In the same year he released Enchanting Shadow, the movie that inspired A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), celebrated Shaw Bros. auteur Li Han-hsiang displayed his range with this award-winning melodrama. Our narrator, kindly writer Tsui Tin Ho (Wang Jan) relates the comings and goings around an ordinary tenement back alley, where every day lonely, lovelorn little Ah Ling (Wang Ai Ming) sits and plays, abandoned by her callous, pregnant stepmother and philandering dad (Ching Miao). Watching her from afar is Tin Ho’s wife, Yu Nam (Butterfly Woo) who, tragically unable to conceive a child of her own, warmly nurtures Ah Ling and eventually asks to adopt her.
This arrangement suits Ah Ling’s parents very well, while the precocious child gradually brings happiness back into Tin Ho and Yu Nam’s staid lives. But try as she might, Yu Nam cannot replace Ah Ling’s long-lost mother. One day she sees Hui Shuk Wan (huangmei opera star Li Hsiang-chun) working, scandalously, as a dancehall girl - a chance encounter that turns their lives upside down.
Much acclaimed in its day, Rear Entrance (whose Mandarin title also translates as “Back Door”) now looks slightly sluggish and sentimental. Yet it remains distinguished by the story’s heart-wrenching psychological honesty and the subtle, nuanced playing of the principal leads, including future teen idol Wang Ai Ming and acclaimed actor-director Wang Jan, winner of numerous awards in his dual careers. The film marked a screen comeback for Butterfly Woo, an actress active in Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong cinema since the silent era. She exudes maternal warmth and anchors the increasingly tragic events with her palpably heartfelt despondency. At heart this is an old-fashioned weepy, but one that simultaneously upholds traditional, salt of the earth Chinese values (“To love a child is human nature”, “To bear hardship makes you a great man”) and challenges entrenched views about infertility and single mothers.
Li Han-hsiang’s low-key artistry marks him as a match for William Wyler or early David Lean, although the plot briefly leans off course once cousin Chuo To (Chao Ming, who played one of the first Hong Kong bloodsuckers in Revenge of the Vampire (1959)) starts courting Hui Shuk Wan. Things recover for a beautifully played finale and the fadeout is almost unbearably poignant.
Celestial’s Region 3 DVD includes “Get In Rear Entrance”, a short, explanatory piece about the film’s restoration. Since the original vocal track is sadly lost, the company recruited new voice actors re-dub dialogue. The results are acceptable although the all-new synthesizer-led musical score proves far too intrusive. Also included is “The Savant”, a documentary about Shaw Brothers’ most celebrated auteur. Informative and including interviews with a galaxy of old-time stars, it includes discussion and clips from many of his major films, yet curiously not this one.