Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Forever Enthralled/Mei Lanfang

Last year I visited renowned Peking opera star Mei Lanfang's home in Beijing and was amazed to learn about this talented man.

He raised the standard of Peking opera and exposed the art form to the west when he visited the United States. There he met such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

He is also forever immortalized in Chinese students' textbooks for resisting the Japanese when they tried to force him to perform for them; but he refused and protested by growing a moustache as he was famous for interpreting female roles.

There is also a scandalous side of him -- having an affair with another Peking opera star, a woman named Meng Xiaodong who was known for playing male roles.

So how do you incorporate all of these elements into a film?

Director Chen Kaige attempts to do this in two hours and 40 minutes in Forever Enthralled or Mei Lanfang; it's challenging and requires viewers to already have background knowledge on Mei and modern Chinese history.

The biopic shows Mei's rise in the Peking opera world, upstaging his master in popularity and challenging traditions in the art form.

The younger Mei is portrayed by Yu Shaoqun and is an excellent choice. He himself is a Peking opera performer -- but he usually plays male parts. So he had to learn all the movements and songs of female parts and is very convincing. Also as an actor he looks like Mei in real life, with puckered lips and a sweet round face.

Then into adulthood we see the older Mei played by Cantopop star Leon Lai (Li Ming) who seems to immediately fall for Meng (Zhang Ziyi). My colleagues who had seen the movie complained Lai was very stiff and I have to agree. It seemed like he was holding back and not giving enough emotion to the role.

Nevertheless, the audience can see the attraction between the two and his wife's frustration at their relationship.

This section of the movie is quite short; we don't see what happens to her, but when the Communists took over, she fled to Taiwan until her death. My friend said she was very unhappy for the rest of her life despite marrying rich.

The third phase of the film follows him to America, and his fear of Peking opera being shunned by westerners, but in fact he's a rousing success.

Finally, the last part looks at the Japanese occupation and how they tried to force Mei to perform.

In the movie he asks a doctor to inject him with a virus to give him flu-like symptoms making him unable to perform, along with growing a moustache. A Japanese commander who admired Mei had tried to lure him back onto the stage and in the end paid with his life.

And then it kind of ends abruptly with no footnotes about what happened to Mei after the end of the war to the rest of his life, nor about Meng.

While most of the content of the movie is there, one can see Chen had to make several edits to keep the movie under three hours. Scenes start and stop abruptly without much time to set the scene or atmosphere which is too bad for a film like this.

That's why it's important viewers already know the background behind Mei to be able to follow the story.

Also -- I watched the film and it had no English subtitles. Luckily I was able to catch most of what was going on and afterwards had to ask my friend to go over certain parts to understand the details of the dialogue.

It's not as beautifully filmed as Chen's other Peking opera film, Farewell My Concubine, but then again this is more a biopic than an artistically stylish piece.

Hopefully Forever Enthralled will give Mei a new life especially to younger audiences who hardly know much about the man who was revolutionary in his own day.

His dedication to his art form, as the movie says, shows the purity of his heart. If only all of us could strive for that.


ks said...

biopics are notoriously difficult to make. mei lan fang is no exception. it has to be true to the facts and be dramatic and entertaining. some of these elements dont mix. i remember one that portrays ray charles was pretty good . jamie foxx won an oscar because of it. he was luckier than leon lai. he met ray charles just before he passed away. leon did not have this luxury. i dont think chen kaige has ever met mei lanfang either for that matter. i will reserve my comments after i have watched it. but english subtitle is a must.

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