The Soong Sisters poster

The Soong Sisters (1997); directed by Mabel Cheung; screenplay by Alex Law

This story is just too sprawling to fit into one film, but with its built-in historical scope, international intrigue, astonishing wealth, clamor for power, sacrifice, selfishness, and schisms, it would make a fantastic, big-budget mini-series. The sisters’ story is largely the story of China in the first half of the last century, and it didn’t end in the 40s, as does this movie.

The sisters and their families led fascinating lives that traced the political dreams and ruptures of their country; however, the story here rides roughshod over long stretches of history, and without dates, it’s hard to follow exactly what is happening and when. (Years ago I had read the out-of-print book, The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave, which deepened my appreciation for the film’s story but frustrated me in its limitation of time.)

Mabel Cheung’s movie has all the hallmarks of a big screen biography, where historical scenes are coalesced for time and characters are drawn broadly to make them quickly comprehensible and classifiable. While this works in the sense of an epic, it cheats us out of the twists that drew each sister into separate political, philosophical, and financial spheres.

Michelle Yeoh as Ai-ling (Madame Kung), Maggie Cheung as Ching-ling (Madame Sun), and Vivian Wu as Mai-ling (Madame Chiang).

Michelle Yeoh as Ai-ling (Madame Kung), Maggie Cheung as Ching-ling (Madame Sun), and Vivian Wu as Mai-ling (Madame Chiang).

Cast: Maggie Cheung uses her amazing face to convey more openness and vulnerability than usual, though I might have cast her as Madame Chiang. Michelle Yeoh is under-used, and her dubbed Mandarin voice is preposterous; every time it came on, I got confused and wondered who on earth was speaking – her rich, deep tone in English suddenly turns high-pitched and perky when her character switches to Mandarin, which, I believe at this point the actress couldn’t really speak. I might have put Yeoh in the Ching-ling role as the wife of Sun Yat-sen, and I wish Gong Li had been around to play Ai-Ling; Vivian Wu is miscast – she’s too young and too contemporary for the role.

In fact, none of the actresses really made as much as an impression as Elaine Jin and Wen Jiang playing their parents, both of whom had spellbinding death scenes, a credit to both the performers and to the director, Mabel Cheung.

Soong SistersSo if you’re interested in Chinese history, give yourself a quick refresher before watching this film. Afterwards, you may want to grab a book to get the in-depth story of a powerful Chinese family standing at the tipping point of modern Chinese history. I think I wanna watch it again right now!