Dir: Chen Kaige. China. 2008. 147mins.
In this ambitious but only partly successful film, Chen Kaige uses the life of Mei Lanfang, one of Peking Opera’s greatest talents, to return again to the theme of the artist’s position in society which he tackled in the Palme D’Or-winning Farewell My Concubine. A large, colourful and often fascinating period piece, this would have worked better either radically cut back from its 147 minute running time or in TV serial format. International audiences may also have difficulty with the extensive stage excerpts during the film’s first and probably best hour.
Chen follows Mei, scion of a Peking Opera dynasty of stars, from his early youth, when the profession was only slightly more respectable than prostitution. Jumping forward 10 years (several more similar leaps will come later) young Mei is already a rising star, shy off-stage but always eager to learn more and in full command of the feminine roles for which he was to become famous. The centrepiece of this section is a competition between Mei and his master (Wang Xueqi).
After this, Forever Enthralled’s stage sequences move to the background, and it changes focus to Mei’s life; his up-and-down marriage to the business-minded Fu Zhifang (Chen Hong), his affair with a female star of the Peking Opera specialising in male characters, Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi), and the demands of his mentor Qiu (Sun Honglei) to accept the offer of an American tour. The final section covers the Japanese invasion of China, Mei’s refusal to perform for the invaders, and a final coda which mentions the fact that he returned to the stage after the War, dying in 1961.
The theme of the artist’s status in society is dealt with in the film’s opening sequence and Forever Enthralled moves on to related topics, such as art versus entertainment, the responsibility of the artist to his public and to his art, loneliness as the price for creativity, and finally, politics and the artist. If there is a main conflict, it is between Mei and Qiu, a lawyer who abandons everything to take care of the artist he worships. Qiu’s argument is that wars come and go but art is forever; this leads him to interfere in Mei’s life to keep his career alive against the wishes of the artist himself.
This gorgeously shot, lavish production, feels, however, as if it has been cut radically to bring it down to its barely-manageable length. All the footage of Gillian Cheung playing Mei’s wife at a young age has been removed, leading to a shortage of character groundwork. Mei’s children also have the habit of appearing and disappearing at will. While Yu Shaoqun is a find for the young Mei, Leon Lai has neither the aura nor the temperament required by the part of the older singer. Sun Honglei’s Qiu provides a complex character who might have been a dedicated aficionado of Peking Opera and of Mei’s art, or perhaps he was just so obsessed with the artist that he could not leave him alone at any price. As for Zhang Ziyi, the film’s biggest star, while she is as stunning to watch as ever, her lively insouciance makes her seem as if she belongs either in a different film or epoch.
China Film Group Corporation
Emperor Motion Pictures
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