When her husband died, beautiful socialite Pai Li-Lan (Julie Yeh Feng) became mistress to a wealthy old man, so that her eleven year old daughter Xiao Lan (Fung Bo-Bo) could afford a good education and a promising future. Now bankers, politicians and billionaires all adore the glittering courtesan, who is secretly suffering from the early symptoms of tuberculosis when she meets humble piano teacher Zhang Zhi Ping (Ling Yun, in his screen debut). After Zhi Ping helps Li-Lan recover her health and convinces her money cannot buy true happiness, they fall in love and marry despite the objection of his mother (Ou-Yang Sha-Fei) and Xiao Lan who, having no idea what mom does for a living, fears she will lose her forever. When her former sugar daddy (Cheng Miu) uses his influence to ensure Zhi Ping loses his job, Li-Lan sells all her jewellery to support the family, but a misunderstanding drives her back to her old life.
Tastes in humour may differ, but nothing unites East and West like our mutual love for a good romantic weepy. Only late in the game does it become apparent that this Shaw Brothers classic is actually an uncredited variation on Alexandre Dumas’ novel Lady of the Camellias, with a closing scene that’ll wring a tinge of deja-vu from fans of the 1937 Greta Garbo movie. Nevertheless, Pink Tears is a superior romantic tragedy grounded in believable human drama rather than phoney theatrics and where tears flow thanks to a sensitive script and heartfelt performances. Not least from superstar Julie Yeh Feng who commands the screen and sparkles through a handful of emotionally charged musical numbers.
Julie Yeh Feng was actually discovered by Universal Pictures back in 1954, though the proposed movie sadly never came to be and her career only properly began in Hong Kong cinema in 1957. Audiences were immediately drawn to her sensual image, nicknaming her ‘the long-legged beauty’, and she became one of the era’s great musical stars, notably in Shaw Brothers’ The Shepherd Girl (1963). After Farewell My Love (1969), Yeh Feng retired from show business, though she staged a successful comeback concert in 2002.
As Pai Li-Lan she struggles to navigate a tricky path between ethics and survival, surface respectability and private need, traditional morality and the flawed human heart. Early on she is pragmatic enough to lament: “in this society a woman’s labour isn’t worth as much as her beauty”, though she still rails against a world that cannot reconcile the two views of her as “mother” and “whore”, “good” and “bad.” Rich hypocrites take what they can from Pai while her beauty is “up for grabs”, then distance themselves from her when she’ll no longer dance to their tune. This realisation drives morally ambiguous supporting character Mr. Fang (Ku Feng) to cease sucking up to the wealthy, though the film stresses not all rich folks are rotten to the core.
Chin Chien directs with more class and subtlety than the average Shaw melodrama. He made his directorial debut in 1949 and was famed for his romantic weepies even before joining Shaw Brothers in 1965 where he scored his biggest hits, including Till the End of Time (1966) and River of Tears (1969). Briefly married to top Shaw starlet Jeanette Lin Tsui - who appeared in the spy caper The Golden Buddha (1966) - his personal life was sadly as tumultuous as his movies. Divorced from Lin Tsui in 1967, beset by personal and financial woes, Chien took his own life in 1969 at the age of forty-three. His final movie was released posthumously and with bitter irony titled: Double Bliss (1969).
Notable players among the supporting cast include Liu Liang-hua, an actress who later left Shaw Brothers along with her husband Lo Wei and became a producer with Golden Harvest. It was Liang-hua who successfully wooed Bruce Lee to the studio and won great admiration from Wei’s mistreated protégé Jackie Chan, and after divorcing Wei she went on to produce several notable dramatic movies.
However, besides Julie Yeh Feng, the big star turn here comes from Fung Bo-Bo. Probably the most famous child actor in Hong Kong cinema and a rare one able to do much more than stand there looking cute. This cherubic, yet very expressive young actress was compared to Shirley Temple and appeared in over one hundred movies. Unlike Temple, Fung Bo-Bo made a successful transition to grownup superstar, from heroic swordswoman roles in the late Sixties to TV dramas in the Eighties. Then in an astonishing comeback, she won consecutive Best Supporting Actress Awards for modern classics ’92 Legendary Rose Noire (1992) and C’est La Vie Mon Cheri (1993). Retired since 1995, fans have movies like Pink Tears to cherish her and Julie Yeh Feng as proof Shaw Brothers could produce more besides kung fu stars.