aka 飛女正傳 aka Fei nu zheng zhuan
Written by Patrick Lung Kong and Lam Nin-Tung
Directed by Patrick Lung Kong
Patrick Lung Kong’s work is not mainstream pop cinema. It is instead cinema touching on social and economic problems not touched by most films, and the few times the topics are, it’s clearly in the realm of exploitation cinema. The approach to the subject matter is more mature than much of the Hong Kong cinema of the time. While there were plenty of dramas involving family issues, the issues tackled in Teddy Girls trend more serious, and show more of societies effects on the problems, both on how they’re caused and by what they do to the people trapped in them. These are common themes in Patrick Lung Kong’s work.
What makes Patrick Lung Kong’s films stand out from other dramas is the strength to tackle difficult and controversial issues in a mature manner and still tell a good and entertaining story. Both as a writer and a director, Lung worked to better Hong Kong film at the same time Hong Kong cinema was suffering from a decline. Mandarin-language Shaw Brothers flicks outperformed and outclassed local Hong Kong productions, and the highly respected Union Film had shuttered its doors.
His directorial debut was in 1966 with Prince of Broadcasters, which foresaw the influence of radio in Hong Kong and became a hit at the box office. He followed that up with what is arguably his most famous and influential film, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967), a tale about a former prisoner desperately trying to not get sucked back into a life of crime. It had a direct influence on John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Woo also must have seen (and borrowed from) Lung’s next film Window (1968), which features a blind woman and a criminal who fall in love. Next up was a look at youth culture with Teddy Girls, the film we will discuss at length below. Yesterday Today Tomorrow (1970), about a plague affecting Hong Kong, caused controversy, the heavily censored version failed at the box office. He continued on with My Beloved (1971) and the domestic drama Pei Shih (1972).
Lung dealt with social issues at large with Hong Kong Nite Life (1973) and then The Call Girls (1973), which featured the stories of five prostitutes. Lung Kong tackled the issue of nuclear disarmament before it was even on people’s radar with Hiroshima 28 (1974), and followed up with the quickly made Mitra (1976), filmed in Iran while he was showing Hiroshima 28 at a film festival. 1976 also saw the release of the sci-fi influenced Laugh In (1976) and Lina (1976). His final film was 1979’s The Fairy, the Ghost and Ah Chung, though he continued to be active in the Hong Kong cinema world through the turn of the century. His films went on to inspire the Hong Kong New Wave directors as they helped reshape Hong Kong cinema.
Most of Lung Kong’s films are hard to find in general, and with English subtitles they are exceedingly rare. Despite a HKFA retrospective his material still remains hard to find for the true Hong Kong cinema connoisseur.
Lung was not afraid to create serious films that tackled social issues in a non-exploitative manner. Patrick Lung Kong became one of the most influential directors in Hong Kong cinema due to how he helmed films like Teddy Girls. His attempts to escape the boundaries and touch on subjects usually avoided stand out sharper now, especially with the ease of availability of the other older films, you can see just how fluff a lot of them were.
What other director of the time could do a teenage girls in prison film and not make it feel dirty in the slightest, but still fill it with believable and sympathetic characters, humor and tragedy? Characters who suffer all types of bad influences while growing up, rebelling for their own reasons, reaching further tragedy due to the consequences of their original actions. These aren’t bad girls who are bad, these are girls who had the entire deck stacked against them. It’s no wonder some of them just fold and give up. Teddy Girls is never so cruel as when is is making you think things just might be all right for once.
Josephine’s character is running, running from an unhappy home life and disintegration of everything she knew. Her father’s decay and death while her mother found comfort in a new man, a man who is obviously a sleazy parasite.
Of the stories of the girls, Josephine’s is the most avoidable, she seems to be acting out more of simple teenage rebellion. But she becomes part of a system that is bigger than her, and life is a cruel thing at times. Josephine’s downfall is the biggest as she has the longest way to fall. Her character seems to have it all, but she lacks the one thing she craves, and she cannot stand it. Her life becomes destroyed, and her rage focused on a single target, the man she blames for ruining everything. And he’s not innocent, his motivations are scuzzy and he leaves Josephine’s mom in ruin.
Josephine is swept up in revenge, but she becomes her own victim, by acting out rashly and destructively. Not only does she destroy her life, she brings downfall on others. Misery is spread, the only lesson is how many ways this could have been avoided, by many people.
