Stagedoor Johnny – Saying Goodbye To A Doomed Art Form

Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Action/ Martial Arts/ Drama
Director: Wu Ma
Year: 1990

Rating: ★★★★☆


In 1930s Shanghai, the genteel art form of “chaste” opera is already long passé, so the performances of Pops’ (Wu Ma) all female opera troupe are sparsely attended, and then only by underworld types who don’t really appreciate their artistry. These lowlifes just want to leer at the ladies and pick out one to take home with them. Chang (Lau Siu-Ming), the chief scumbag, has his eyes set on Sai Hsiao Hsuen (Lai Yin-Saan).

Attempting to save his troupe, Pops imports opera star Tsui Yen Hsieh (Kara Hui) from Beijing, whose style incorporates martial arts.

This causes resentment in the opera troupe, especially for former star Shen Yen Chiu (Ann Mui).

The first 45 minutes of Stagedoor Johnny are almost pure drama, but that’s okay. Director Wu Ma obviously has his heart in the story. He gives the proceedings an elegiac tone. One is reminded that, just as the genteel form of opera faded into memory, so has Peking opera in our lifetimes.

If that was all there was to Stagedoor Johnny, it would be enough, but there is more.

Ching, in addition to being a pig, is also dealing opium, which is forbidden in Shanghai. Rival triad leader Lu Tung Tong (Waise Lee) attempts to stop him, leading to bad blood.

Wu Ma directs beautifully. The camera glides through the sets, not in an ostentatious way, but buttressing the emotions and action at every turn. The art direction is fantastic, and appears to be budgeted at a reasonable level, unusual for Hong Kong cinema of this period. As usual, Jackie Chan’s Stuntman Group does an admirable job with the martial arts choreography and stunts.

Stage Door Johnny also has a terrific cast. There are so many wonderful performances. The standouts for me are Wu Ma as the troupe leader, Kara Hui as the opera performer from Peking, and Lau Siu-Ming as the evil triad boss, but also very strong are Lam Ching-Ying, Chung Faat, and Mars.

So, why am not giving Stagedoor Johnny five stars? The weak link is the script. Mind you, the story is excellent, the script structure is solid, and writer Chan Ka-Cheong provides us with a wealth of incident. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to be able to thread the various elements of the picture into a cohesive whole. The picture has a frustrating stop and go quality instead of building steadily in intensity. Also, the dialog isn’t always up to the standards of the rest of the picture. Chan Ka-Cheong tries to be oblique and subtle, but his dialog often comes off as vague and obscure. Who knows? Maybe the translation of the subtitles wasn’t very good. As it is, the actors have to work doubly hard to build their characters.

I also didn’t much like the ending, which seemed like overkill to me. Director Wu Ma and screenwriter Chan Ka-Cheong have already established that the art form of classical Chinese opera is on its way out. It wouldn’t have killed them to toss the audience a bone or two, like maybe a proper comeuppance for the villains.

But never mind all that. Stage Door Johnny is still well worth your time.

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