In 1959, Motion Picture & General Investment Co., the baldly named Hong Kong production arm of the Singapore-based Cathay Organisation, released Air Hostess, a travelogue-like musical melodrama starring Grace Chang (a.k.a Ge Lan), one of the studio’s most popular contract stars. It’s a lot of fun to look at, as are all of the movies that Chang made with writer-director Evan Yang. Mambo Girl, which catapulted Chang to stardom, is filled with checkerboard patterns, two-tone sweaters, and other things that looked great in black-and-white, while Our Dream Car is staged like a brochure. (See: the extended diagonal split-screen sequence, with two panels joined in a back-and-forth of song and car-ownership ecstasy.) Air Hostess, shot in color, has the graphic sense of a Ben-Day dot comic strip, with out-of-scale sets that double as backdrops of solid color, often blue. It borders on art.
Generally, there are two kinds of folks who are still interested in movies like Air Hostess. The first are people who grew up with the films, often in diaspora communities; the second are academics and film scholar types, who can’t resist the aspirational escapism that defined Cathay’s output. Every one of these movies is like a box marked “ready to unpack.” During its brief peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, Motion Picture & General Investment Co.—usually called Cathay, and eventually renamed Cathay Organisation (HK)—peddled a pan-Chinese vision of Southeast Asia, in which Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan blurred together into a single cosmopolitan cultural entity. Though based in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, the studio made movies mostly in Mandarin; it specialized in stories of an idyllic middle class, living in a world where everything looked freshly mopped and everyone was crazy for calypso music and Latin dance.
It was what you’d call a lifestyle brand, with marquee stars—including Chang and the bob-haired Jeanette Lin Tsui, who cameos in Air Hostess, effectively promoting other Cathay musicals—who had an air of being modern and on-trend. This is the stuff that conference papers and research theses are made of, and, admittedly, it’s pretty fascinating. Air Hostess, for one, is blatantly trying to sell the viewer a few things, including the image of Singapore as a romantic getaway and the idea of air travel as something glamorous, effortless, and maintained to high standards. (Loke Wan Tho, the head of Cathay, sat on the boards of two airlines; he died in a plane crash on the way to a film festival in 1964, the same year Chang retired from acting, marking the beginning of the end for the studio.) No Hollywood studio could ever make anything so unabashedly commercial, though perhaps focusing too much on Air Hostess’ wares undersells the movie itself, and everything that makes it special and strange.
Chang could be sultry, and was in one of her best films, Wang Tian-lin’s The Wild, Wild Rose, a re-imagining of Carmen with the visual values of smoky film noir. But in the movies she made with Yang, she sometimes seems like a spokesmodel, beaming with a smile. This is no one’s idea of sophisticated filmmaking. For many reasons, some of them technical, the films of the 1950s tended to be more cautious about camera movement than their modern counterparts. But even by those standards, the camera in Air Hostess is a wallflower. The three musical numbers, which are somehow the least musical sequences in the film, intercut Chang’s singing with the faces of smiling onlookers clapping badly out of rhythm; shots of planes in mid-air all appear to be the same cut-out hanging in front of a painted cloud backdrop. And yet, it’s one of those movies that seems to exist in its own discrete universe, an impression the movie sustains partly through color—namely varying intensities and shades of blue.
Set around the fictional Hong Kong-based airline IAL, Air Hostess is about the romantic travails of a group of rookie flight attendants, including the nominally independent-minded Lin Kepin (Chang). The great wuxia and action director Chang Cheh—who would become one of the major creative figures at Shaw Bros., the iconic Hong Kong studio that would eventually put Cathay’s film outfit out of business—was working as a critic at the time, and he gave Air Hostess a drubbing for its inconsistent characterization of Kepin, a modern woman who seems no-nonsense and self-determined in one scene, and subservient in the next. He wasn’t wrong; regardless of Grace Chang’s charismatic presence, Kepin isn’t so much a character as a collection of focus group results. Not that this inconsistency matters that much.
Air Hostess is packed with incidents, side trips, and apparent conflicts—the biggest one being the fact that flight attendants aren’t allowed to be married—and they are all made irrelevant by the cheerfulness that covers the film like a perfect coat of baby blue paint. Taiwanese filmmaker and all-around A.V. Club favorite Tsai Ming-Liang, who grew up with Grace Chang movies and used some of her musical numbers (including one from Air Hostess) in The Hole and The Wayward Cloud, once observed that the films “glorified the peace and sweetness of life, even to the point of something like decadence.” The world of Air Hostess is mesmerizing and inadvertently dreamlike, in part because of the graphic facial expressions, be it the reassuring “customer is always right” smiles that seem to make up half of the reaction shots, or the wax figure stare that appears to be default look of male lead Roy Chiao. (Stateside viewers might recognize a heavier, older, mustachioed Chiao from movies like Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Bloodsport.)
It’s this downright utopian mood of calm and clarity that distinguishes Air Hostess as a piece of commercial art; it’s compulsively unreal. Which raises the question: What does it mean to want to live inside the world of something that’s basically a feature-length ad? Because selling a customer on the life they imagine around a product is Advertising 101. Here, the product is less concrete, and the life in question is more of a dreamspace, unified by color scheme, in which everything is clear and lit like a spring afternoon, everyone is always nodding, the fuselage of aircraft resemble mirrored pieces of public art, and job training seems like a mystical higher cause, as exacting as ritual. Somehow, this occasionally clunky, often campy movie about all the wonderful things that will happen to you when you work for an airline becomes a fantasy of pure forms—that idealized movie world in which nothing is convincing as reality, and therefore everything adds up to a reality of its own.
Next guest: An underground cockfighting ring in the Paris suburbs is at the center of Claire Denis’ moody, existentialist sophomore feature, No Fear, No Die, one of the great bona fide noirs of the last 30 years.