Shaw Brothers made almost as many musicals as martial arts movies and The Shepherd Girl stands among their most enduringly popular. From the hills above Jujube village, singing shepherdess Xiu Xiu (Julie Yeh Feng) begins a musical courtship with handsome fisherman Liu Da Long (Kwan Shan), as he journeys home from the sea. They flirt and fall in love through song alone, without laying eyes on each other. Eventually, Da Long is delighted to meet Xiu Xiu in person, but discovers her gambling reprobate dad Old Man Gu (Yeung Chi-Hing) owes money to splendidly named Scabby Wei (Lam Fung). When grizzled huntsman Tiger Zeng (Zhu Mu) takes a shine to Xiu Xiu too, Scabby sees a chance to collect the unpaid debt by arranging his marriage to the reluctant shepherd girl.
As with many musicals the story told here is very simple, however characterisation is rich and the drama is well played without straying into histrionics thanks to the vibrant, appealing performances from Julie Yeh Feng and Kwan Shan. Discovered by Universal Studios for a project that was sadly shelved, Julie Yeh Feng made her proper screen debut in 1957 and immediately captivated audiences with her uncommonly sensual, romantic image. Nicknamed ‘the long-legged beauty’, she was already a major song and dance star by the time she joined Shaw Brothers and began scoring hits like Pink Tears (1965) and The Warlord and the Actress (1964). She retired from the screen after Farewell My Love (1969), but staged a hugely successful comeback concert in 2002. Her co-star Kwan Shan was a popular leading man throughout the Fifties and Sixties in classic weepies like Love Without End (1961) and Vermillion Door (1964). He retired in the mid-Eighties and is now best known as the father of superstar Rosamund Kwan, of Once Upon a Time in China (1991) fame.
Made at the point when old style Chinese operas were giving way to the jazzy modern musicals popularised by Umetsugu Inoue, The Shepherd Girl is distinguished by the naturalistic manner in which Lo Chen details daily life in the seaside village. He directs with low-key artistry, his fluid camerawork and eye-catching Shawscope compositions capture the sumptuous scenery but prevent the action becoming stagy and claustrophobic like some other studio musicals. Chen was one of Shaw’s so-called “Four Aces” alongside Li Han-hsiang, Doe Chin and Yueh Feng. Though best known for his poignant dramas, he was a versatile filmmaker with comedies, musicals and kung fu films to his credit and ended his career with the endearingly oddball The Snake Prince (1976).
The songs are among the most pleasant in Chinese musicals, although those unaccustomed to the genre may find them an acquired taste. Lyrics take the form of witty banter between the sexes, set to traditional melodies, as Xiu Xiu proves she is not a girl to be messed with. One nicely handled comic sequence has elderly lech Master Yao (Chiang Kwong-Chao) mime to Da Long’s singing, but unable to fool canny Xiu Xiu. Actually, Xiu Xiu proves rather too feisty for her own good, a victim of her own hot temper and quickness to judge. This comes to play in the subplot that concerns Zhu Baijin (Ou-yang Sha-Fei), a widow and single mother who endures the mockery of the despicable Scabby Wei. Nice guy Da Long leaps to her defence and lends her money, which causes all sorts of ugly rumours Scabby is only to eager to fuel. At least Xiu Xiu admits she has done wrong before the plot lurches into deeper tragedy, though you may feel a little sorry for grumbling, inarticulate Tiger whose only crime is being something of a lummox.
The Folk Song Festival provides the movie’s big set-piece wherein hundreds of singing villagers form a labyrinthine chorus line around the bonfire, twirling fireworks, putting on acrobatic displays and entering into a great big guys versus girls song duel.