The Black Rose

The Black Rose is a legendary heroine in Hong Kong Cinema. But why is she remembered, and other heroes left to languish, forgotten? The story of a classic Cantonese film, it's revival as postmodern comedy, and its most recent incarnation as a star vehicle for the pop group Twins.

An open window, a back alley, darkness. Suddenly a shout tears through the night, and a figure dressed in black has suddenly appeared, gracefully jumping up to the window, standing there, framed in silhouette, then gliding out and disappearing into the night just as police arrive. Moments later, in another alley in a poor part of town, that same figure stands over a huddled, homeless woman, and throws her a bundle of cash and disappears.

In the opening minutes of THE BLACK ROSE (1965) [1], we are introduced to the title character, and know something of her principles. She is a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from the corrupt rich and giving to the desperate poor. With each theft, she leaves behind her calling card: a single black rose.

Nam Hung plays Black Rose as a beautiful, but respectable woman who is more than a match for any man. By day, a wealthy socialite, by night, a costumed crimefighter. She could easily be a female Batman, but instead of Robin, she has a younger sister, played by the much beloved actress Connie Chan Po-chu, who is also Black Rose. This is their secret strength -- Black Rose can be in two places at once, and just when you think you've got her cornered, she's right behind you. While both women are playful, the younger Connie Chan is much more physical, apt to get into a brawl more readily than drawing a gun.


Nam Hung and Connie Chan


The two together as the Black Rose

The story concerns the designs of rich, amoral men being foiled by this dynamic duo. First, Lee Peng-fei claims an expensive ring is stolen from him at a costumed ball by the Black Rose -- only trouble is, the girls are attending the ball as well and did no such thing. He plans to get a hefty sum of money by cashing his insurance policy, but Nam Hung foils his plot, then steals his ring anyway for good measure.

Another wealthy man, Yeung Yip-wang, plans to sell a national treasure, what looks like a jade seal, to foreign buyers. Black Rose leaves a letter with him telling exactly when they will take the seal from him to prevent the sale. An insurance inspector (the handsome Patrick Tse) arrives to investigate the claim on the missing ring, and joins the detectives in protecting the seal, suspecting the two thefts are related. From that point on, it is a cat and mouse game between the Roses and the insurance inspector, as he gets closer and closer to finding out their secret. But at last, Nam Hung finds herself emotionally entangled with him, and though the younger Rose is a bit jealous, she does realize her sister does have good taste, and Tse is an honest man. In the end he is kidnapped by a gang of thieves and tortured to tell them who Black Rose is, but the girls turn the tables on the gang and win the day [2].

THE BLACK ROSE was a very popular, successful movie. It seems to borrow heavily from overseas television and film from the same period, a sort of cross between Bruce Wayne from the BATMAN TV series, and Emma Peel from THE AVENGERS; while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in one of Cantonese cinema's major themes, the unfair disparity between the rich and the poor, and the inability of government or official parties to help. Like many films of the period, it also served as a fantasy outlet for the women working long, unglamorous hours in Hong Kong's many factories, whose station, and status, in life were quite low, but who could gain inspiration from the attractive and powerful Roses and the exhilarating freedom their lifestyle affords.

The popularity of the first film spawned a sequel, THE SPY WITH MY FACE (1966) [3]. The sequel picks up immediately where the previous film left off, with the Roses saying their goodbyes to Patrick Tse and bundling him off on a train to return to his insurance office and home town. Once there, though, he is immediately captured by a gang of thugs, led by a man dressed in an all-sequin outfit and hood, like a disco klan member. Tse is imprisoned and replaced by a duplicate, evil Tse, who goes to the insurance office and takes pictures of all the important documents for some nefarious purpose. The Roses eventually discover something is wrong, and must infiltrate the gang and rescue their man.


