Mambo Girl / Manbo Nulang
Directed by Yi Wen
Cathay Studios, Hong Kong, 1957, b&w, 95 minutes
Mambo Girl is one of the seven films in the Cathay Studio retrospective playing as a sidebar to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 45th New York Film Festival. It's a fun, but somewhat curious, musical that catapulted star Grace Chang to stardom.
The film starts cute with the use of an Asian Barbie Doll (or rip-off) and suitably -sized props as the opening credits roll. Then we're treated to Li Kailing (Chang), the Mambo Girl herself, singing while she demonstrates the hot new dance to a group of her high school friends. Chang's smile, energy and exuberance are immediately evident, and there's no denying you're watching an incredibly talented new (at that time) performer.
Kailing's life seems perfect: she's a good student, the center of her classmates' attention, and living in the loving bosom of her family. Her younger sister, Baolin (Kitty Ting), adores her. Her father (Enjia Liu) and mother are totally supportive of their two daughters.
This happy arrangement is rent apart after Baolin discovers an old family secret about her elder sister. Unable to contain her unsought and unwanted knowledge, Baolin shares it with Melan, who travels in Kailing's circle but is jealous of her because she has the hots for Kailing's boyfriend Danian (Peter Chen Ho, who would be an on-screen partner to Chang in numerous future films). Melan makes the "secret" public, and Kailing's life is drastically altered, perhaps irrevocably.
It's at this point that this light-hearted youth film takes a very serious dramatic turn, hence my initial comment about it being a "curious" musical. I can recall Hollywood movies of a similar bent that were made around the same time, such as Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don't Knock the Twist (1962). Neither of them got anywhere near as serious as Mambo Girl does for awhile. (The initial Where the Boys Are, 1960, did deal somewhat with heady topics, although it wasn't a musical.)
But not to worry, Kailing's crisis gets resolved, and she rejoins her family and friends to dance some more. No surprise there. The final lengthy number is a real treat. It's upbeat, rousing and guaranteed to leave you in a good mood.
Mambo Girl gets a 3 out of 4 star ACF rating (solidly recommended).
For further info about Mambo Girl screenings at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, click here.