embodiment of Weird and Fierce in One" will be held on January 25 at 4.30pm at the cinema of the HKFA. The curator of the programme, Ms Winnie Chan, and film critic Mr Jack Ng will introduce Yu's opera performance techniques and the role of special effects in supernatural films. The seminar will be conducted in Cantonese with free admission.
Yu began acting in films in the 1940s and collaborated with many renowned actors, directors and scriptwriters in more than 140 films. In 1959, she formed Lai Si Films Limited with her husband Lee Siu-wan and produced many Cantonese opera films with supernatural elements using innovative cinematographic and editing techniques. These films also epitomised Yu's career strategy of not hesitating to put aside her beautiful looks to play unattractive characters on stage and in films. Her sacrifice of her beautiful looks was key in the realisation of these films' supernatural approaches.
Yu's popularity expanded in the late 1950s with her work in the films of the series "The Crab Beauty". She reprised her popular role in "The Skeleton Tower under the Sea", in which the Crab Beauty teams up with the Snail Spirit and the Mussel Spirit (played by Patricia Lam Fung and Lee Bo-ying respectively) to form a trio of righteous heroines. The fantastic animated special effects and plentiful action create amazing supernatural battles. In "The Skeleton Tower under the Sea, Part Two", the creative underwater world is especially attractive.
In "The Battle between the Seven Phoenixes and the Dragon", seven princesses from Yan's kingdom, including Yu and actresses Yam Bing-yee and Lee Hong-kum, use their martial arts prowess to fight against an emperor (played by Lau Hark-suen) who wants to force them into marriage.
In the comedy "A Half Bed Space", a mother and a son played by Yu and Lam Kar-sing live in a cramped flat alongside singers, fortune tellers and small-time vendors, and together they depict a spirit of camaraderie. In another comedy, "The Broom Spirit", Yu plays a servant who is beaten to death by her wicked boss (Tam Lan-hing), only to be reincarnated as the titular Broom Spirit. As a ghost, she then forces characters played by three comedy masters - Leung Sing-po, Poon Yat-on and Tang Kei-chen - to become her carriers and help her to take revenge.
The "Qiao Kung" (foot-binding technique) was Yu's signature martial arts move, especially in her seven "foot-binding heroine" genre films. In "Riot in the Imperial Palace", she appears as Sister Thirteen, who takes revenge for her father's death by infiltrating the murderer's household with her brilliant "Qiao Kung" martial arts. In the comedy "The Maid who Led an Expedition to Conquer the West", Yu plays a servant girl who uses her powerful martial arts skills to avenge the three famous Yang brothers and leads an army to defeat the enemy. However, she chooses beauty over kingdom, asking the emperor to award her a marriage with the eldest of the Yang men (Sun Ma Si-tsang). Unfortunately, the man is just too proud to bow to the servant, and the couple fight on their wedding day.
"Prince Tailone" is a touching film with Yu's character feeding her son with a piece of her flesh cut off from her own arm. Her kind action moves the Heavenly Mother to give her a divine pill that gives her the ability to regenerate her flesh infinitely. This Cantonese opera film presents an extreme type of maternal love. In "The Headless Empress Bears a Son" (1957), Yu's image as a headless woman made her a screen icon with audiences at the time. In the supernatural drama "A Pretended Ghost", she again plays the headless woman, this time a married lady who is brutally murdered after the son of a local government official, played by Wong Hok-sing, fails in an attempt to rape her. After Yu's death, her ghost returns to haunt the town every night.
All films are in Cantonese with no subtitles.
Tickets priced at $20 are available at URBTIX. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens aged 60 and above, people with disabilities and their minders, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Credit card bookings can be made at 2111 5999 or on the Internet at www.urbtix.hk . For enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900 or browse the website at www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/filmprog/english/2011mm/2011mm_film.html .
Ends/Monday, December 23, 2013
Issued at HKT 15:00
A film still of "The Skeleton Tower under the Sea, Part One" (1965).
A film still of "The Skeleton Tower under the Sea, Part Two" (1965).
A film still of "The Battle between the Seven Phoenixes and the Dragon" (1962).
A film still of "A Half Bed Space" (1964).
A film still of "The Broom Spirit" (1959).
A film still of "Riot in the Imperial Palace" (1960).
A film still of "The Maid who Led an Expedition to Conquer the West" (1959).
A film still of "Prince Tailone" (1961).