Film, Second Sight: Twelve Singing Beauties

The label of "musical" is much too broad a designation when referring to pre-1960s Cantonese features in which melody and lyrics took precedence over dialogue.

Unlike Hollywood, where the term could mean anything from Busby Berkeley dance spectacles to European operettas, the first quarter-century of Hong Kong talkies saw a preponderance of two sub-types, each with its own appellation: "singing movies" and "opera films". The two came together in Twelve Singing Beauties (1952), a hybrid that inserted costume Cantonese opera into a contemporary timeframe.

In less than 90 minutes, director Chan Pei managed to cram three dozen ditties and two lengthy stage extracts into a lighthearted tale of two country bumpkins (Leung Sing-po and Au-Yeung Kim) who journey to Hong Kong to collect an inheritance and are nearly fleeced by city slickers.

The score is credited to Ng Yat-siu, but the veteran writer didn't so much compose as compile and arrange the offerings. Even though the background track is heavy on Western classics such as Chopin's Minute Waltz, virtually all of the songs are adaptations of popular Shanghai hits of the previous 20 years performed in traditional Cantonese style.

The "beauties" include Cantonese opera's most celebrated female couple, Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin. The film gives viewers the chance to enjoy the duo in two guises, as "regular folks" when they encounter the lads during a botched purse-snatching, and as "theatre stars" performing a scene from Dream of the Red Chamber. The production is all the more amazing in that it was just an "average" programme for 1952, a peak year of the post-second world war film boom - one in which Leung had 35 releases and even the director averaged more than one per month.