Hip style replaces the black tights


Patrick Tse with the hooded villain

The tight pacing, clever capers, and social commentary of the first film are totally dispensed of, and replaced with bargain basement Bond villain paraphernalia, and the result is singularly disappointing. Nam Hong and Connie Chan do no cat burgling this time, their black jumpsuits kept in the closet for most of the adventure. Instead, they wear the latest "mod" fashions, and spend much of the running time in the gang's secret underground lair, which has a lot of leather furniture and some enormous decorative plants. The gang's symbol is a triangle with a skull & crossbones inside, helpfully, the triangle symbols in the gang's garage blink and beep whenever a car approaches. The villain also makes everyone wear a triangular badge, which explodes at the press of a button, should he be displeased.

THE SPY WITH MY FACE seems the victim of a transplant surgery gone awry: the gadgets, fights, and supervillains of a Bond film were grafted on to the world of the women avengers, which had the rich on one side, the poor on the other, and only the Black Rose in between. The result was unsuccessful on both counts. The social milieu of the first film is completely forgotten, while the Bond trappings are chinsy and unconvincing -- though, this observation may be unfair, as I have only seen the film in black & white, but apparently it was shot and released in glorious color. Still, the large amount of standing around talking and the low amount of action in THE SPY WITH MY FACE suggests that even with color it would be a lesser effort than the Shaw Brother's Mandarin language Bond effort from the same year, THE GOLDEN BUDDHA (1966) [4]. This despite the fact that that acting talent in SPY is far superior: in addition to Nam Hung and Connie Chan, the handsome Patrick Tse far smoother than the wooden Paul Chang Chung. But THE GOLDEN BUDDHA has a larger budget, more action and drama, and the arch villain's lair is not only underground, it's underwater.


The Villain's lair in The Spy with My Face


The Villain's lair in The Golden Buddha

Despite the lackluster sequel, THE BLACK ROSE remains a fondly remembered classic. I think there are three reasons for this. First, because it is an entertaining, well made film that successfully balances the strengths of the old Cantonese movies while embracing new, youth oriented themes, action, and techniques. Second, the actors, Patrick Tse, Nam Hung, and Connie Chan were, and are, quite popular. Connie Chan was one of the most popular Cantonese stars of the era, with only Josephene Siao her equal, and had devoted fans and fan clubs in her honor. Third, Cantonese cinema collapsed shortly afterwards, and good things that come last are remembered more readily, and more often, as years pass and nothing else replaces it in the same mold.

THE BLACK ROSE was produced by the Nam Hung's own Rose Film Company, which was named, like her character, after her favorite flower. She produced at least a boquet's worth of additional films with the word "Rose" in the title, but THE BLACK ROSE was the most famous. They were all directed by the co-founder of her production company, Chor Yuen/Chu Yuan. The two later married[5]. Chu Yuan went on to find fame as a Shaw Brothers director of THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN, and many other adaptations of martial arts novelist Gu Long's works. Yet before moving to Shaws, he directed nearly 80 Cantonese films. In THE BLACK ROSE, we can see early elements of his later martial arts movies, especially the extraordinary, almost supernatural abilities of the protagonists (and especially, how high they can jump). And the masked villain, surrounded by his minions and secret, high-tech gadgets and traps, made regular appearances in his swordfighting movies as well [6].


The Beautiful Nam Hung

1966 was one of the last years of Cantonese Cinema. Although it competed well with the larger budget Mandarin language productions of the Shaw Brothers and MP & GI for many years, and was especially strong in social realism, when popular interest switched to bigger, bolder, and more colorful spectacle films, action films that emulated the Hollywood style, Cantonese studios struggled to compete. The riots of 1967 further brought production to a halt, and the mounting expense of catching up to the Mandarin studios again led many studios to close their doors. When Cantonese again became a popular language for films in the early seventies, inspired in part by Chu Yuan's HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS [7] and by the comedy of Michael Hui, it emerged in a very different cinematic landscape. The set of stylistic conventions that defined Cantonese cinema of the fifties and sixties did not return with the language.

