Beyond the Great Wall
Hong Kong 1964
Directed by Li Han-Hsiang.

He's the worst kind of villain: the small-minded, petty, vindictive, mid-level bureaucrat that ruins people's lives to maintain his status or to revenge for losing status. It's not good for one's blood pressure to watch too many films with this type of villain, for myself, I constantly want to thrash the bastard when watching, and am inevitably unsatisfied by his final fate. The problem is, there are people out there in the real world who act this way, who sabotage you at work, for no other reason than to look better themselves. But back in the Han Dynasty, in this lavish Huangmei Opera film, playing office politics caused war and cost lives.

BEYOND THE GREAT WALL is a retelling of of the famous Chinese story of Wang Zhaojun, a tale told in many different formats, in plays and songs, going back as far as the Han Hou Shu, the official histories of the Han Dynasty written in the 5th Century AD. Linda Lin Dai is Wang Zhaojun, one of the 100 concubines of the apparently quite frisky Han Dynasty Emperor Yuan (Chao Lei, in another of his Emperor roles). The Emperor chooses who he is going to fool around with each night on the basis of the portraits painted by his court painter, Mao Yanshou (Hung Po). The painter, however, forces the women to pay bribes or he paints them ugly and they live their lives withering away without even a glance from the Emperor. Wang Zhaojun refused to bow under to the painter's demands, and so was kept away from the Emperor, where she lived in quiet desperation.

One day, the Emperor overhears someone playing the pipa and follows it to her chamber, where he immediately falls in love. He orders the painter to be arrested, but he flees the palace, taking residence with the Huns outside the Great Wall on the steppes. There, he connives to convince the great Khan (Li Ying) that Wang Zhaojun is the princess, and that Emperor Yuan has granted her in marriage to the Khan to cement their friendship. Refusal means war between the Huns and the Chinese, acceptance means he must give away his most beloved to savages. In the end, Wang Zhaojun naturally does what is best for the good of the people.

According to the legend, Wang Zhaojun's marriage to the Khan creates peace between the two nations for sixty years. The P.R.C. promotes an official stance on the story that is that it is an example of inter-racial harmony, with the Han Chinese making friends with the ethnic minorities. Her tomb is a tourist destination in Hohhot (the capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in Northern China). But BEYOND THE GREAT WALL has pretty much nothing to do with the official party take on the story. Here, it is all about hate, betrayal, and loyalty until death. "A wife should only have one husband," Zhaojun cries, and she speaks not only literally but in reference to the wicked painter who leaves China and claims Mongolia as his new home. It is the ultimate act of treason.

General Wang accompanies Zhaojun to the frontier, during which he further elaborates on the theme. He has no fear that China can fend off the Huns using their army, and with the fortification of the Great Wall. But against the traitors in their midst, there is no solution. Traitors will bring the end of the nation, loyalty alone can save it.

While history shows that Wang Zhoujun bore several children to the Khan and lived a fairly long life with him, the tale told in story and song is much shorter and to the point -- no woman should have two husbands, as she explains.

The "Hangong qiu", a play written in the Yuan Dynasty and the basis for what became the Huangmei Opera version of the story, tells it like this:

Zhoujun: Great King, I take a cup of wine, and pour a libation toward the South---my last farewell to the Emperor of Han, this life is finished. I await thee in the next!

Khan: Alas! alas!----so determined was her purpose against this foreign alliance---she has thrown herself into the stream, and perished! 'Tis done, and remediless! Let her sepulcher be on this river's bank, and be it called "the verdant tomb." She is no more; and vain has been our enmity with the dynasty of Han! The traitor Mao Yanshou was the author of all this misery.

And -- the internet is a wonderful thing -- you can read the play in its entirety here.

BEYOND THE GREAT WALL is a grand spectacle, and it being a picture directed by Li Han-Hsiang, it is a given that the sets and costumes are breathtaking. The music, often sung in chorus rather than by principal characters, is more tolerable than usual. Linda Lin Dai delivers a pretty wonderful performance, though at times a bit overwrought. Note to modern viewers, it may be hard to understand why anyone confined to a beautiful palace surrounded by handservants, waiting on a nightly lottery for some rich guy to grope you, would be particularly upset to not be chosen. But, these were different times. Other than Lin Dai, Li Ying also delivers a memorable performance as the larger than life Mongol Khan.

Feeling despondent at having to depart from her lord,
rubbing her heart and sighing deeply;
Hiding tears at having to leave the palace,
and travel far from the Han Imperial City;
Married for friendly alliance with ugly nomads,
and thus protecting the Han Imperial House;
At leaving, tears fall from her eyes,
and no words can describe the grief;
Traveling a distance of 10,000 li,
the atmosphere is layered in darkness;
At night the nomad reed pipe (is heard),
bringing insurmountable grief;
Ming Fei sobs in agony,
while all the nomads sing.
Every day facing the smell of fish and goats,
her sadness fills the border regions.

[Song above is Zhaojun's Lament, from the Ming Dynasty. Nothing is sadder, apparently, than smelling fish and goats every day.]

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on December 20, 2005.

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