Black and white photo of well-groomed dancers wearing sweaters and geometrically patterned outfits
Mambo Girl. Photo: Pacific Film Archive

Regular readers know that I’m not the biggest fan of movie musicals, but this week’s column is all about music on film — some traditional and outré, some rebellious and loud. 

Pacific Film Archive’s next series, Chinese Musicals 1957-1963, begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19, with Man bo nu lang (Mambo Girl, 1957), a charming piece of fluff from Hong Kong about a sweet young thing with a tragic (?) backstory. Kailing (the lovely Grace Chang) is introduced in a stylish establishing shot in which she dances on a checkerboard dance floor while wearing matching capris, showing off her mambo skills to a large group of well-scrubbed young people. 

The dance party is taking place on the floor above her father’s toy shop, and grumpy neighbors don’t approve of the noise. Dad, however, insists that Kailing is a good girl getting good grades, and that she deserves to relax on a Sunday in whatever way she sees fit.

Indeed, life seems rather blissful for the young woman: She’s about to turn 20, is the envied role model of all the girls (some of whom are quite jealous of her talent), and can have her pick of the boys. But — oh, there’s always a but! — there’s a skeleton in the closet. 

Kailing is adopted — and her parents have never told their daughter the truth. A careless mistake with some paperwork results in Kailing’s younger sister Baoling learning the family secret, and word soon begins to spread; before you know it, everyone knows except Kailing — and when she finally finds out, she sets off in search of her birth parents. 

Interrupted as it is by frequent musical numbers, Mambo Girl struggles to pick up a full head of dramatic steam. It’s primarily a heartwarming family story laced with a message about the liberatory power of pop music (at one point, Kailing sings “just dance, with whatever steps you like!”). Cultural change was coming to post-war Hong Kong just as it was coming to the rest of the world, and while it wasn’t exactly on par with the rock revolution in the United States the mambo was an exotic alternative nonetheless. As an added bonus, Mambo Girl‘s opening credits prominently feature a Barbie-esque fashion doll — two years before Barbie hit the production lines!

The Wild, Wild Rose. Credit: Pacific Film Archive

Chang also stars in 1960’s Ye Mei gui zhi lia (The Wild, Wild Rose, screening at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28), a much more serious — and at 128 minutes, a much longer — piece of cinema. This time she plays Sijia, a night club entertainer as adept at channeling Marlene Dietrich as she is dancing the flamenco (this scene comes late in the film, and is worth the price of admission alone). Unlike Mambo Girl’s Kailing, Sijia has had some life experience, and knows some unsavory characters at the New Ritz Theater (carelessly framed by cinematographer Ming Huang as the “ew Ritz” at one point). 

The story focuses on her tortured relationship with pianist Hanhua (Yang Chang), who ditches nice girl Suxin (Feng Su) for the more alluring Sijia. Things, however, don’t work out well for him: There’s a jealous husband for starters, a theft that results in some jail time, and a struggle to go straight after being released from prison. The tension builds to a tragic finale, in which absolutely no one enjoys a happy ending.

The Birthday Party Mutiny In Heaven. Credit: Roxie Theater

If you fancy some aggressive, spiky rock music, check out The Birthday Party: Mutiny In Heaven, opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Wednesday, Oct. 18. Anyone familiar with singer-songwriter Nick Cave will want to see this documentary about his early days as the hell-raising front man for the drug-fueled Aussie rock group The Birthday Party. The music is great, the band’s behavior less so. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...