“Hong Kong is uniquely beautiful!” our heroines sing over a montage of dazzling colours, bright lights, neon signs, and stars twinkling over panoramic views of Hong Kong harbour. Hong Kong Nocturne is a raucous musical melodrama centring around three dancing sisters whose exceptional talent supports their magician father (Chung Kwan Chow). The selfish old man has little regard for his daughters and squanders their hard earned money on a young floozy who plays him for a fool. After winning a go-go dance contest, the girls ditch daddy and pursue their dreams. Sexy, eldest sister Tsui Tsui (Lily Ho Li) dreams of movie stardom, but her slimy boyfriend lures her to Japan and tries cajoling her into porno flicks. Dutiful middle daughter Chuen Chuen (Cheng Pei-Pei) sticks with dad, but when he tries to make her earn extra cash as a stripper, she settles down with kindly songwriter Chen Tze-ching (Peter Chen Ho), only to fall afoul of his snooty parents. Chuen Chuen helps send youngest sister Ting Ting (Chin Ping) to ballet school where dance dictator Mr. Yen (Tien Feng) pushes her to the point of collapse. Struggling through poverty, alcoholism, pregnancy, one tragic death, a teary reconciliation and three tales of thwarted love, the girls emerge triumphant. A television extravaganza sees them perform a medley of hits, hips swivelling in hotpants, silver waist coats and shiny top hats. Cool.
Shaw Brothers Studios are best known for period martial arts movies, but produced hundreds of films in other genres, including many musicals. Hong Kong Nocturne ranks among their most lavish, both a cautionary fable about showbiz hardship and an escapist fantasy about dancing your troubles away. Japanese director Umetsugu Inoue has been criticised for his conservative, moralistic outlook but these films were aimed at mass audiences who shared the same values. Inoue actually manages a nice balance between appeasing the older generation and celebrating youngsters going it alone. Cheun Chuen remains a dutiful daughter, tolerating her foolish father and awful in-laws, but takes a stand when they try to make her husband give up music. Tsui Tsui claws her way to the top, but is generous enough to help dad when he’s down. Ting Ting endures Mr. Yen’s relentless criticism and proves she has what it takes. It’s a fairly conservative portrayal of femininity, with heroines who triumph via endurance rather than guile, while fate deals each one romantic disappointment by the movie’s end. However, there are stirring scenes such as when Chuen Chuen’s friends throw an impromptu wedding bash/dance number and the overall message of success born from unity and self-sacrifice does move.
Umetsugu Inoue began his career making gangster movies at Toei before moving to Hong Kong and becoming Shaw’s musical specialist (although he threw in an occasional left-field item like sci-fi thriller The Brain Stealers (1968) and haunted house mystery, The 5 Billion Dollar Legacy (1969)). His flair for art design is well in evidence here, with exquisite lighting and costumes. Inoue’s combination of pop art visuals with Broadway flavour made his musicals very popular with young audiences. Japanese composer Ryuichi Hattori (who wrote the music for The Wild, Wild Rose (1964), probably the most popular of all Chinese musicals) provides beguiling score that bounces from show-tunes to sixties bubblegum pop and romantic ballads. There’s even a Christmas number, set to the tune of “Jingle Bells”. Hong Kong Nocturne reunites Inoue with regular leading man Peter Ho Chen, but is really a showcase for three glittering starlets. Cheng Pei Pei was Shaw’s biggest star, the Audrey Hepburn of martial arts movies, a fresh faced innocent with cheekbones to die for. Trained as a dancer, her role here proved a personal favourite and she clearly relishes this rare chance to strut her stuff. Just watch her wiggle through that dance contest with the three sisters go-go dancing to surf rock.
Co-star Chin Ping really did study ballet and shows off her skills in a surreal nightmare sequence alongside Tien Feng - an actor better known for wearing false beards and laughing maniacally as innumerable kung fu bad guys. Ping seized her own chance at martial arts movie stardom in Killer Darts (1968) and was very affecting as a blind girl in memorable weepy The Price of Love (1970).
Arguably the most versatile actress here is Lily Ho Li, who steals several of the best musical numbers: a gangster shootout, a sailboat fantasy and a memorable tribute to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In this dream sequence, Tsui Tsui rises from her bubble bath and flaunts her tastefully unclad figure beneath pink silks and powder blue veils. Tuxedoed dancers try to catch her eye while a halo of diamonds swirl around her head. Shaw Brothers cultivated a racier image for Lily Ho Li than was common at the time. She was the first Chinese actress to ever do a nude scene, in the martial arts adventure Knight of Knights (1966). However, she was just as likely to play a female James Bond in Angel with Iron Fists (1966) or a cold-hearted hit-woman in The Lady Professional (1971), and won best actress awards for the acclaimed erotic/kung fu/costume drama/horror movie Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) and The 14 Amazons (1972), where she played the male hero! Lily Ho Li was back in shapely, feminine form, reuniting with Umetsugu Inoue for his even better musical comedy: We Love Millionaires (1971).