Princess Chang Ping
Hong Kong
Directed by John Woo.

In John Woo's Peking Opera film, a scholarly Lao Sheng slides down a banister in slow motion, a gun in each hand, mowing down the Jing in an explosion of blood and doves...well, no, not really. This is a classic retelling of the well known Chinese Opera story, The Emperor's Daughter.

The opera takes place during the Manchu invasion of China at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1644). The emperor Chung was doomed. With the Manchu warriors surrounding the palace, neither the emperor nor his family could escape. To preserve the honor of their dynasty, the women of the imperial household must kill themselves, as tradition demanded. The emperor's daughter is Princess Chang Ping. She was about to be wed to the scholar Chou Shih Hsien, whom she had just been all flirty and happy with. The emperor instead gives her a red scarf with which to hang herself, but Chou Shih Hsien stops her. Frustrated, the emperor kills her himself, to protect the family honor, then pops off to kill himself as well.

She doesn't die, though, and a court official recovers her and hides her away. Later, when that official decides to give her up to the new regime to get a nice promotion, she slips away and assumes the role of a Buddhist nun, where she lives a life of hard work and toil, in secrecy.

One day, Chou Shih Hsien comes by and spots the nun who looks so much like his beloved. He confronts her, and she reveals her identity, and they are reunited at last.

But, as is always the way with tragic love stories, their happiness does not last long. The new emperor, who looks identical to the old (here comes the new boss, same as the old boss) learns of their existence and invites them to marry and live happily together in his palace. This doesn't seem like too bad a turn to me, but in fact it would dishonor her father's dynasty and help justify the new emperor's claim to the throne. They pretend to go along with it for a while, to secure a decent burial for her father. Then, they pop off to the garden, they drink poison together and wait beneath a tree, to die. Has there ever been such a sad tale of star-crossed lovers since Romeo and Juliet? Or, since this is a musical, West Side Story?

The joy of an audience in watching an adaptation like this is not in the suprise of the story line. Most everyone would have heard of the story before, and know its general outlines. Rather the joy is in the production. How well is it directed? How are the sets, and the costumes? How well do the actors play their parts? On all of these accounts, Princess Chang Ping acquits itself nicely.

The stars, Loong Kim-Sang and Mui Suet-Si, were prodegees of the most famous Cantonese opera film stars of all time, Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin, who appeared in an obscene amount of films together during the 50s and 60s. Loong Kim-Sang, a woman, plays the role of the scholar Chou Shih Hsien, with Mui Suet-Si as Princess Chang Ping. Thus the two star-crossed lovers are both played by women. Some of the most famous opera stars of the mid 20th Century were women who played mens roles, just as at the beginning of the 20th Century, the most famous opera stars were men playing the womens roles. Times change, but at least cross-dressing remains a constant.

In the 70s, when this film was made, the opera film genre was all but dead, being replaced by the kung fu film. Nevertheless Princess Chang Ping became a box office success, under the steady and clean direction of John Woo, who would not become famous until a decade later when he directed the classic A Better Tomorrow.

Unfortunately, although I waited patiently for Chou Shih Hsien in true John Woo style to melodramatically mow down hundreds of opponents in slo-mo, guns in both hands, preferrably in a church with doves desperately fluttering the hell out of the way, it never happened. John Woo directs a pretty straight theatrical version of the story, though there are a few interesting moments. I especially enjoyed the end of one tragic love song, when the principals are holding each other tenderly, and all eyes are on them, when suddenly two men, completely covered in fire, stagger into the room and die. Nothing like two flaming soldiers to spoil a romantic moment. In general, though, this is a 'direct-by-numbers' film, with no particular style discernable.

The music is all traditional opera music. The drums play each time a character leaves the stage. The principal characters sing most of their lines. Everyone is in perfect costume, from the shape of their hats to the size of the large, jade belts worn around the waist. It's an excellent movie to watch to get a sense of Chinese Opera costume styles and acting conventions. It's also a great movie to pop in when you've gathered a bunch of friends over to your house with a promise to watch a "great, old John Woo movie I found!" Just make sure you've got Heroes Shed No Tears or A Better Tomorrow ready for when everyone threatens to bail out on you.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.


HK films are not just about gore and violence. The underlying morality is that the hero, the Robin Hood, sets things right. This desire to set things right melds with a people who has been oppressed for 800 years since the Fall of the Song dynasty in 1276 and then under the Manchus, and later under England, France, Italy etc, and then under Japan, and then under Great British treaties of Beijing and Nanjing (HK handover) which was humiliating and induced great suffering in the collective Chinese psyche.

800 years of oppression, and even today, under the Beijing bureaucrats / dictator wannabes.

Hence, HK violent flicks are successful because it's always the underdog setting things right, be it Chow Yun-Fatt or Jet Li. The Chow Yun-Fat action hero is very different from Terminator Schwarzenegger. Chow makes money by playing a certain role - that is ultimately of the "gentleman" at heart who uses violence with regret, under mitigating circumstances, winning him scores of fans. -> refer to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger" where Li Mo Bai makes a speech / almost an entire monologue about attacking under defense etc.

Princess Chang-Ping is about holding on to human goodness, human love, despite the fact that the conquerors are winners of this world. (read: Stalin, Mao, Bush)

However, the peasant, the worker, the underling, the loser will suffer tremendously in this world for simple human goodness, to love but love can't live in this world. Knowing this, they still love. That encapsulates the Chinese spirit / what the Chinese feel under the centuries of oppression and resonates well with the Han Chinese. It's quite unlike Schwarzenegger movies which highlight a certain amusement in knowing that one is the strongest (or Stallone), hyper-steroids = hyper militaristic, and wields such power to please oneself. (read: American soldier in Iraq leashes prisoners in cell romps).

Chang Ping also captures the Chinese superstition about hoping in an afterworld where normal human relationships of love and kindness is possible, even though it's not possible in this world (refer to the Butterfly Lovers Opera).

I am very proud John Woo made this "boring staid Cantonese Opera". He's a real Cantonese Boy at heart. Watch it, with your girlfriend / boyfriend. It will help both of you value our blessedness in being able to enjoy simple pleasures such as a marriage in this age reeking with easy divorces.

This story captures the essence of the true Chinese spirit well in romance instead of action hero

Posted by: Cantonese boy at May 21, 2004 05:39 AM
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