Saturday, February 21, 2009

Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang / 梅兰芳)

Shall We Dance?

I got to watch this trailer inadvertently when it was part of a montage sequence honouring Chen Kaige with the Akira Kurosawa Award during last year's Tokyo International Film Festival, and I was actually thrilled to have caught glimpses of it. I thought the boo-boys were out too early in lamenting Chen's choice of Leon Lai in the titular role, thinking that he would ruin what would be a decent biopic about one of China's greatest opera singer.

To me, those fears were quite unfounded, as I felt Leon Lai actually did reasonably well when under the thick operatic makeup to transform himself for his stage persona, from Mei Wanhua to Mei Lanfang, where portrays only female characters. But of course if put side by side with Chinese actor Yu Shaoqun, Lai paled considerably as Yu was obviously the better of the two, portraying the younger Mei who found his true calling when opportunity came knocking on his door, and deciding to seize it, yet being mindful all the time of where his roots were.

And the best parts were of course the first act, where Mei decides to up the ante and challenge his master, the then largest opera star Shi Sanyan (Wang Xueqi) to a show-down of sorts if you will. Under his master's wing, he finds himself somewhat stifled in not being able to explore his roles much further, given the master's fear that his thunder will be stolen. At the encouragement of maverick magistrate and future sworn brother / business manager Qiu Rubai (Sun Honglei), he finds some new found confidence to test waters while still keeping true to the core of his character, thus earning new praise, and given one's talent with nothing much to lose, one will go for broke - win and you win all, lose and you have really no reputation at stake, in contrary to his master.

It's about control, or the lack thereof. From early on we learn that actors in the days of the crumbling of the Chinese monarchy that they do not have any respect, and have to play to the whims of those with power, money and fame. Even then the child actors have to pander to lords with a penchant for young boys. Mei does not buckle his self-worth, and is pretty clear that while he portrays ladies in more feminine terms than real ladies, that it does not make him easy fodder. And we follow through his life how he does not get to live the life he wants to lead, but rather according to both the rules and regulations of the stage, as well as the same off it in society. Be it instructions from his managers, his wife Zhifang (Chen Hong) or the Japanese occupiers, each seemingly want to exert an influence over his career and personal life, not so much for personal gain, but to propagate that legend and persona so carefully crafted over the years.

Naturally Mei finds an avenue to fight back, and does so through an affair of the heart. While he portrays females on stage, he meets his equal in Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi), who is his mirror opposite, the best in the business in playing male characters. Together they blaze a trail of glory, and naturally leads to tongues wagging. While Zhang Ziyi may share top billing, in actual fact she's nothing more than a supporting role, coming in only in the middle portion to highlight Mei's need for escape from his rigid world.

Much is said about the supporting actors doing a far better job than the leads, and that is true, in a nice way. My respect for the Chinese actors have grown from watching a number of indie and mainstream films, and I can't credit the likes of Sun Honglei, Chen Hong, Wang Xueqi and especially Yu Shaoqun in being nothing less than superb each time they come on screen to chew up the scenery. It's not really fair to say the leads acted poorly, because the supporting cast had raised the bar in delivery, which adds to the enjoyment of the film.

I can never forget the really poor movie The Promise which Chen Kaige made a couple of years back. The story was so bad it allowed the special effects to run wild in trying to salvage the show. There aren't a lot of Chinese bio-pics (or at least those I have watched) in recent years that were non-martial arts related (think Ip Man, Wong Fei-Hung, Fong Sai-Yuk, Huo Yuanjia etc), and somehow I'm glad Chen Kaige found his mojo back to helm this, and in far elegant terms that I'm now better convinced to check out more of his filmography. He was able to shift gears quite effortlessly between distinct acts of the narrative, which straddled a timeline from after the Qing Dynasty to after the surrender of the Japanese. However, there might seem to be a quantum leap in addressing issues towards the last 30 minutes, but for everything else, it was paced quite evenly to keep you interest from waning.

Forever Enthralled has all the ingredients of a credible epic, from beautiful set designs and art direction, to a wonderful soundtrack and elegant costumes, Chen Kaige does not scrimp in making this film look and feel just like it would back in those days of sheer opulence. While opera may be an artform that is dwindling here, don't let the Peking Opera focus here put you off, as you just might find some reason to want to watch the real thing if you have the opportunity to. Definitely recommended.

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