Stage Door Johnny (1990)

Directed by
A mixed bag
Reviewed by Simon on 2023-08-24

My rules are very simple:

You put Kara Hui in your film, I watch your film.

If you want to get Jackie Chan's Stuntmen Association to choreograph a bloody finale for your tale of sisterly bonding in a Shanghai Opera House, that's up to you.

Wu Ma apparently decided that was exactly what he would do, presumably suspecting that a melodramatic story with strong female characters would be more appealing to audiences if it included a bit of action and violence... which, come to think of it, is also the plot of the film.

In 1920's Shanghai the all-female Xiaoheichun opera troupe have fallen on tough times, the town is full of gangsters who have no interest in traditional opera other than trying to bed its performers, so Wu Ma hires a star of the more action-oriented Peking Opera to try and change their fortunes (Kara Hui). The new arrival is suffering her own misfortunes after being abandoned by her patron on becoming pregnant, but still manages to be exceptionally haughty and immediately antagonises the existing members... no less so when her presence does indeed bring in the crowds.

The girls bitch and fight and generally undermine their own deep insecurities with their behaviour, but luckily a vicious gang lord takes a possessive interest in one of the girls and his men provide the necessary incentive for them to pull together... and Waise Lee exists for some reason.

These two sides of the film never really gel, the sisterly bonding and bitching never achieves the authenticity Tsui Hark and his stars managed in Peking Opera Blues, whilst the encounters with or between the warring gangs are too fleeting to give their story much substance. The film's bloody climax therefore feels less like a cathartic payoff than a somewhat predictable car crash.

Still, Kara Hui is in the film along with plenty of familiar faces from the Golden Harvest action stables, and actress Eva Lai Yin-Shan gets a substantial role that finally satisfies the interest she piqued in me some decades ago with her brief appearance in THE ICEMAN COMETH, so the film delivers a certain basic level of cinematic satisfaction if you're sufficiently familiar with the context and culture that birthed it... oh, and on that note, familiarity with The Story of Sue San will make one scene a little funnier.