Craig Mathieson takes a look at ACMI's focus on the rediscovered actress.
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15 Feb 2011 - 2:39 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

How do you explain Linda Lin Dai? Brian Hu, a Los Angeles-based Asian cinema scholar, uses a simple, suitably sweeping example: Imagine that you have never heard of Marilyn Monroe – never seen a single movie she made, never sensed a scintilla of the cultural impact she delivered – and then you take in all at once her existence, her pictures, and her standing.

That, notes Hu, conveys something akin to discovering Linda Lin Dai.

But to say that the 1960s Hong Kong screen superstar was Asia's Marilyn Monroe would be a gross simplification. Yes, Lin Dai, who passed away in 1964 at the mere age of 29, was a huge box-office draw, with a suitably fervent fanbase and media profile, but the actress could also be compared to a Shirley MacLaine for her skills in modern musicals, or a Bette Davis for the way that the sacrifice of melodrama threatened to sadly enflame the very reels of her movies. No single comparison can adequately explain Linda Lin Dai.

In Focus on Linda Lin Dai, an exemplary introductory season on the actress that runs from Thursday 17 to Monday 28 February at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), those who want to learn more about this seminal figure – or original fans who want to be returned to a now distant era – will find everything they need. The nine features screening give an illuminating overview of her singular career.

If you're worried that you're late to Linda Lin Dai, that you've overlooked her and somehow made a mistake, there's no need to worry: nearly everyone who knows a degree of anything about her is a latecomer. James Nolen, the film programmer at ACMI who curated the forthcoming series, literally hadn't heard of her a year ago. Initially he was looking through the website of the Hong Kong Film Archives, where he repeatedly saw her name, and Google searches piqued his curiosity.

At first Nolen did the rounds, unsuccessfully, of the arcane DVD retailers in Melbourne's Chinatown, but it was only when he discovered that the catalogue of Shaw Brothers Studio, the famous Hong Kong production house where Lin Dai served as their first lady during the early 1960s, was being digitised as part of their preservation and commercial reissue that he was able to actually see the movies that he has increasingly been reading about. The first DVD he watched was the 1961 romantic tragedy Love Without End (pictured). A year later it's the opening film of ACMI's Linda Lin Dai season.

Brian Hu, who's currently preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of California on Asian film stars of the 1960s, was able to watch some of those same titles alongside his parents, who had grown up in Taiwan and were surprised that the mere sideshows of their youth had not only survived, but acquired importance.

“When they were growing up film was seen as entertainment, it was disposable – it wasn't something you would think about 40 or 50 years later,” Hu notes. “They still thought of it as entertainment, or a nice way to spend time with their child, but for me it was about retracing my parents' life in another country.”

Lin Dai's own life was as subtly complex as one of her screen performances. Born Chen Yueru in 1934, she was the oldest daughter of a Nationalist politician who like so many others relocated to Hong Kong in the 1948 diaspora after Mao Tse-tung's communists triumphed in the Chinese Civil War. As legend has it – probably embellished by the glossy star-making machinery she subsequently encountered – Chen was discovered after a movie executive saw a picture of her at a photographic studio. Renamed Linda Lin Dai, she first appeared on screen in 1953's Singing Under the Moon.

The peak of Lin Dai's career, and the focus of the ACMI season, is the period from the late 1950s until her death in 1964 (extended by several posthumous releases). At a time when cinema production and attendance was booming, Linda Lin Dai was a superstar, topping the box-office in multiple years while working in Mandarin, as opposed to Cantonese.

Seen now, her performances also reveal an obvious technical skill. Lin Dai appeared in costume “plum operas” (Diau Charn, 1958), period fantasies (Madam White Snake, 1962), gregarious musicals (Les Belles, 1961) and dramatic epics (The Blue and the BlackPart 1, 1966). Each was a distinct genre, some with rigid rules regarding a performer's style and presentation, and each fell to Lin Dai's talent.

“In all the genres her performances are a little bit different, and she mastered each one,” observes Brian Hu. “That she could cross from classical to contemporary films attests to her ability to be a modern woman who can be any type of character, and that was exciting for people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, two places that were modernising very quickly.”

After the formal black and white framing of Love Without End, the ACMI season is awash in colour. It's symbolic of the cultural change that Linda Lin Dai represented. Contemporary life begins in 1961's Love Parade, one of several fruitful collaborations with director Doe Chin, where the actress plays an independent young doctor who becomes entangled with a playful fashion designer (Peter Chen).

“She was able to capture the modern world and master it by being hilarious and professional and sexy,” adds Brian Hu. “Her fans were the common folk and even when she played an opera star she conveyed what it means to be a modern Chinese person.”

Lin Dai's own life displayed equal independence. At one point, despite her work schedule, she decamped for America, where she studied acting at New York's Columbia University. She continued working after she married businessman Long Shengxun in 1961 and subsequently became a mother, all the while dealing with a domineering Hong Kong studio system.

“She knew how to navigate the various studios and find what was best for her. She was able to sign shorter term contracts, so she wasn't committed to one studio for a long time,” Brian Hu says. “In the end Shaw Brothers was the best fit, because they had a strong publicity machine behind them and they were making the biggest films.”

Lin Dai committed suicide in 1964, taking an overdose of sleeping pills due to what the media characterised as “family matters”. The images of her funeral procession that Brian Hu has seen in his archival research reveal a public in mass mourning, and the element of mystery made for pulp biographies that barely addressed her body of work.

These days we're far more familiar with Hong Kong filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai, whose masterful In the Mood For Love is set in 1962, the height of Lin Dai's fame. She is preserved there by an unexpected passing that froze her, like James Dean, with the energy and appeal of youth. ACMI's season goes a good way towards redressing that imbalance, opening up a screen era both under-studied and under-appreciated.

“You really get to see the breadth of her abilities,” concludes Brian Hu. “She cast a shadow over all Hong Kong cinema.”