Peking Opera Blues
Hong Kong 1984
Directed by Tsui Hark.

Tsui Hark's masterpiece, a rollicking adventure yarn about revolution, generals, spies, and women warriors, featuring Brigitte Lin.

The year is 1913. Two Generals battle for dominance over the streets of Peking. Soldiers mutiny over their lack of pay. Meanwhile, in the back alleys, revolutionaries try to ensure that China becomes a democracy, and not revert back to corrupt monarchy. This is the setting for Peking Opera Blues, a landmark film in Hong Kong cinema. For students of film, for jaded critics, for the casual viewer just looking for entertainment, this film must be seen. This is inventive, exhuberent cinema at its best.

Peking Opera Blues never stops moving, it never slows down. The kinetic energy of each scene propels it forward. What makes this film so exciting to watch is the strength of its characters. Every single character in the film, no matter how large or small their part, has their own goals and objectives which they try to reach. No one, not even the villains, are reduced to two dimensional characters to serve the plot and nothing more. Instead they strive for their objective and when one person is prevented from achieving their goal by another, conflict erupts.

When the story begins, we are in General Tun's mansion, and he is quietly watching Sheung Hung(Cherie Chung) playing music and performing. He contemplates taking her as a wife, since after all he has only 29 other wives. Just then the soldiers in his employ riot, and attempt to break into the mansion since he hasn't paid them in three months. He lost all of their money at Mah-Jongg with General Tsao, and so he and his retinue must flee, and quickly. The soldiers burst in and begin looting, when one of his wives drops a box filled with valuables. A young soldier can hardly believe his good fortune when he stumbles across the jewelry, but is knocked unconscious by Sheung, who is actually a thief. She gathers up the jewelry box and flees.

Outside, General Tsao has arrived, with his only daughter, Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), who has just returned from studying overseas. He quickly moves into the now vacated mansion. Sheung hides the box of valuables on a cart, and is nearly caught and killed, but Tsao Wan intervenes and allows her to escape. The box of jewelry, however, is gone, taken by the cart to its destination, a Peking Opera house. Sheung cannot enter because of the prohibition against women to enter the theater.

There is one woman inside the theater already, though. She is Pat Nell (Sally Yeh), daughter of Master Wong (Wu Ma), the manager of the opera company. She longs to appear on the opera stage, but it is against the law, and her father prevents her every time.

Meanwhile, Tsao Wan, the general's daughter, meets with her revolutionary contact, Pak Hoi (Mark Cheung), inside that same opera house. Her own father, the general, may be spoiling China's chance for democracy by securing a large loan from foreign bankers for President Yuan, who plans to use the funds to make himself the permanent leader of the nation. They need to steal the document from General Tsao that proves his involvement in securing the loan. One simple document is the key to their dreams of democracy.

And so eventually, each with their own objective and their own agenda, the three women -- one who wants to serve a higher cause and help the country, one who wants enough money so she can stop singing for men, the third who desires to appear on stage like her friends and her father does, prevented only because of her sex -- come together and form a bond of friendship which transends all of their individual wants. The strength of these three characters, and the strength of the performances by Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, and Sally Yeh, is the center around which this mad carnival of a film revolves. Daring attempts to steal the document are followed quickly by daring escapes, and daring rescues. Meanwhile, the trio are hunted by the villainous Ticketing Office agent and his men. I think they work for TicketMaster.

The climax of the film occurs in the theater, when in order to escape from the Ticketing agents our heroes put on opera costumes and perform The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. In this play, the eight immortals, were returning from a banquet held by the Queen of the Western Heaven, where they all drank heavily. They deside to sail across the Eastern Sea, still very much drunk. So they all pile into a cloud and sail on over. Yes, even Taoist immortals get drunk when boating. Just then they come across the Goldfish Fairy, whom they tease and taunt. The Goldfish Fairy riles up the waves to prevent them from crossing, and beats the stuffing out of the immortals, one by one, until they all apologize and go on their way. Tsao Wan disguises herself fittingly as the Goldfish Fairy, Sheung a clam, and the others take on various immortal roles for the performance.

Peking Opera Blues is not named so just because much of its action takes place within the theater. Certain scenes and characters are meant to suggest scenes from famous operas. For example, in one scene, Tsao Wan is comforting Pat Nell when suddenly it begins to snow. At first I thought it was just the seasons changing, but in fact it's not. The weather is quite warm during the rest of the movie, both before and after the snowfall. Rather, the unseasonable weather suggests to an audience familiar with Peking Opera a particular opera story, June Snow. In it, a great injustice is committed, and a woman, before being cruelly sacrificed, prophecies that it will snow in June to cover up her corpse to prove her innocence. This comes to pass after her death, and not long after that the villains are brought to justice and put to death in their turn. The snow then is symbolic of innocence, and of an injustice recognized in heaven that will soon be set right.

Even the characters themselves have a symbolic aspect and are represented as characters from the Peking Opera brought to life.

So who are our heroes supposed to represent? The answer lies in an especially exciting moment in the film when Officer Liu from the Ticketing Office arrives at the opera to woo the troupe's resident Dan actor, Fa. Fa, however, is a female impersonator and is none too keen on doing the impersonation for the personal gratification of Officer Liu. So Pat Nell comes out on stage for the performance, instead, playing the most famous Dao Ma Dan, or woman warrior, role of them all -- Mu Guiying, the bandit's daughter who marries into the Yang family and becomes a great general. Another opera tells about a time after she is widowed, and she leads other women generals of the Yang family to war and defeates the invaders from the Xia regime.

As Pat Nell is delivering her performance, Sheung drops onto the stage, dressed identically. "There are two Mu's!" the audience shouts, confused. But actually, there are three, including Tsao Wan, who joins them shortly thereafter. Or perhaps Tsao Wan, in her men's clothing, is the modern equivalent of another opera warrior: Hua Mulan, the woman warrior who had to disguised herself as a man to go do battle against her enemies. Whatever the case, when they all stand together, it is obvious that the three heroes are modern day equivalents of the women warrior. Indeed, the original chinese title of Peking Opera Blues is Dao Ma Dan -- woman warriors.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.

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