Likened to Hollywood hit Love Story, this film beat Jackie Chan, Jet Li at Hong Kong box office in 1993

Anita Yuen (left) and Lau Ching-wan in a still from C’est la Vie, Mon Cheri. It beat films starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li to become a box-office hit in 1993.
PHOTO: Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Government of Hong Kong

Released during a year of slapstick costume comedies, martial arts films, violent horror and Category III (equivalent to NC-17 in the US and 18 in the UK) films, the refined melodrama C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri was a surprise hit in Hong Kong in the last months of 1993.

Directed by industry veteran Derek Yee Tung-sing, the movie featured Lau Ching-wan (Sean Lau) as a struggling musician who falls in love with a Cantonese opera singer with bone cancer, played by Anita Yuen Wing-yee.

C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri finished fourth in the year-end box-office charts, surpassed only by two Stephen Chow Sing-chi comedies and a Lunar New Year film.

The gentle drama even beat Jackie Chan's yearly offering, City Hunter, and Jet Li Lianjie's Fong Sai Yuk at the box office. The film was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.

"Director/screenwriter Derek Yee endows the somewhat stereotypical situations with a great deal of sincerity, investing the 'young girl suffering from a fatal disease' premise with a freshness and emotional resonance largely absent from Cantonese films," wrote Post critic Paul Fonoroff, who compared the film to the 1970s Hollywood mega hit Love Story starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal.

The story is chock-a-block with the different musical styles of the Hong Kong music scene at the time - Canto-pop, Mando-pop, Cantonese opera, jazz and rock all feature.

Ching-wan plays Kit, a saxophone player who has walked out on the Canto-pop scene to compose more serious works, to the annoyance of his Canto-pop star girlfriend Tracey, played superbly by Carina Lau Ka-ling.

Leaving Tracey's swish flat for a squalid dwelling in gritty Mong Kok, and ditching her in the process, Kit encounters Min (Anita), who makes a living singing Cantonese opera with her family at Temple Street market.

Kit thinks Min has talent, and wants to introduce her to some producers in the Canto-pop world, but her protective mother (Fung Bo-bo in a multilayered performance), tries to hold her back.

Kit finds out that Min is more fragile than she looks, as she is on remission from bone cancer. The two musicians fall in love, but tragedy ensues.

The melodramatic elements don't arrive until an hour has passed, and when they do, they are beautifully understated. Much of the film up to that point consists of a relatively detailed look at the lives of the musicians.

Making a living is paramount, and both Kit and Min lament the fact that they have to sell out to survive — she says that even Cantonese opera performers have to sing popular favourites, rather than their more artistic repertoire, to make money.

Anita Yuen (left) and Lau Ching-wan in a still from C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri.
PHOTO: LCSD

Kit, meanwhile, laments the coming to the Canto-pop world of computerised MIDI music technology — which enables producers to create instrument sounds electronically - as this has put session musicians like himself out of work.

Derek said that C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri grew out of two film ideas: one about a young woman with a terminal disease, and one about a family performing music on Temple Street. He combined the stories and sold the idea to Golden Harvest in 1990.

The deal fell through, and the film was finally produced as the first offering of Derek's independent Film Unlimited company. Derek was surprised by the film's success, he told the Post in 1993.

Film director Derek Yee Tung-sing giving a thank-you speech after being awarded the best director prize at the 13th Hong Kong Fi Film Awards for his film, C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

"I've never had such a reaction," he said after watching the audience during a screening. "How did I write a script that makes them laugh, that moves them so much?' he said.

"The thing I am happiest about is how many people react to the story and the dialogue … If you put your heart into a film, it will come to life."

Hong Kong reviewers were similarly enthused. The film won six prizes at the 1994 Hong Kong Film Awards, including best picture, best director and best screenplay.

According to leading critic Sek Kei, the movie "injected new life into the shopworn genre and created a new image of women".

"C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri is particularly moving, and without affectation. It's an incurable disease story, but it's not pessimistic - there is even joy in simple human goodness," Sek Kei said.

Others praised Yee for returning to a more traditional form of storytelling compared to the wildly innovative martial arts films and slapstick mo lei tau ("nonsense talk") comedies that dominated local screens in the early 1990s.

"The biggest merit of C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri is that it boldly reasserts the importance of traditional dramatic elements - all the things that most Hong Kong films have battered, ridiculed and obscenely exploited. The film has themes and feelings," wrote Hong Kong Economic Journal critic Lin Li.

"In the end, the most important thing about the film is its compassion for humanity."

Although Derek was only in his 30s when he made C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri, he was already an industry veteran. He was born into a movies family — his father, Er Guang, was a producer, and his mother, Hung Wei, was a well-known character actress who featured in around 120 films.

His half-brothers are famed martial arts star David Chiang Da-wei, and prolific and likeable actor Paul Chun Pui, who plays a musician in C'est La Vie.

Lau Ching-wan (left) and Anita Yuen in a still from C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri.
PHOTO: LCSD

Derek grew up in Kowloon City, a working-class district in East Kowloon, and made some films as a child actor before signing a contract to work at Shaw Brothers. During the sword-fighting movie craze of the 1970s, Yee became a major martial arts star, often appearing in Chor Yuen's films alongside legends like Ti Lung and Alexander Fu Sheng.

His first film as director, 1986's The Lunatics, gained him a reputation for following his own path even if it meant going against prevailing trends. In a 2005 article, the Post's Clarence Tsui described Derek as "one of the most bankable names in Hong Kong cinema", while noting that he remained a thoroughly independent filmmaker.

Derek has noted that although C'est La Vie was a major hit, it didn't change the trajectory of his career in a major way - indeed, he has said that its main effect was that it gave him an incredibly hard act to follow.

Winners at the 13th Hong Kong Film Awards pose for a group picture. From left in the first row are best supporting actor Paul Chun Pui, best actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang, best actress Anita Yuen Wing-yee, best supporting actress Fung Bo-bo and best director Derek Yee Tung-shing. With the exception of Wong, all the others worked on C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The film elevated the profile of Lau Ching-wan, who told this journalist that playing the impoverished musician was not a stretch, as he was an impoverished actor himself at the time. The film also made a major star of Anita Yuen, who cemented her success with Peter Chan Ho-sun's He's a Woman, She's a Man.

In the tradition of Hong Kong cinema, a bunch of low-budget melodramas quickly turned up to capitalise on the success of C'est La Vie. But none connected with the public, and only Clifton Ko Chi-sum's I Have A Date With Spring was a moderate success.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.