of China's most popular romances gets the big screen treatment
in The Three Smiles, one of the many Mandarin musicals
released by the fine folks at Shaw Brothers. Classified as a
Huangmei folk opera, the film tells the story of Tang Bohu (played
by a cross-dressing Ivy Ling Po), a famous scholar who spends
most of his time wandering around the countryside.
and celebrity that come along with Bohu's rank do not appeal
to him. It's merely the joys of poetry and song that he lives
forthat is, until the day he meets the beautiful Autumn
Fragrance (Li Ching), a coquettish maiden in the service of
Lady Hua, wife of the Grand Tutor.
On three separate occasions, Autumn
smiles at Bohu (hence the title), instantly capturing his heart.
In order to be closer to the girl he loves, Bohu masquerades
as a peasant and slyly worms his way into the household of the
Grand Tutor as a pageboy. After a name change to Hua An, our
hero surreptitiously begins teaching the Grand Tutor's two sons,
who just so happen to be a couple of stammering and slurring
Both of them have a crush on Autumn Fragrance, but
the audience is thankfully spared any Cyrano de Bergerac-style
hijinks on the part of Bohu. Instead, the flirting scholar resorts
to various forms of guile to win over his ladylove. Plus there's
singing. Lots and lots of singing.
Though The Three Smiles amounts to a generally pleasant viewing experience, the whole
conceit of casting Ivy Ling Po as a male character is a tough
sell. Nothing against her performanceLing acquits herself
well in the masculine rolebut suspending one's disbelief
has never been quite so hard. (Then again, this is the same
reviewer who has no trouble accepting the idea that a talking
monkey can lead a Buddhist monk to India, so perhaps someone
should cut this film a little slack, eh?) Famed "Baby Movie
Queen" Li Ching brings a certain amount of savvy to her
role as Autumn Fragrance, leaving her true feelings toward Tang
Bohu somewhat ambiguous until the final reel.
However, although Autumn Fragrance's
allure is undeniable, one has to wonder exactly why Tang Bohu
has to sell himself into servitude. Is it simply due to his
overwhelming need to be near the woman he loves? Or is it because
he has to circumvent some sort of unstated taboo about a romance
between two people of differing stations?
narrative doesn't clarify the motivation behind Bohu's ruse.
This is a trivial point to be sure, but it would be helpful
for the audience to know why all of Tang Bohu's romantic shenanigans
were necessary in the first place. And exactly what is the message
of this filmthat when it comes to matters of the heart,
one should resort to trickery to get what they want?
the case, I wasn't really thinking too intently about any of
these questions while watching The Three Smiles, which
ultimately qualifies as innocuous fluff undeserving of my far
too critical eye. The film is neither boring nor spectacularit's
just a serviceable movie musical in that patented Shaw Brothers
style. And for some, that's entertainment. (Calvin McMillin 2003)