Art House: Revisiting Back Door, an all-star tearjerker
Shaw Brothers, which for many years was Hong Kong's largest motion picture studio, saw little value in preserving its black-and-white library after making the transition to Eastman colour in the 1960s. As a result, when its catalogue of more than 700 feature films was digitalised in the new millennium, less than 10 were of monochrome classics.
Back Door, an all-star tearjerker that swept the awards at the 7th Asian Film Festival in 1960, was one of the few to survive, making it a must-see for its rarity, technical expertise and history.
The production is A-list all the way, from director Li Han-hsiang - best known for big-budget colour historical spectacles such as Beyond the Great Wall (1964) and The Empress Dowager (1975) - to a cast headed by Butterfly Wu (aka Hu Die) and Wang Yin.
The leads, portraying childless Mr and Mrs Hsu, were movie royalty with careers dating back to prewar Shanghai. Back Door showed their charisma, undiminished by age, garnering them best actor and actress honours alongside the film's nine other statuettes.
Wang Yueh-ting's script, which moved audiences and critics half a century ago, today seems thin in psychological nuance as it navigates the emotional shoals of the middle-aged protagonists who adopt the neglected six-year-old living across the alley. Ya Lin (best supporting actress and future Cantonese teen idol Wong Oi-ming) is emotionally abused by her pregnant stepmother (Weng Mulan) and ignored by her father (Chao Ming).
Adoption by the Hsus seems an ideal solution until Ya Lin's birth mother, the twice-divorced dance hostess Miss Shi (a star-making performance by newcomer Lee Hsiang-chun) re-enters the picture. Departing from the usual stereotypes, Shi is the epitome of demure refinement whose love for her daughter leads to an emotional tug of war between rival parents.
Back Door is particularly instructive as a window into middle-class lifestyles in the years after the second world war, when intellectuals like the Hsus could afford to live in houses and amahs ruled the roost. Indeed, the gossiping maidservants (Kao Hsiang and Ma Hsiao-nung) not only provide some of the liveliest moments but are an illustration of the easy give and take that was central to last year's critically acclaimed A Simple Life.
Not the least of Back Door's delights are the guest cameos, most memorably Betty Loh Ti as a wayward mistress, Margaret Tu Chuan as a flirty teen and future director King Hu as a termite inspector.
Film buffs will also appreciate the skill of Ho Look-ying's crisp cinematography and Chen Chi-yuet's art direction. But, alas, we are not privy to Chi Hsiang-tang's prize-winning score as the movie's original audio was irreparably lost.
Despite the soundtrack's poor modern reconstruction, we should consider it a great fortune that it can be viewed today.
Back Door, August 31, 7pm, Hong Kong Film Archive. Part of the Merry-Go-Movies · Star Kids programme