Not to get all that political on you, but I’ve always felt China is just a few steps behind the U.S. in almost everything way and entertainment certainly falls into that category. Shot entirely in Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan’s First Night Nerves feels like a story from TV’s Dynasty or Dallas, but with a modern edge here or there.
The film centers on two female lead actors: veteran actress Yuan Xiuling (Sammi Cheng) and the slightly younger rival He Yuwen (Gigi Leung). Both brought together by Cheng Cong (Angie Chiu), a wealthy Singaporean matriarch who is financing a new play in Hong Kong’s City Hall. Written by transgender director Ouyang Au (Kam Kwok Leung), her play, Two Sisters, is already sold out and garnering vast amounts of attention for its cast and those associated with it.
“…she’s always lived under her shadow since the two started off as actresses under the same acting teacher…”
Yuan Xiuling is returning to the theater after a five-year hiatus. Her backstory is hilariously explained in soul-crushing detail in an interview with CCTV’s gossip reporter (China’s version of TMZ) as Xiuling just sits there silently, listening her past tragedies including a husband, who recently died in a plane crash not long after revealing he had a secret family. Xiuling is only doing the play because she’s broke as her husband squandered his fortune on his secret family.
While Xiuling is seen as the sophisticated veteran of the stage, He Yuwen is the slightly younger, television actress making her stage debut. She demands more attention from everyone and the public, and is always ready to make an entrance. Yuwen appears a little abrasive to Xiuling because she’s always lived under her shadow since the two started off as actresses under the same acting teacher Master Qin.
Add to the mix the famous supermodel, Fu Sha (Bai Baihe), who is a regular target CCTV’s tabloid shows catching her engaged in one lesbian relationship to another. Fu Sha is a dear friend of Xiuling and serves as her confidant. Secretly, yet no-so-secret, Fu Sha has feelings for Xiuling. Xiuling deep down knows it but refuses to acknowledge it or show any feelings for her..
“…LGBT characters treated as normal and simply embraces these story elements as a matter-of-fact and not as a prominent plot point.”
With the characters in place, First Night Nerves follows the Two Sisters production through its one-week rehearsal period starting with an icy cold drama between Xiuling and Yuwen, not rehearsing together and then your standard gossip-induced passive-aggressive behavior and the petty backstabbing. Yuwen then drives the play’s writer/director Au to a mild heart attack after asking another writer friend to rewrite Au to increase her line count to equal Xiuling’s. On the other side, Xiuling’s attention is on her and her son’s financial future. She continues to desire Fu Sha’s companionship, but refuses to confront her true feelings for her, causing Fu Sha to question their friendship all-together.
First Night Nerves is a fun drama-comedy life in theater and the behind-the-scenes drama that threatens to kill opening night. It hits on ideas and themes, we’ve seen before like the futility of holding grudges, and guarding your feelings because of public perception. This is probably the first time, I’ve seen a film from China with LGBT themes and characters treated as normal and simply embraces these story elements as a matter-of-fact and not as a prominent plot point.
The film’s story lines are well developed by writer Jimmy Ngai and entertaining to watch. I only mentioned the main characters, but there are a lot more to keep track of, which can be difficult considering you’re reading a lot of subtitles flashed on screen at break-neck speeds. The character dynamics are complex akin to prime-time soap operas, but overall the story is nothing we haven’t seen before about life on the stage (think Bullets over Broadway without the bullets). It’s definitely worth watching just to witness new stories and themes coming out of China along with an excellent cast to pull off the film’s drama and comedy.
First Night Nerves (2018) Directed by Stanley Kwan. Written by Jimmy Ngai. Starring Sammi Cheng, Gigi Leung, Angie Chiu, Kam Kwok Leung, Bai Baihe. First Night Nerves screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
7.5 out of 10 stars