The only real drawback is the moral message at the end literally given by Kenneth Tsang Kong as the mouthpiece to one of the young ladies, bringing to mind flicks like Reefer Madness where a character will suddenly address the audience from behind a desk.
We open in a swinging club, Josephine boogieing down with a girlfriend when the local creep patrol tries to play goose. And not Duck Duck Goose, this is some butt-grabbing goose! This leads to smacking and return smacking, then Josephine tears into them with beer bottles because she don’t take no crap. This lands her in front of a judge, but as she’s a good girl from a rich family, he’s all set to give her probation. But she betrays larger issues at home with her non-speaking to and her barely-concealed contempt of her weeping mother. Josephine refuses the probation and demands jailtime so she doesn’t have to return home.
So it’s off to Juvie!
This is one area where it is very obvious we’re watching nonexploitation of an exploitation subject: The almost every day occurrence of a new inmate checking in set to light elevator music. It makes it seem mundane, especially as the office workers and doctors/nurses go through their routines.
Josephine is not keen on making any friends, ignoring the other girls and getting into words with Ma Pi-shan when she comes to rag on the new girl. This leads to increased viciousness of the pranks, though Josephine starts to fight back and gets Ma Pi-shan into trouble herself. The mutual acrimony builds, resulting in a massive food fight involving the entire bunch of girls. Josephine makes the mistake of tattling in front of everyone, and is later beaten up by both sides of the fight. Snitches get stitches.
Josephine sees her past framed against the tv shows they get to watch on weekends – years before Natural Born Killers and all that used media and memory. Her mother already has a new man named Li Chang while her father lays dying in hospital. There’s plenty of resentment of Li Chang, especially when mom starts spending all her time with him. She can’t even remember Josephine’s birthday without the maid’s help. Instead, she runs off and just hands Josephine money. Mom doesn’t show for the giant party as Josephine sulks and destroys her cake alone afterwards.
Back in juvie, life goes on, and everyone keeps busy with day to day activities. The girls even befriend Mr. Do’s daughter Chia-huei, and while she’s injured in the game, the girls band together to apologize and make her happy.
You do realize all this happy time isn’t going to last. These are real girls with real problems, and the problems come roaring back to shatter their fragile lives.
Ma Pi-shan had a baby daughter that she’s told by her mom died…or was sold, we don’t get a concrete answer and her mom just doesn’t care enough to remember. Josephine’s mom shows up and causes more drama when she realizes that mom is still with her awful boyfriend, Josephine smashing up pigeon coups and being tossed in solitary for two weeks.
The final trigger comes on the eve of a fashion show with clothes the girls sewed on site. Josephine’s mom kills herself, her business broke and her boyfriend Li Chang ran off to find a new rich woman to leech off of.
Josephine vows revenge, planning escape and is joined by Ma Pi-shan and Chen Li-fan. Li Shu-chun also joins them in a desperate bid to try to help her broke siblings. Yang Shiao-chiao helps distract the caretakers so they can get out.
The first thing they do with their freedom is to go splash in a lake to celebrate their freedom – done in an entirely nonexploitative and nonerotic way. And they’re instantly set upon by 3 idiot guys who try to rape them. They rightfully beat the crap out of these guys and take their clothes. This turns out to be the least bad thing that will happen. Their freedom spree reveals betrayal of loved ones, worst parent of the century nominees, and ex-boyfriends who keep getting stabbed by their jilted lockup girlfriends that they had driven to prostitution.
While Mr Do spends his time trying to find them before they hurt more people. He even has words with Li Chang at his new nightclub about how laws seem to only apply to the poor and powerless while Li Chang and destroy lives and walk around free. Li Shu-chun falls and hurts herself hiding from the police, while the other three girls prepare to attack Li Chang. But things don’t go as planned, and the ending is as bleak and tragic as we all knew it would be
But that doesn’t mean Mr. Do can’t lecture us on how parents these days are awful and society is partially to blame (told to reporters) But no “I Accuse My Parents” style quotes, sadly. The themes of Teddy Girls and the hooks that poverty and bad parenting can dig into children to prevent them from escaping into a good future are still relevant today and will be relevant for as long as there are class differences in society…which will probably be forever. This is the point where we all realize that we can only do so much, but also the point where we become determined to not give up. The fact that so many of the girls had multiple younger siblings who could easily be on the same trajectory is motivation enough to try to fix things before history repeats over and over again.
Rated 8/10 (Logo, the goosing that caused a thousand problems, judging, birthday cake, cigarette burn, pigeon lady, Mrs. Do, bad bad boyfriend)
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