Review: The Soong Sisters (1997)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Of all the films I saw in 1997, The Soong Sisters was my favourite movie of that year. It soon became the most awarded Chinese film of the late 1990s.

A Hong Kong-China co-production and distributed by the Golden Harvest company, The Soong Sisters is a biopic of three Chinese-born and American-educated young women, who each played an important part in modern Chinese history. It’s a triumph of ensemble acting and superb direction which weaves these three lives together.

Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Sunshine) plays Soong Ai-Ling, the eldest sister who marries H.H. Kung, who eventually became one of the richest men in Asia. Yeoh underplays her role beautifully, and is shown to be the conduit which often brought the sisters together. Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love, Comrades, Almost a Love Story) is Soong Ching-Ling, who marries Nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao), much to her father’s disgust. She devotes her life to her husband and his cause for a united China. It was to be a lifetime punctuated by personal and political tragedy. Vivian Wu (The Pillowbook) takes the role of the youngest daughter Soong Mei-Ling, who falls for the ruthless charm of Nationalist General Chiang Kai-Shek (Wu Hsing-Kuo). From a seemingly infatuated young woman, we see her grasp the mettle as she organises the rescue of her husband from the warlords in Chungking. This is the best passage of drama in the film, but unfortunately it seems somewhat disjointed, as about fifteen minutes was clipped from it by the Chinese censors, who still have a problem with Chiang Kai-Shek’s role in Chinese history.

Director Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting (City of Glass) has never attempted a film project on such a scale as The Soong Sisters — but the results are stunning. Cinematographer Arthur Wong (Once Upon a Time in China) captures the epic sweep and intimacy of Cheung’s cinematic vision. Alex Law’s screenplay skillfully highlights the twists and paradoxes of Chinese history early last century. He also manages to present the often brittle relationship between Mei Ling and Ching Ling as a dramatic meld of sibling and political rivalry.

Each sister could be described as being a metaphor of a politically splintered China last century. But ultimately, The Soong Sisters should be viewed as three remarkable individuals, who defied convention and lived the kind of lives that most people only ever read about.

9 Fascinating lives out of 10.
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