THE SOONG SISTERS (1997) review

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Mabel Cheung’s The Soong Sisters, though a bit forgotten nowadays, was a momentous project and an awards magnet at the time of its making and release, coming out in the year of Hong Kong’s retrocession to China and raking in Hong Kong Film Awards (or nominations) for most of its key players. It cast three of the most high-profile Asian actresses at the time as the titular sisters : daughters of catholic missionary, printing magnate and political activist and revolutionary Charlie Soong (Jiang Wen), himself a figure worthy of a 4-hour film, they each married a major figure of that infinitely troubled and transformative time in China’s history. Elder sister Ai-Ling (Michelle Yeoh) married H. H. Kung (Niu Zhenhua), one of the biggest fortunes in China and the future minister of industry, commerce and finance in the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government. Then her sister Ching-Ling (Maggie Cheung) wedded the revolutionary saint and first president and founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen (Winston Chao), a union that estranged her from her outraged father, himself a close friend of Dr. Sun. And finally, youngest sister Mai-Ling got married to Sun Yat Sen’s ally and successor as head of the Kuomintang and as president of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-Shek (Wu Hsing-Kuo). Each of these marriages took a toll on the family’s unity, but more importantly, the Soong sisters were much more than simply wives of powerful men. They were powerful women whose choices and sacrifices helped shape China’s history. Think of them as 20th-century women general of the Yang family.

As we’ve tried, somewhat awkwardly, to convey with this heavy-handed plot synopsis, The Soong Sisters is a film that carries the combined weight of Chinese historiography and gender politics, a double burden which it doesn’t always assuredly carry. As aforementioned, its inception took place at the time when Hong Kong sovereignty was to be transferred back to China, and a desire to placate the new overlords (and be allowed to shoot in Mainland China) is apparent throughout. Indeed script approval was secured after five months of rewrites, and after the film was shot, 14 minutes had to be removed, a lot of it going towards softening the depiction of Chiang Kai-Shek (not a popular figure in Mainland China to say the least). Conversely, Sun Yat Sen is portrayed as a saint (a fixture of Chinese propaganda), while the communists are never personified beyond images of courageous students or toiling proletarians. Still, calling The Soong Sisters propaganda would be unfair : it thankfully never goes into caricature or into its polar opposite, hagiography : while Sun Yat Sen is portrayed as a saint, he is also shown in his moments of doubt and anger ; and while Chiang Kai-Shek is portrayed without sympathy, he is never made a villain either. Mao Zedong doesn’t appear once, even though he was a key figure in many of the events depicted in the film : perhaps Mabel Cheung knew she could never even begin to portray him realistically without being barred from shooting or releasing the film in China (that however is pure speculation on our part).

But there’s a sense throughout the film that the director didn’t intend The Soong Sisters to be an accurate historical depiction so much as she wanted it to be an act of feminism. Here again there are problems. While the film is laudable and important in its affirmation of the often pivotal, but sadly seldom celebrated, role of women in history, there are fallacies in her approach that are hard to ignore. The Soong sisters actually had three brothers, one of which played an equally important role in their country’s history. While the decision to focus on the sisters is a logical one considering the film’s feminist stance, the fact that the brothers are not once shown or even mentioned severely undermines the director’s vision by placing the film in some kind of alternate reality that belies the very real, historical and societal points she is trying to make. This becomes all the more jarring when Cheung depicts events in which said brother, T.V. Soong, took an integral part alongside his sisters. Giving the brother his due or at least paying him lip service wouldn’t have undercut Mabel Cheung’s aim one bit. Simply put, her noble agenda is not well served by such inaccuracies. Nevertheless, the film’s message is unadulterated in its conciliatory dimension : despite internal strife and the crushing weight of history, the Soong sisters remained united, the bonds of family proving stronger than the divisions of politics. It’s an uplifting message, and one needed more than ever today. At the end of the film, Ai-Ling leaves for Hong Kong, while Ching-Ling stays in China, and Mai-Ling is destined to go to Taiwan to retreat to Taiwan with the Nationalist Party. Three political entities but the same family : it’s a once an elegy and a message of hope.

On a purely artistic level,, The Soong Sisters is a gorgeous film. Mabel Cheung, art director Eddie Ma and peerless cinematographer Arthur Wong have crafted a truly stunning reconstitution, vivid, detailed, and evocative. There’s a truly epic sweep to it, even though as a sprawling biopic that clocks in under 150 minutes, it is too elliptical in nature to really earn its big emotional payoffs. That’s where the immensely talented cast comes in handy. Mabel Cheung picked an impressive trio of actresses : Maggie Cheung gets the most to do and go through (no doubt because her character was to become Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China, and thus to the censors, the most commendable of the sisters) and is as subtle and affecting as ever, while Michelle Yeoh is fine but unfortunately often sidelined and gets the least screen time (maybe as a consequence of her character’s less flashy achievements), and Vivian Wu actually impresses the most with a less clear-cut, more nuanced role. The three of them share a great chemistry that consistently elevates the film. As their parents, Jiang Wen and Elaine Kam provide strong support, the former chewing the scenery a bit too much at times as the father, but the latter particularly moving as the mother who never loses faith in her daughters. Winston Chao here plays Sun Yat Sen for the first of five times, and he’s already perfect for the government-approved, very clean and clear-cut version of the character, in addition to looking like the real Sun a lot ; last but not least, Wu Hsing Kuo brings great charisma and nuance to the role of Chiang Kai-Shek, it’s a shame he was ignored by the Hong Kong Film Awards. Look out for a young Wang Xuebing as a servant of the Soong family.

Long Story Short : Historically inaccurate and politically compromised, The Soong Sisters nevertheless carries a noble message, and is as visually stunning as it is vividly acted by a trio of magnificent actresses. ***

 

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