The Black Rose did not return to Hong Kong cinema until 1992, with the comedy '92 LA LEGENDARIE ROSE NOIRE [8] . It was a box office success, taking in over HK $22 million, and a success at the Hong Kong film awards, too, nominated for Best Picture and winning Best Actor (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and Best Supporting Actress (Bobo Fung). Much has been made, then and now, of the complexity of the comedy, and how it combines modern Hong Kong cinema conventions with nostalgia for the old Cantonese cinema, and how it fuses the imaginary world of BLACK ROSE with the real world of the Cantonese stars. But perhaps the complexity is exaggerated. The movie is quite funny without knowing all the pertinent details. And everyone who worries they aren't getting all the in jokes should rest assured that not even the synopsis on the back of the most recent DVD release has got it down. It states, "...Bobo Fung parodies herself as a female Robin Hood in the golden a go-go era," which is all well and good, except for the fact that Bobo Fung never played the Black Rose. She was a child actor in the sixties, though, and certainly her casting is part of the nostalgic fun of the film for Cantonese film lovers.

'92 THE LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE concerns two friends, Butterfly (Maggie Siu) and Kuen (Theresa Mo) who end up accidentally witnessing a violent gang fight that results in everyone ending up dead. They slip out hoping to not get involved, and, in a moment of inspiration brought on by seeing THE BLACK ROSE on TV, leave a note proclaiming it was the work of the Black Rose. Unfortunately, they left fingerprints, and soon both the police and the gangsters are after them. Meanwhile, the Disciples of the original Roses, Yim Fun(Bobo Fung) and Piu Hung (Wong Wan-Si), don't like their title getting used, and swoop in to capture the girls for their own mysterious purposes. In their bizarre home, filled with traps and prison cells, it becomes quite clear quickly that these new Black Roses are completely mad. In the middle of all this stands Tony Leung Ka-Fai as Lui Kei, a detective. He falls for Butterfly, but unfortunately for him is a dead ringer for Yim Fun's long lost husband, who was also Piu Hung's lover -- and now, she wants him for herself.


Maggie Siu and the new Rose Noire, Bobo Fung


Bobo Fung and Wong Wan-Si, mad as hatters

The movie draws plenty of plot points loosely from the original films. THE BLACK ROSE begins with a theft, falsely pointing to the Black Rose as the culprit; the Black Rose gets involved to clear her name and punish the one who actually committed the crime. LA ROSE NOIRE hits the same plot point but pumps it up with plenty of goofy humor and '90s-style Hong Kong action. When, in LA ROSE NOIRE, Tony Leung enters the apartment of Maggie Siu and looks around at her things, I couldn't help but be reminded of a scene in THE BLACK ROSE, in which Patrick Tse is peeping in Nam Hung's window, wondering if she is the costumed thief.

Looking for further similarities between the films plots, though, would be pointless. Instead, we must look at the actors. Tony Leung plays the Patrick Tse character, but instead of doing so as Patrick Tse, he impersonates another Cantonese star, Lui Kei. Lui Kei is remembered as never having a hair out of place, slick and well dressed, but with a bit of a funny voice. He was quite the heartthrob at the time, and was quite a successful writer/director/actor. After Cantonese cinema collapsed, he eventually made a comeback as a soft porn director at Shaw Brothers.

Lui Kei is written into the story instead of Patrick Tse because of his association with Connie Chan. The two of them made a series of films together in the late sixties, and were one of the best known screen couples of the era.

The other famous romantic screen couple of the era was -- Connie Chan and Josephine Siao! They made a series of period swordplay films together, in which Connie Chan played the male lead, with Josephine Siao as his/her love interest. Connie Chan had studied in the Chinese Opera, and specialized in male roles.

