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The Three Smiles  
|     review    |     notes     |     availability     |


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Intercontinental Video Limited
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English, Chinese, and Bahasa Subtitles
Behind The Scenes; Interviews; Trailers; Color Stills; Original Poster; Production Notes; Cast/Crew Information
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

• Previously, this story has been adapted for the screen at least twice as An Ingenious Courtship (1937) and The Three Charming Smiles (1964).
• The box art for the DVD touts the film as the "number four hit of 1969."
• This classic tale was also "adapted" into the 1993 Stephen Chow blockbuster Flirting Scholar, which also featured Gong Li and a host of semi-famous people.

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Chinese: 三笑
Year: 1969
Director: Griffin Yueh Feng
Producer: Runme Shaw
Cast: Ivy Ling Po, Li Ching, Chen Yen-Yen, Lee Kwan, Cheng Miao, Wei Ping-Ou, Jeng Man Jing, Cheng Hong-Yip, Yau Ching, Kok Lee-Yan, Yip Bo-Kam
The Skinny: Though reputed to be the last, great Shaw Brothers musical, The Three Smiles is little more than an enjoyable, but forgettable adaptation of a well-known Chinese romance.


One 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.

The money 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 for—that 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 buffoons.

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 performance—Ling acquits herself well in the masculine role—but 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?

Unfortunately, the 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 film—that when it comes to matters of the heart, one should resort to trickery to get what they want?

Whatever 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 spectacular—it's just a serviceable movie musical in that patented Shaw Brothers style. And for some, that's entertainment. (Calvin McMillin 2003)

images courtesy of Intercontinental Video, Ltd.
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