Between Tears and Laughter
Hong Kong 1960
Directed by Tang Huang.


The title neatly sums up the movie -- it is neither particularly funny nor particularly tragic. The story coasts along on the charisma of its stars, which admittedly is quite considerable. Three women who live together for no apparent reason struggle through their romantic issues. Young Manli (Kitty Ting Hao) is agressively pursued by her cousin, who already acts like she is his property even before any talk of marriage. She feels trapped and so feuls a written romance with a pen pal from Singapore (the dashing Roy Chiao) who finally comes to visit for the weekend. Unfortunately for her, he takes an immediate liking to her roommate Meifen (Helen Li Mei), a novelist whose lover died some years back, leading her into a reclusive life. Meanwhile the third roommate is a shrewish and not at all likeable woman (Wang Lai) whose husband unsurprisingly left her, so she takes out her frustrations on her hospitalized son in little passive agressive ways. When her husband comes back to try and get back together, she resists, and for some strange reason, he persists.

Eventually, they all learn their life lessons, which horribly (for modern audiences) include Manli realizing that she "let her dreams get carried away," and that she should really just shut up and marry her cousin.

MP & GI films from this time period often seem more interested in being a showcase for the upper middle class way of life, where everyone is well dressed, well fed, and someone is always nearby to cook you a meal or drive your car. Additionally, the films showcase new and expensive technology that suddenly becomes a "must have". The movie Our Dream Car is only the most obvious example. This movie must serve as another, because the one constant thread throughout the narrative is this: Transistor radios will make you happy.

Yes, the transistor radio. The "iPod" of it's age, only more so. For the first time, radio was portable. You could take it out of the house, to the beach, in the car, wherever you wished. It was a powerful transformation in the way people listened to the radio -- no longer was the single radio monopolized by the head of the household (as, let's face it, TV still is). The transistor radio boom started in the very late fifties, so this movie, released in 1960, is showcasing the new technology when its popularity was really taking off. The next revolution came twenty years later, with the Walkman -- not only could you take your music with you, but you could keep it to yourself!

BETWEEN TEARS AND LAUGHTER opens with a scene featuring Manli doing aerobic exercises to music on her transistor radio, while Meifen stays in bed trying to sleep. The scene establishes their basic characters (go-getter vs. defeated), and it also establishes the transistor radio as a catalyst for the more positive character trait. Later, when Meifen finally drags her ass out of bed and starts writing, she does so listening to her own small transistor radio -- so it aids creativity as well. Finally, the radio is begged for by the sick child, given to him by his father, taken away by his mother, and so on back and forth until it drives the poor kid to hysterics. The transistor radio -- path to happiness. Everyone is asking for one! And oh, the way his eyes light up when seeing it, you'd think it was the most magical thing in the world. And an emotional "breakthrough" occurs between the estranged couple, with a backdrop of a large ad for Nordmende Transistor radios. Yes, they even improve your love life. And to think, we complain about product placement in movies today as if it were something new.

BETWEEN TEARS AND LAUGHTER is not especially demanding, but passes the time well enough. One highlight is a scene taking place at then hardly developed Castle Peak; in the distance, you can see Junks sailing in the harbour -- a sight which, except for a tourist boat, has vanished for good in Hong Kong today.

Helen Li Mei was one of Cathay's sex symbols, and without a doubt she is beautiful. Time is taken to establish the fact, too with a brief shower scene that reveals her legs (scandalous!). Her scenes with Roy Chiao are among the highlights of the film. But the rest of the characters are not nearly endearing or sympathetic enough to hold our attention for long, and so the end result can only be considered a minor diversion.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 23, 2005.


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