The Soong Sisters

"The Soong Sisters" is a full-bore historical melodrama that sweeps the viewer along with eye-catching widescreen compositions but falls way short of its obvious intentions. This portrait of China's troubled history in the first half of the 20th century, told through the real-life story of the powerful Soong family, rates as a lost opportunity by Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting, previously known for smaller but more affecting pics ("An Autumn's Tale," "Eight Taels of Gold"). Commercial chances look murky for this 2-1/2-hour original version, world-preemed at Berlin, and even fests look unlikely to bite.

Cheung, who hasn’t directed a pic since the 1989 “Taels,” invested years in planning and raising the money for the movie, which finally shot two years ago in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan, with a mixed mainland, H.K. and Taiwanese cast. Exec produced by Ng See-yuen, the picture was effectively ready a year ago but was held up by censorship quibbles in China, which finally gave it a release permit late last year after cuts. A TV miniseries is reportedly under consideration, and separate, shorter versions are likely to be released in H.K. and Taiwan.

If one family can be said to be the key component in recent Chinese history, it’s the Soongs, two of whose three daughters married key players — Ching-ling to Sun Yat-sen, founder of Republican China, and May-ling to Chiang Kai-shek, Sun’s successor and later scourge of the Communists. Eldest daughter Ai-ling married rich industrialist H.H. Kung, a future finance minister who later fled to Hong Kong.

Pic’s tone and guiding rationale are established from the start, with a caption proclaiming, “Once upon a time in distant China, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country.” After some 1981 scenes showing the aging May-ling at her residence in Long Island hearing the news that Ching-ling is on her deathbed back in Beijing, the movie flashes back to the late Qing dynasty, showing the three little girls in their privileged upbringing.

Peppered with captions that sketch dates and main historical events, the movie packs in plenty of incident but takes a while to build rounded characters. After being dispatched to the U.S. as kids by their patriarchal but caring father (mainland star Jiang Wen, making the most of a supporting role), the sisters return to Republican China in adult form and are soon networking with the country’s elite.

Ai-ling (Michelle Yeoh, here still billed under her earlier kung-fu moniker, Khan) quickly marries moneyed capitalist Kung (mainland comedian Niu Zhenhua). The more politically involved Ching-ling (H.K. thesp Maggie Cheung) starts as Sun Yat-sen’s secretary in Japan, later becomes his wife, and then the inheritor of his mantle. Fiery, horse-riding May-ling finally falls for the young, obsessively driven Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo), and later, when Chiang is kidnapped by his own officers, personally arranges his freedom and convinces him to join with the Communists against their common enemy, Japan.

Like many historical panoramas, Cheung’s picture, scripted by writer-director partner Alex Law, makes the mistake of careening from one event to another at the expense of developing an emotionally engaging storyline. With each of the sisters so obviously repping the three guiding forces in modern Chinese history — nationalism (Wu), communism (Cheung) and capitalism (Yeoh) — and with both Cheung and Yeoh revoiced in the Mandarin-language version, there’s almost no sense of sisterly bonds or empathy among the leads.

Yeoh is sidelined fairly early on, and Cheung is far from believable as the socially inclined sister. Only Wu, acting in her native dialect, makes much of an impression as the power-hungry May-ling. All the more pity that her role reportedly suffered the most from Beijing-imposed cuts, especially a scene in which she harangues Chiang’s officers to let him go.

Other roles are OK within their limitations — especially Elaine Jin’s dignified Madame Soong — though Wu Hsing-kuo’s unshaded portrait of Chiang as a borderline loony Commie-hater isn’t much help in getting closer to what makes his character tick. The pre-censored version contained more scenes between him and May-ling.

Production design and costumes are all tops, but undoubted star of the show is ace H.K. lenser Arthur Wong, who conjures up one after another widescreen composition to dazzle the eyes. Kitaro and Randy Miller’s all-stops-out orchestral score is a major assist in the circumstances. There’s plenty here to enjoy so long as you check your critical faculties in at the door.

The Soong Sisters

Hong Kong

  • Production: A Golden Harvest production, in association with Fuji Television, Pony Canyon and More Team Entertainment. (International sales: More Team Intl., Hong Kong.) Produced by Raymond Chow. Executive producer, Ng See-yuen. Co-producer, Alex Law. Directed by Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting. Screenplay, Alex Law.
  • Crew: Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Arthur Wong; editor, Mei Fung; music, Kitaro, Randy Miller; production design, Eddie Ma; costume design, Emi Wada; sound (Dolby Digital), Gary Wilkins; associate producer, Roger Lee. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 16, 1997. Running time: 144 MIN. (Mandarin dialogue)
  • With: Soong Ai-ling ..... Michelle Yeoh Soong Ching-ling ..... Maggie Cheung Soong May-ling ..... Vivian Wu Sun Yat-sen ..... Winston Chao Chiang Kai-shek ..... Wu Hsing-kuo Charlie Soong ..... Jiang Wen Madame Soong ..... Elaine Jin H.H. Kung ..... Niu Zhenhua
  • Music By: