Brian Hu charts the career of one of the shining stars of Hong Kong cinema, and the focus of an upcoming ACMI film season, Linda Lin Dai.
Linda Lin Dai was the biggest Chinese star of her time. Her fans knew it, her studios knew it, and she knew it.
With the impact of Communist ideology on Chinese cinema after 1949, “the star” being replaced with “the film worker”, it was up to the overseas Chinese to continue the glamour and celebrity of 1930’s Shanghai. Singapore and Hong Kong-based studios like Hsin Hwa, MP&GI, and Shaw Brothers had their own training schools and publicity teams to develop stars with the flair and charisma of the pre-revolution generation. Amidst the prima-donnas and the girls-next-door, one star shone brightest: Linda Lin Dai.
Born Cheng Yueru in Guangxi, but renamed Lin Dai in Hong Kong, the star known throughout Asia and beyond as Linda was the goddess of the Mandarin-speaking world. In Taipei, perhaps the biggest market for Chinese cinema, Lin Dai had a film amongst the top ten money-makers every year between 1956 and 1966 – including four of the top ten films in 1957, and three in 1961.
Even after her tragic suicide at the age of 29, Lin Dai continued to cast her spell and score big box office returns with posthumously-released films. She was critically acclaimed too. In a span of six years, she won four best actress awards at the Asian Film Festival, a feat that earned her the nickname “Movie Queen of Asia.”
When Shaw Brothers attempted to break into the western market, Lin Dai’s films were the ones chosen for export. When co-producers around the world asked MP&GI to borrow an actress for overseas work, studio boss Loke Wan Tho picked Lin Dai. And when Shaw Brothers needed a face for the inaugural issue of their fan magazine Southern Screen, of course it was Lin Dai’s. In fact, she graced four of the first 15 covers of the widely-circulated magazine.
Off screen, Lin Dai was known for getting her way in the industry at a time when actors were considered the property of individual studios. On screen she was a softer, sexier, and more effortless version of that same persona, her characters ranging from plucky heroines with a verve for life, to tragic figures undone by their own ambitions.
Whether in comedy, opera, romance, or thriller, Lin Dai was the feisty one: the troublemaker in a chaste world, a firecracker when everyone else was a cardboard cutout. She excelled at comedies, especially the ones she did for MP&GI. But today, Lin Dai is best remembered for her work with Shaw Brothers, thanks in large part to Celestial Pictures’ recent digital restorations.
At Shaw Brothers, Lin Dai was queen. In Southern Screen profiles of younger actresses, Lin Dai was consistently mentioned as a role model, mentor, and standard of beauty. Her name, which conjures feminine beauty and classical literature, was synonymous with the studio and its growing stature in the greater Chinese market. Lin Dai’s celebrity was so great that in Shaws’ The Fair Sex (1961), she had a cameo as herself: the biggest movie star of them all. She was also cast in many of Shaw Brothers prestige pictures, such as their first foray into color, Diau Charn (1958), and Les Belles (1961). When Shaw Brothers wanted to revolutionize Chinese cinema, they relied on Lin Dai to be the face of the revolution.
In the late 1950s, Lin Dai was one of the few actresses in Hong Kong who could simultaneously work for multiple studios. For Shaw Brothers, MP&GI, and Yung Hwa, she made a number of rustic pictures starring as fishermen’s daughters or rural ingénues. However, by 1961, she found Shaw Brothers to be an ideal fit, and it was with that rapidly-rising, ambitious, and well-connected studio that she made her biggest films.
The record-breaking success of Diau Charn and The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) helped launch the extraordinarily popular huangmei opera cycle in Mandarin films. The latter film is perhaps the best of the bunch, thanks to Lin Dai’s award-winning performance, clever songs, and Li Han-hsiang’s deft direction. The regal but girlish Lin Dai fit Han-hsiang’s opulent, even excessive, vision of classical Chinese court life perfectly, and when he launched a project to make films about the “four great beauties” of Chinese history, he cast Lin Dai as two of them. In one of these films, Diau Charn, Lin Dai plays a maid who learns the power of her beauty. In the other, Beyond the Great Wall (1964), Lin Dai plays a concubine whose looks and musical ability drive men to war.
Throughout her career, Lin Dai also made a number of costume pictures for Griffith Yueh Feng, the best of which is the sublimely romantic huangmei opera, Madame White Snake (1962), which also features some of Shaw Brothers’ early experiments with special effects.
Lin Dai excelled at another type of costume picture as well: the fashion extravaganza. In Les Belles, she sported costumes from around the world; most famously, and most daringly, a leggy can-can outfit. In Love Parade (1963), Lin Dai is a gynecologist who butts heads with her fashion designer boyfriend, before – as a prudish woman in a musical comedy must! – discovering her true talents as a runway model. Lin Dai was associated with cutting-edge fashion to such a degree that she was even credited as the costume designer of the picture. These two films, featuring Lin Dai’s liveliest performances for Shaw Brothers, showcased the comic actress at her prime. The near-silent comedy of missed connections which closes Les Belles is the pinnacle of joy in pre-martial arts Shaw Brothers films.
Today, the name Lin Dai not only conjures up extravagant images of silver-screen glamour, but also song. Long associated with musical films, Lin Dai, with uncredited dubbing by Tsin Ting, starred in two of the most memorable songstress films later in her career. One of Shanghai cinema’s most important legacies in Hong Kong popular culture, songstress films were melodramas about women risking romance and reputation to belt out torch songs in nightclubs. Lin Dai, so adept at capturing a woman’s anguish, so convincing as a character who balances innocence, sacrifice, modesty, and depravity, all while maintaining an audience’s sympathy, took the genre by storm.
With the two-part Blue and the Black (1966), Lin Dai took on one of her most memorable characters: a stubborn romantic who also serves up one of Chinese cinema’s most heartfelt ballads. Unfortunately, Lin Dai committed suicide before the film was completed and Shaw Brothers had to find a stand-in to “hide” her way through the picture, Game of Death-style. Predictably, the Lin Dai replacement had the star’s diminutive frame but not her explosive emotional charge. Though the two-parter was completed, the film remains, for Lin Dai fans, unfinished.
Perhaps a better way to remember Lin Dai is through the songstress film Love Without End (1961). As she sings the title song onstage for the last time, the audience is completely still. When the camera tracks back to reveal her husband’s face, we can’t help but feel his fear that even though the song sings of love’s immortality, this may be the last time we get to hear the tearful ballad in the flesh. “Forget not your tears, forget not your laughter. Forget not the sorrow of leaving…”
Brian Hu is an editor of Asia Pacific Arts. His writing has featured in several books on Chinese cinema, and in journals such as Screen, Film Quarterly, and Post Script. He is currently completing his PhD in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Focus on Linda Lin Dai film program will run at ACMI from 17 to 28 February 2011.