The Soong Sisters (1997)





Director:  Mabel Cheung

Starring:  Maggie Cheung (Soong Ching-ling / Madam Sun), Michelle Yeoh (Soong Ai-ling / Madam Kung), Vivian Wu (Soong May-ling / Madam Chiang), Winston Chao (Sun Yat-Sen), Hsing-kuo Wu (Chiang Kai-Shek), (H.H.Kung), Elaine Jin (Madame Soong), Wen Jiang (Charlie Soong).

The movie deals with the lives of three sisters who all married among the highest rank of officials in the Republic of China (1911-1949).  The three brothers were not a part of the movie. It seems the movie was subject to some censorship.  For instance, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong May-ling are portrayed less favorably than the relationships of the other two characters, 14 minutes of affection between the couple being taken out of the movie.  



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Three sisters: one loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.  From oldest to youngest they are Ai-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling.  From China sister Mai-ling has a telegram sent to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.  It is addressed to Madam Chiang Kai-shek.  Someone reads the telegram to her:  your sister Madame Sun Yat-sen is critically ill.  She wants to see you urgently in Beijing.  Madam Chiang Kai-shek is not feeling too well herself.  Mai-ling asks:  "Even sister Ching-ling is leaving me?  I will be the last of the Soong family."

The rest of the movie is told in flashback. 

The three sisters go with their father to a demonstration.  The placards say: "Down with western imperialism;" uphold Chinese sovereignty;" and "Down with America"  The two smallest girls have to burn their dolls as they are foreign goods. 

In a basement of publisher Charlie Soong, they run off a flyer with the headline "Down with the Qing government!  Democracy for China!"  He gives the fliers to Sun Yat-sen to take with him.  With a $200,000 bounty on his head, he is leaving for exile in Japan.  Yat-sen just does get away before some toughs come into the printing shop.  The sisters looks outside a see a man having his head cut-off. 

Charlie teaches his daughters English, while their mother teaches them music: piano and violin.  They send their girls on a ship to America, who all eventually graduate from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. Charlie Soong believes in the coming New China.  And he also believes that his daughter will do great things. 

1911.  Founding of the Chinese Republic.  Charlie participates in cutting off the pig tails of Chinese men.  Big sister, Ai-ling, has returned to China.  She writes to her sisters about events in China.  There were eleven revolutionary attempts before Yat-sen overthrew the Qing government.  Ai-ling marries Kung Hsiang-hsi who is a 79th generation descendant of Confucius, a Yale graduate and a rich man with some 400 servants.  He is the business of pawn shops and money lending.  Ai-ling helps her husband set up the first 30 banks in China.

Ai-ling will not continue to work for Sun Yat-sen.  Ching-ling takes her place.  She travels to Japan to start work with Yat-sen, but Yat-sen wants to send her away.  He tells her it is too dangerous for her here.  But she will not be deterred.  They soon fall in love and plan for marriage.  This causes a fight with her father who believes that she has made him a laughing-stock because she is marrying his old friend, who obviously is older than her.  He also tells her that she will ruin Yat-sen's reputation.  But Ching-ling is not a woman to be stopped and she heads back to Japan to marry Yat-sen.  At the end of the actual ceremony, Charlie shows up to denounce the couple.  He shouts that Yat-sen is no longer his friend and Ching-ling is no longer his daughter.

Mai-ling is back from America.  Chiang Kai-shek, probably the best of Sun Yat-sen's military men, sees her at the opera and almost immediately thinks he has to have her even though he is married and has children.  But he has to leave for Sun Yat-sen is surrounded by rebels.   Sun Yat-sen narrowly escapes being killed as the place where he is living is shelled.  But in the escape, the pregnant Ching-ling gets separated from him. She has a harrowing journey to get back to her husband; a journey that proved so tough that she lost the child and her ability to have more children.  She reaches Kai-shek's ship and is reunited with her husband.  Yat-sen rewards Kai-shek by appointing him head of the military school.

