Hong Kong ,  1988
Directed by Sammo Hung Kam Bo.
Sammo Hung teaches young Peking Opera students about life, love, and psychotic episodes in this dramatization of the adolescence of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo himself.
Painted Faces is a dramatized version of the childhood of three of Hong Kong's most famous stars: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, as they train under Peking Opera master Yu Jim Yuen. Or at least, it should have been. Call it instead an un-dramatization. Instead of illustrating their rigorous training and abuse under their teacher, Master Yu, we see their lives through rose-coloured glasses, and Master Yu is firm but loveable. Yu is really just a big teddy bear, as played by Sammo Hung, giving 'tough love' to his students. The harsh realities of the stars childhood is rendered fuzzy and indistinct.
The focus of the film for that matter isn't even on our young heroes. The star of the film is instead their master. It's a bit surreal to see Sammo, as Master Yu, yelling at one of the kids in his charge, who is playing Sammo as a child. Even though I was hoping to see a film about the students and not the master, the choice actually ended up being for the best, because none of the child actors in Painted Faces seem to have any kind of talent, skill, or charisma. The less seen of them, I came to realize, the better.
Master Yu's personality and teaching style does come through in allegory, anyway. It all comes down to his relationship with his pet turtle. It keeps running away, and in frustration he puts it under one of his bed posts. This forces the turtle to stay in place, and at the same time keeps his wobbly bed stable. Horribly, we learn that, ten years or so later, the turtle is still under his bed, keeping it propped up. He feeds it every day, and it has grown big and strong. The turtle is like his students. He keeps them under his iron thumb, and under his tutelage they nevertheless grow and thrive.
Training to be a Peking Opera actor is no picnic. Students were, to all intents and purposes, sold to the school under contract for as long as seven years. During that time the school would provide free food, clothing, lodging, and training. Students would earn their keep by performing, their master loaning them out for private engagements or for public performances. No money earned by the student would be kept by the student himself.
A typical day for an opera student begins at five in the morning, when they would perform an hour of exercises to warm-up for the day. Afterwards, students would walk to the town walls, where they would sing at the top of their lungs. Singing toward the wall allows the students to judge the quality of their own voices from the sound deflected back towards them. Breakfast was at eight, followed by stage combat training. After combat training, acting and singing lessons were given up until lunchtime.
In the afternoon, senior students would perform in the school theater, junior students would watch and learn. Around six o'clock in the evening, supper would be served, followed by more singing and acting practice, then bed. Senior students would go out and perform in public theaters in the evening, if requested. As can be seen, students rarely had any free time to themselves. Traditional book learning was often completely neglected at the opera schools, though some eventually did allow for a few hours of book learning per day. Discipline was hard. A mistake made by one student during a performance would lead to punishments given out to all of the students, usually spanking or beatings with a bamboo cane, though sometimes the beatings were much more severe. Painted Faces downplays this abusive side of the opera school experience in favor of a sort of 'coming-of-age' movie mixed in with a light romance.
Unfortunately for Master Yu, the opera no longer has the audience it used to, having been replaced in part by film. He trains his students and pushes them to the limit, to become the best opera performers they can be, while the opera itself threatens to disappear. He is the king of a crumbling empire, until at last we question whether he is truly king at all, but a fool, clinging to a dying art when everyone else has long ago moved on to something else. His very best students perform every night at the amusement park in an opera tent, but the audience gets smaller and smaller, until at last the amusement park does not renew their contract (they are replaced by a burlesque show). The opera school itself becomes scheduled for demolition. In order to get income for the school, he loans out Sammo, Jackie, and Ah Biao (later to become Yuen Biao) to become stuntmen in the new Shaw Brothers kung fu films.
The good news is alot of the episodes in the film are true to Jackie Chan's written accounts of his youth. When he arrives with his mom, at the beginning of the film, he thinks fighting and playing all day looks grand and volunteers to sign up for the longest contract possible. Another scene has all the boys heading out on the town, then trying to cheat the bus driver on the way back. But the bad news is that whether these scenes are accurate or not, there still remains the problem of those kids being just plain boring to watch.
But don't give up on Painted Faces just yet. Enter Master Yu's best friend, a former opera player turned stuntman, Uncle Wah (Lam Ching-Ying). Wah pops in every now and again and drags Master Yu out for drinks, where they lament the good old days of the opera, while the boys paint the town red in their absence. Yu and Wah, instead of crying in their beer, stand up in the restaurant and begin performing Hegemon King Bids Farewell to His Queen, later revised by Mei Lanfang into Farewell My Concubine, with Master Yu playing the King of Chou and Uncle Wah as his Queen. They perform in their street clothes, but they know the moves, the gestures, the songs, by heart, and the patrons of the restaurant enjoy the performance in the spirit with which it is offered. Lam Ching-Ying absolutely steals every scene he's in -- he has only a handful of scenes in the movie, but those scenes form the emotional center of the entire piece. He's getting old, getting tired; he feels the weight of his years and misses the time when opera was still important to people. His final scene, in which he attempts to perform one dangerous stunt too many for a movie, is one of the most memorable scenes in Hong Kong Cinema, and the symbolic end for Peking Opera.
Master Yu finally left Hong Kong, and moved to L.A., where he continued to teach Peking Opera to rich hollywood kids until his death in 1997. Many of his students named themselves after him out of respect, love, or the profound influence he had on their lives; actors such as Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah, and Yuen Biao.
At times, when I watch the films of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, & et. al, I am struck by how child-like they sometimes behave. Romantic relationships in the films are rarely convincing. In fact, they often times seem just like overgrown kids. I have come to believe that this is not entirely just a film persona. Painted Faces reminds us that these stars did not have the education and socialization that ordinary children have when they grew up. How can you blame them for acting like children sometimes, these men who never had a childhood themselves?
Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.