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The Cathay Classics Film Library

The Hong Kong-based Panorama Entertainment is now bringing some of the best films from the Cathay Organization to DVD. With these releases, fans can get a much fuller picture of Mandarin cinema of the '50s to early '70s, since the Cathay titles augment the previously released library films of Cathay's main rival, the Shaw Brothers.

The Hong Kong-based Panorama Entertainment is now bringing some of the best films from the Cathay Organization to DVD, which is great news for fans of postwar Hong Kong cinema. With these releases, fans can get a much fuller picture of Mandarin cinema of the ’50s to early ’70s, since the Cathay titles augment the previously released library films of Cathay’s main rival, the Shaw Brothers (available on Celestial). Anyone with a multi-region player is in for a treat.

For generations, the Cathay library was almost as inaccessible as the Shaws’, with titles occasionally turning up in Hong Kong Film Festival retros (For example, last year, at the Toronto fest, Taiwan-based helmer Tsai Ming-liang introduced a screening of the 1960 musical, “The Wild, Wild Rose.”)

Cathay, under the less-than-snappy moniker of Motion Picture & General Investment Co., produced more than 200 pics from 1956 to the early ’70s. (Of those, 152 are available on Beta for broadcast and fest showings.)

Panorama has so far issued 23 titles from the Cathay library — controlled and managed by Singapore’s Cathay-Keris Films — with a further five skedded for this year. All are available on Region 3 discs.

Transfer quality is generally excellent, and all discs feature English subtitles as well as Chinese. Major omission — especially for movies that require some introduction for most non-Asians — is any extras beyond trailers, though even Celestial soon dropped commentaries on its Shaws’ reissues.

Far less known in the West than the Shaws, Cathay was the Paramount to their MGM (or, in Japanese terms, the Shochiku to Toho). Cathay was less glitzy, more famous for its actresses than actors, and with a generally softer edge to its product. Studio produced every genre, but specialized in family dramas, comedies and musicals, with some large-scale period mellers from classic novels. It never seriously took on the Shaws in the fields of martial arts and costumers.

Cathay nurtured a stable of actresses who were icons of their time: toothy singer Grace Chang (seen at her best in Carmen-in-a-nightclub drama “Wild, Wild Rose”), the flashing-eyed Jeanette Lin (superb as the tomboy daughter in the 1957 “Our Sister Hedy”), the bright-eyed Lucilla Yu (family drama “Her Tender Heart,” and the WWII epic two-parter, “Sun, Moon and Star,” also with Chang), as well as Betty Loh Ti, Linda Lin Dai and Julie Yeh Feng.

Most of the names criss-crossed from studio to studio, but Cathay’s great femme-centered ensemblers — such as the WWII epic two-parter, “Sun, Moon and Star,” with Chang, Yu and Yeh, or sibling dramedy “Our Sister Hedy” — stand out for their naturalness, in contrast with the Shaws’ stagier, more blocky productions.

The musicals, too, have a softer edge; they’re more dramas with songs, rather than U.S.-style musical comedy-dramas. However, at least one, the remarkable 1959 orphanage pic, “Cinderella and Her Little Angels,” with Linda Lin Dai, has a Broadway-style amalgamation of music and drama, with the songs springing directly from the action.

The Cathay Classics Film Library

$15.99 each

  • Production: Distributed by Panorama Entertainment in Asia and licensed elsewhere.
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