In '92 THE LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE, there appear three sets of Black Roses. The originals, Nam Hung and Connie Chan Po-Chu, appear on television. Their disciples, Yim Fun and Piu Hung, are the currently active set. Maggie Siu and Theresa Mo can be seen as the "next generation" of Roses. All of them draw parts of their character from the character of Nam Hung and Connie Chan. Yim Fun is a parody of Nam Hung, and plays up her dreamy, romantic, womanly side. Piu Hung parodies Connie Chan, and appears in masculine dress throughout much of the film, but at the same time coveting and hoping to marry the Lui Kei character. Theresa Mo plays the Connie Chan type character in the third pair, disguising herself at one point as a man, and Maggie Siu as the more romantic Nam Hung (with practically the same hairdo). With these Roses, Tony Leung fulfills the detective role of the original film by falling for Maggie Siu.


Theresa Mo (as a man), Maggie Siu, and Tony Leung

Beyond the Black Rose films, 92 THE LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE pokes gentle fun at Cantonese cinema in general, and includes several musical interludes, even though the Black Rose films contained none. It was a common enough practice at the time, though, and writer/director Jeff Lau was clearly interested in packing as much nostalgia about early Cantonese Cinema into his film as possible. Perhaps as a way to counter all that nostalgia, he gives Bobo Fung's character amnesia. The audience remembers, the character forgets. She even regresses to her childhood -- fitting, since Bobo Fung was a child when she started out in Cantonese cinema [9].

Because of its good box office and award recognition, a sequel was inevitable. But the sequel is in the style that only Hong Kong can produce, one that copies themes, actors, and characters from the first film but has no regard for continuity. ROSE, ROSE, I LOVE YOU (1993) [10]features Tony Leung reprising his role as detective Lui Kei, this time tracking down recently released diamond thief Micky (played by Simon Yam). Leung and his partner, played by Kenny Bee, locate Micky's girlfriend (Carina Lau) and stake her out. Most of the film's running time is spent with Tony Leung dealing with the complications of the way he kicked out her next door neighbor -- by telling the former amnesiac he has been his gay lover for the past year. When the man's girlfriend (Veronica Yip)finds out, she can only think of committing suicide, and Leung can only think of helping her do it as the quickest expedient to get her out of his way.

Micky, it turns out, stole a very highly prized, expensive widget, and everyone wants to get their hands on it. Especially his girlfriend, who turns out to be the criminal thief White Rose, and Leung's suicide queen, who turns out to be Black Rose.


Tony Leung and Kenny Bee

Connections between this film and the original Black Rose movies are as tenuous as the connections between this and LA ROSE NOIRE. A few moments spring to mind -- in one, Kenny Bee sees the two Roses fight and exclaims, "There was a movie called The Black Rose vs. The Black Rose!" (which is the Chinese title in translation for THE SPY WITH MY FACE). White Rose has her own gang -- amusingly, they wear skull & crossbone shirts, in homage to the gang in THE SPY WITH MY FACE. And finally, the two detectives use a video of that film to confuse and stall the criminal Micky. The costumes of the two Roses are more elaborate than the originals, and the feathered masks they wear look more like the costume Connie Chan wore in LADY BOND (1966), another superheroine action film she made around the same time as the original Black Rose films. [11]


The Skull & Crossbone gang


The White Rose

Although Tony Leung continues to play Lui Kei, it is more out of context in this film, and more bizarre. In fact, he is hilarious in the film, one more reminder of what great and unusual comic talent Leung can display. Kenny Bee's character is named Leung Sing-Bo, after a famous comedian of the Cantonese cinema, though Bee is hardly a look alike and the name seems to be as far as the homage goes.

Despite the funny bits, ROSE, ROSE I LOVE YOU suffers from the meandering subplots typical of Hong Kong comedies of this period, which fill most of the running time, are often quite humerous, but do nothing to advance the plot. One suspects ROSE, ROSE I LOVE YOU to be a quick knock-off, while Jeff Lau was devoting more of his exceptional talents on updating another old Cantonese movie hero, FONG SAI YUK (1993) [12], in which he cast Connie Chan's only competition for best-loved Cantonese Movie actress, Josephine Siao.

In 1997, Jeff Lau scripted a third entry into the series, this time with Corey Yuen as co-director. The title card on the film said "Legendary La Rose Noire II" but its official English title is BLACK ROSE II [13]. In typical Hong Kong sequel fashion, the first sequel (ROSE, ROSE I LOVE YOU) contains some of the same actors but a completely disconnected story, while the second sequel continues the story of the original film but with none of the original actors.

BLACK ROSE II stars Nancy Sit as the original Black Rose, residing in a creepy mansion filled with traps and secret doors. In her basement, she keeps Lui Kei prisoner -- the original Lui Kei, the one both her disciples from '92 THE LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE pined for. But instead of being young and suave, impersonated in his prime by Tony Leung, he has grown old, locked up by Black Rose for 30 years, and played by Spencer Lam.


Nancy Sit

Meanwhile a modern romance of a sort blossoms, between delivery boy Jan Lamb and cute dance student Desiree Lam. Lamb's gay friend, played by Blackie Ko, is also at the dance studio, and for a moment we see the actors riff on the popular Japanese film SHALL WE DANCE? (1996) before Desiree is kidnapped by an evil loan shark (Sandra Ng), and Lamb is kidnapped by Black Rose. Most of the running time is taken up in the prison of Black Rose's house, as Jan Lamb and Spencer Lam plot various escape attempts, and Blackie Ko attempts to come to the rescue. In the end, they all must free Desiree from Sandra Ng's gang, leading to a very long fight in the mansion, which goes back and forth between funny slapstick and tiresome filler.


Sandra Ng

BLACK ROSE II invokes less nostalgia for Cantonese cinema than the previous films, instead seemingly pulling out obscure references on occasion simply for a quick laugh. The best moment comes early on, when Jan Lamb meets the Black Rose face to face for the first time. She is wearing a disguise, and when she pulls it off, she is Nam Hung, in the flesh, much older but still quite recognizable. Then she laughs and says, "Not even Chu Yuan knew the real secret," and pulls off her Nam Hung mask to reveal that she is Nancy Sit, another young Cantonese actress from the same period.

Unfortunately, the middle of the film deals extensively with Jan Lamb, an uncharismatic and unamusing comedian if there ever was one. Lamb staggers about the mansion, imprisoned, forced to wear women's clothing.

Interest revives at the end, Lui Kei and Nancy Sit come to terms with each other, and they begin behaving as if they are acting in old Cantonese films, at one point even dressing in period costume as if they were stars in an early martial arts film (Lui Kei and Nancy Sit in fact did appear in movies of this type many times).


Spencer Lam and Nancy Sit

BLACK ROSE II feels somewhat purposeless. '92 THE LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE was both nostalgic and inventive. ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU felt somewhat redundant, clearly thrown together right after to make sure all the money was milked from the concept as possible, though entertaining nonetheless. And it seems likely that BLACK ROSE II came about for no other reason than to capitalize on the popularity of a new TV series running at that time, OLD TIME BUDDY (TVB, 1997), which dramatized the lives of Lui Kei, Patrick Tse, Josephine Siao, and Connie Chan; and which was made into a movie as THOSE WERE THE DAYS (1997)[14]. The time was ripe for more exploitation of the Black Rose, but Jeff Lau chose to go back to his own films for inspiration, and the result continues his mythology of the characters without much regard for adding much new (or should I say, old) from the original movies.

After three movies, perhaps Jeff Lau finally ran out of things to say about his favorite superheroine. So it was an entirely new production crew who came together to make the most recent appearance of Black Rose on Hong Kong movie screens, PROTEGE DE LA ROSE NOIRE (2004) [15]. . It had been seven years since the last Black Rose film, and in the interim, the meteoric rise of the girl group TWINS (Gillian Cheung and Charlene Choi) provided the perfect reason to resurrect the story. They could be the new crimefighting sisters. Donnie Yen signed on to direct, suggesting it would be more of an action film than the previous efforts. The production was weighted with a great amount of promise and potential, all of which it ultimately was unable to fill.

