After 2005’s disastrous fantasy epic The Promise (無極), Chinese director Chen Kaige (陳凱歌) seeks to re-establish his name with a return to Beijing Opera, the subject matter that brought him international acclaim more than a decade ago when his 1993 Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earned two Oscar nominations.
A biographical film about the life of Beijing opera legend Mei Langfang (梅蘭芳), Forever Enthralled (梅蘭芳) feels and looks like a mirror image of its iconic protagonist — polished, elegant, but fettered and lacking a real sense of flesh and blood.
Composed of three acts, the film begins with the young Mei (Yu Shaoqun, 余少群) coming to the fore as an emerging talent who isn’t afraid to innovate and modernize the ancient performing art form. The climactic Beijing opera match between Mei and his mentor Shi Shanyan, played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi (王學圻), ends with the passing of the aged maestro and thus the end of an era.
The following two acts pale in comparison to the opening chapter, which recalls director Chen’s artistry and is worth a visit to the theater alone. The second part centers on the love affair between noted Beijing opera performer Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi, 章子怡) and the married Mei (Leon Lai, 黎明). Despite the cast members’ competent performances, the story suffers from a lack of dramatic intensity and a sometimes labored narrative.
In the final act, the film takes up a tone of patriotism rather abruptly when Mei is painted as a flag-waving artist who refuses to ply his art in the service of the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Mei’s legend concludes with China’s greatest Beijing opera performer returning to the stage under the Communist regime.
Forever Enthralled (梅蘭芳)
DIRECTED BY: Chen Kaige (陳凱歌)
STARRING: Leon Lai (黎明) as adult Mei Lanfang, Yu Shaoqun (余少群) as young Mei Lanfang, Wang Xueqi (王學圻) as Shi Shanyan, Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) as Meng Xiaodong, Sun Honglei (孫紅雷) as Qi Rubai, Chen Hong (陳紅) as Fu Zhifang
LANGUAGE: In Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 145 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: Limited screenings from today through Sunday.
Official release on Dec. 19
Wang dazzles with his superb portrait of Shi, a tragic figure who clings to the ideas and virtues of imperial China, valuing dignity and honor over life.
Wang fills each of his gestures with drama and nuanced emotion. His opera performance exudes equal amounts of charm and delicacy, making it hard to believe that the actor spent a mere four months picking up the basics of Beijing opera before shooting the movie.
Surprisingly, novice actor Yu is not overcome by Wang’s remarkable presence and turns in a commendable performance as the young Mei. Cast in the role of Qi Rubai, Mei’s mentor, agent and friend, seasoned thespian Sun Honglei (孫紅雷) steals the show for the rest of the film with his slightly overstated but potent performance.
Though it is opined that Lai’s gentle and feminine disposition makes him the ideal candidate for the role of the adult Mei, the actor is fated to fail since he plays not a living person, but an immortalized legend, revered and extolled but deprived of weaknesses, secrets, emotions and even humanity.
The same failing applies to the film itself. Adhering to the orthodox historical perspective on Mei, Chen’s work avoids the scandalous, the political and the human lying beneath the character’s veneer.
Director Chen learns to adapt and compromise with those who are keen on preserving Mei as a national hero in Forever Enthralled and Lai’s Mei is destined to be dull and flat, whereas other characters shine with their defects.