Charlie Soong collapses.  Ching-ling visits him and asks his forgiveness.  He grants it and then dies.  Two years later, Ching-ling lost her husband who died from liver cancer.  Ching-ling is sad that he did not see his dream of a United China completely fulfilled. 

Kai-shek goes hunting with May-ling.  Ai-ling tells Ching-ling to stay away from the Communists.  She retorts that the Nationalist Party must stop the harassment of the Communists.  The Communists are being beaten with night sticks, their demonstrations are broken up and quite a few are executed on the streets without trial.  Later Ching-Ling makes a public statement that the persecution of the Communists must stop.  She also announces that she will resign from the Nationalist Party.  This really upsets Ai-ling for she sees is as direct opposition to the policies of Chiang Kai-shek.  But Ching-ling is a woman of the left and will not tolerate the growing right-wing forces in an age of aggressive warlords.  She is very upset about this for she knows that this is not what her husband had worked all his life for. 

1927.  Ching-ling is in snowy Russia.  She learns that Mai-ling has married Kai-shek.    In the same newspaper, Ching-ling sees the notice that she is to marry a Russian man.  (But the movie then just drops this piece of news and never mentions it again.)

The war-like Japanese become an increasing problem for China.  Chiang Kai-shek decides that he will beat the Communists first and then take on the Japanese.  Because of this the Japanese enter China virtually unopposed. 

Mother Soong becomes very ill.  Ching-ling returns from Russia to see her.  She also sees her sisters again.  Their mother dies.  But politics still divides the sisters.  This is exasperated when Kai-shek shows up at their home.  Ching-ling angrily asks him if it was he who ordered the purge of the Nationalist Party.  The exchange becomes so heated, that Ching-ling has to leave.  She then becomes an outspoken critics of Kai-shek.  She is so effective that assassins seriously think of crippling her.  They are afraid to kill her because she is too powerful and they don't want to make her a martyr. 

Ching-ling speaks to May-ling.  Is May-ling behind the attempts to take "first lady" status from her?  May-ling is shocked at the accusation.  She warns her sister about men who want to hurt her.  The two sisters have a parting of the ways. 

10 years pass.  The papers carry the story of Japanese triumph in China.  The Chinese people want Kai-shek to stop the civil war and have both sides fight the Japanese.  This sentiment is also popular in the ranks of the Nationalist Party and in the army.  Marshal Chang and General Yang have already cooperated with the Red Army.  May-ling tries to get her husband to agree to fight the Japanese first, but he is very stubborn.  Everything changes, however, when the dissident generals kidnap Kai-shek.  May-ling flies to the province where her husband is being held.  She meets with her husband and gets him to agree to fight the Japanese first.  He is released.  From that time onwards, May-ling becomes a major spokesperson for her husband.  The three sisters come together again united in their desire to fight the Japanese.  The women even show up at entertainments for the troops.  Their re-unification became symbolic of the reconciliation between the Nationalist and Communists.

Ai-ling goes to Hong Kong to be with her husband.  Ching-ling goes to Shanghai.  Japan surrenders.  Total civil war breaks out.  The Communists win and the Nationalists retreat to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).  The People's Republic of China is founded.  The three sisters never saw each other again. 

1981.  Ching-ling dies. 


Very good movie.  Some might even call it a tear-jerker.  The sisters suffer many tragedies and they are split by politics, but still manage to come together again.  It always hurts when they split-up and makes one feel good when they come back together. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Three sisters and three brothers were born into the family of American-educated Methodist minister Charlie Soong, who made a fortune selling Bibles in China.  

The three sisters were:

Soong Ai-ling, the eldest daughter who married the richest man and finance minister of China, H. H. Kung.

Soong Ching-ling married to the first President of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen.

Soong May-ling, the youngest, married the leader of the Nationalist Party, Generalissimo of the Chinese armies, and later President, Chiang Kai-shek.

The three brothers all became high ranking officials in the government of the Republic of China. 

1911-1949  --  the period of the Republic of China. 

1973  -- death of Soong Ai-ling.

1981  --  death of Soong Ching-ling. 

2003  -- death of Soong May-ling.


See Last Emperor (Bertolucci) (1987)


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