PROTEGE DE LA ROSE NOIRE might best be considered as a failure of memory. Rather than going back to the Cantonese classics for inspiration, the writers went to the Jeff Lau films instead, and copied many elements wholesale from BLACK ROSE II. Again, there is only one "elder" Rose (played by Theresa Mo, creating a nice continuity to 92 ROSE NOIRE, at least), living in a mansion and pining for her husband, Lui Kei. The mansion is filled with traps, and the Twins fall into them and try and escape. They call on Ekin Cheng, a kind-hearted taxi driver to help them out, but they all end up prisoners, until the Black Rose decides to train them to be her disciples.


Theresa Mo as the Black Rose


The Twins (Gillian Cheung and Charlene Choi)

By picking up the plot from scraps left over from the Jeff Lau movies, PROTEGE does still look to the past, but to 1992, not 1966. PROTEGE, it seems, does not have a memory expansive enough to go all the way back. A training sequence midway through the film parodies early Jackie Chan kung fu movies, right down to the white T-shirts, black baggy pants, and fluffy mop-top hairstyle. And in another scene, the two girls are getting hanged by the neck on opposite sides of a see-saw, in a shameless steal from the original ACES GO PLACES (1982). The only connection PROTEGE makes to the original Black Rose may be unintentional -- a Robin costume worn by Ekin Cheng, and a joke by Theresa Mo ("Robin came to work for me after Batman wouldn't pay him back wages"), brings us back to circa 1966, and the influences the one show had on the other.


Ekin Cheng in his Robin costume

PROTEGE mistakes imitation for nostalgia. Unlike Jeff Lau's '92 THE LEGENDARY LA ROSE NOIRE, amnesia resides not in the Black Rose but is presumed to be in the audience. PROTEGE steals from past films, rather than pays homage. Donnie Yen appeared in a small cameo in BLACK ROSE II, one wonders if, as director of PROTEGE DE LA ROSE NOIRE, he ever bothered to look beyond Nancy Sit and Jeff Lau's interpretation of the character in that film to the original production. By the evidence of the final product, my guess would be that he did not.

NOTES

[1] Chinese title: Hei Meigui. Available on VCD from yesasia.com, in a double-feature set with THE SPY WITH MY FACE. No English subtitles. [Back]

[2] I am indebted to Tim Young's synopsis of the film for clueing me in on Patrick Tse's profession. [Back]

[3] Chinese title: Hei Meigui yu Hei Meigui. Available on VCD from yesasia.com, in a double-feature set with THE BLACK ROSE. No English subtitles, black & white, though a color print still exists and is held by the Hong Kong Film Archive. [Back]

[4] GOLDEN BUDDHA is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[5] 6th Annual HK International Film Festival publication Cantonese Cinema Retrospective (1960-1969), page 136. [Back]

[6] For one of the most extreme representations of this phenomenon in martial arts films, see THE LEGEND OF THE BAT, filled with spies, secret traps, and a master villain who resides in his Dr. No-esque island hideout. Available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[7] THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[8] Chinese title: '92 Hei Meigui dui Hei Meigui. Available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[9] For more on the films of Jeff Lau and the theme of amnesia, see the HKIFF publication Hong Kong Panorama 2002-2003. [Back]

[10] Chinese title: Meigui Meigui Wo Ai Ni. There is only a VCD release of this title, currently out of print. [Back]

[11] This observation is based on stills from LADY BOND in the HKIFF publication Cantonese Stars of the Sixties, pages 11 and 39. [Back]

[12] FONG SAI YUK is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[13] Chinese title: Hei meigui yi jie jin lan. Available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[14] THOSE WERE THE DAYS is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[15] PROTEGE DE LA ROSE NOIRE is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

Posted by Peter Nepstad on July 22, 2004.


Comments

i miss next movie like this.

Posted by: johan at August 30, 2005 08:21 AM

Well i really like charlene and gillian i hope they will still have movies together.

Posted by: maylyn at August 22, 2007 10:09 PM
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