Soong Sisters, The (1997)

China’s turbulent 20th century history is captured sweepingly in Mabel Cheung’s effective if straightforward film about the contributions and exploits of three pivotal sisters.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Mabel Cheung
1997 | Hong Kong/China | Drama/History | 145 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin & English
Not rated – likely to be PG

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Vivian Wu, Winston Chao, Wu Hsing-Kuo, Elaine Jin, Jiang Wen
Plot: The film follows the lives of the three Soong daughters, who captured the world’s fascination for their brilliant marriages and their strong influence on their nation.
Awards: Won 4 Golden Horses – Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, Best Sound Effects, Best Visual Effects; Nom. for 1 Golden Horse – Best Cinematography; Official Selection (Toronto)
Source: Golden Harvest

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
Spoilers: No

Kitaro’s extraordinary music led me to want to see this film, and I’m grateful for it.  I’ve also always been fascinated by world history, so historical biopics tend to resonate with me greatly. 

In The Soong Sisters, China’s turbulent 20th century history is captured sweepingly in nearly two-and-a-half hours (this is the longer, more effective cut than the two-hour version) as we follow the three famous sisters who had pivotal roles in changing its course. 

From director Mabel Cheung, who made The Illegal Immigrant (1985) and An Autumn’s Tale (1987) early in her career, The Soong Sisters is probably her most ambitious film. 

It’s a straightforward treatment as we are taken chronologically through the early 1900s to after WWII, albeit via the cliché person-on-the-dying-bed-recalling-the-past flashback approach. 

Famous historical figures closely associated with the Soongs are portrayed, including Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, who married Ching-Ling (the middle sister who ‘loved her country’ as played by the excellent Maggie Cheung) and May-Ling (the youngest sister who ‘loved power’ as played by Vivian Wu) respectively. 

Michelle Yeoh rounds out the trio as the eldest sister, Ai-Ling, who ‘loved money’, though she is infrequently the focus. 

Much of Mabel Cheung’s film centers on the cordial if also fraught relationship between Ching-Ling and May-Ling as ideologies, politics and legacies get in the way of their sisterly love. 

The Soong Sisters is a fairly sentimental look at history and runs the gamut of emotions in the space of its runtime as most scenarios are dramatised for effect. 

It is useful as an introduction to the remarkable contributions and exploits of the Soongs, setting the personal against the wider canvas that is the changing tide of history.

Grade: A-


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