Second Sight: Mysterious Murderer
In the celluloid realm of murder mysteries, Mysterious Murderer's plot convolutions have hardly withstood the test of time - and were probably none too convincing even when "new" six decades ago. That this dark tale is now hailed as a classic is owing to the manner in which director-writer Tong Tik-sang transformed his Cantonese opera work into a modern-day film noir whose Hollywood trappings enhanced rather than detracted from its local character.
The two-part production itself is a microcosm of trends prevalent in the early 1950s. Live Cantonese opera was all the rage, making it a rival to motion pictures and a source for talent and script material. Though the opera genre would assume domination later in the decade, such was not the case when Mysterious Murderer made the leap from stage to screen in 1951.
Partly to lessen the competition between the two mediums, producers were on the look-out for stories set in the present or recent past. Tong accomplished this by updating his original libretto and, despite the casting of opera giants Lo Ban-chiu and Fong Yim-fun, excising most of the songs.
The leads themselves represented shifting popular and political trends. Fong was a relatively new face and in this, her fourth feature, scored a triumph that helped cement the top status she would retain for 140 movies. Quite a contrast to the career change about to occur to veteran actor Lo, then about to relocate to Guangzhou and an artistic environment in which escapist fare such as Mysterious Murderer was taboo.
Notwithstanding the film's brilliant ensemble, it is the visuals that linger. In his reimagining for the big screen, Tong and cinematographer Ho Look-ying settled on a noirish mode that captured the underlying tone.
Mysterious Murderer (Part 1) , Sat, 7pm, HK Film Archive, Feb 3, 2pm, Broadway Cinematheque; Mysterious Murderer (Part 2) , Sat, 9pm, Feb 3, 3.45pm, Broadway Cinematheque. Part of the 100 Must-See Hong Kong Movies programme