After tackling traditional Taiwanese mourning rituals in Seven Days in Heaven (父後七日, 2010), director Wang Yu-lin (王育麟) finds inspiration again in the country’s rich everyday culture with Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix (龍飛鳳舞). This time, the focus is on gezai opera (歌仔戲), or Taiwanese opera. Like Seven Days in Heaven, Wang’s latest film blends comedy with high-energy melodrama and throws in a touch of local zest to spin a flavorful yarn about a family-run opera troupe and how its members make the best out of life despite repeated setbacks.
The film opens with a storm sweeping across Siaoliouciou Island (小琉球). Amid torrential rain and violent winds, a troupe of Taiwanese opera performers persists in staging its show on a makeshift stage that looks like it could collapse. It is not the first and certainly not the last crisis the troupe faces during decades of surviving in a modern society where traditional artistry is seen as a dying trade.
To the traveling ensemble, life seems to be about encountering one disaster after another, especially when the troupe’s aging leader and patriarch passes away. To add insult to injury, principal performer Chun-mei (Kuo Chun-mei, 郭春美) then sprains her ankle in an accident and is forced to take an indefinite leave from the stage.
Luckily, a light bulb clicks on over the head of Chun-mei’s husband Chih-hung (Chu Hung-chang, 朱宏章) when he comes across male street cleaner Micky (also played by Kuo) and notices his uncanny physical resemblance to Chun-mei. In a desperate attempt to save the family-run troupe from disbanding, Chih-hung talks Micky into undergoing gezai opera training and passing as Chun-mei on stage.
Directed by:Wang Yu-lin (王育麟)
Starring:Kuo Chun-mei (郭春美) as Chun-Mei and Micky, Chu Hung-chang (朱宏章) as Chih-Hung, Wu Pong-fong (吳朋奉) as A-yi, Winnie Chang (張詩盈) as Shih Ying
Language:In Mandarin and Hoklo with Chinese and English subtitles
Running Time:109 Minutes
A-yi (Wu Pong-fong, 吳朋奉), the prodigal son of the family, returns home to coach young members of the team, but is soon caught between his ex-wife and new girlfriend, both of whom are lead performers in the troupe. Meanwhile, Chih-hung has his own domestic situation to worry about as Chun-mei embarks on a journey of discovery to India and doesn’t seem to want to come back.
Following on the heels of Seven Days in Heaven, Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix further attests to Wang’s aptness at using a language readily accessible to everyone to tell stories unique to Taiwan. With comedy, romance and family drama all rolled into one, the movie is fun, loud and boisterous, just like its medley of colorful characters who, through Wang’s melodramatic lens, experience ups and downs, laugh and cry, but always remain optimistic and hopeful about the future.
Sometimes, however, the film goes too far in its pursuit of melodramatic fun and that threatens to erode its coherent style. The sequence in which Chun-mei travels in India, for example, is beautifully shot but seems to come from an entirely different movie.
India aside, much of the film’s energy and ingenuity derive from its vivid portrait of life surrounding the troupe and its recognition that an operatic tradition requiring female performers for male roles is a perfect vehicle for gender-mixing comedy. Ku, a real-life operatic diva, hands in an amazing debut performance on the silver screen as she plays both Chun-mei, a woman who plays men, and Micky, a man who plays a woman who plays men. It is a pleasure to watch the operatic veteran toy with the idea of gender roles through her varied acting, while staying true to her two characters.