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Mei Lanfang: A treat of an art house blockbuster
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Mei Lanfang

A scene from Mei Lanfang's biopic. [File photo] 

By Keen Zhang
China.org.cn columnist

In China, art house movies can sometimes be produced and hyped like blockbusters. The latest example is a biopic about China's long cherished master of Peking Opera Mei Lanfang, directed by the notorious Chen Kaige.

Mei (1894-1961), a household name in China, was the first artist to spread Peking Opera to the rest of the world, including a tour of the United States during the "Great Depression" where he had the opportunity to shake the hand of Charlie Chaplin among many others. He also won renown in China for his patriotic refusal to perform from 1937, when Beijing was occupied by the Japanese, until 1945 when the war was over. How to portray this legend has always presented a challenge to any director.

China.org.cn was invited to a private advance viewing of the film on Monday and a world premiere ceremony on Tuesday. The film, entitled "Forever Enthralled", is set to hit screens across China on Friday.

After the controversial "The Promise" (2005), director Chen Kaige went from "famous" to "infamous". But his supporters still remember his direction of the Palme d'Or-winning Peking opera and homosexual love story "Farewell My Concubine" in 1993, and have always expected him to turn things around.

Chen Kaige was hailed and then vilified during the era of "The Promise". Now adopting a "Farewell-My-Ego" attitude, the director told us at the ceremony yesterday that he now "humbly extends an invitation to critics and hopes that everyone will point out any mistakes".

The ancient fantasy world of "The Promise" may have banged doors closed in his face, but after a freewheeling drive with a friend in 2006 across the Tibetan plateaus to rediscover a sense of freedom, he decided to go back to filming reality and bring the pure art of Chinese Opera to the big screen. This is where his true strength lies.

I can exclusively reveal this to our readers: measured by Chen's standards this Mei Lanfang biopic is for the most part a thoroughly good movie, even if the finale is a little disappointing.

One reason why Chen Kaige chose to direct the film can be traced back to his teenage years. At that time Chen's father had a brief working relationship with Mei, and Chen stayed in Mei's compound for a day and saw Mei twice in person. That pleasant memory even prompted him to shoot a scene of "Farewell My Concubine" at Mei's home many years later.

Director Chen Kaige 'humbly extends an invitation to critics and hopes that everyone will point out any mistakes' at the 'Forever Enthralled' remiere ceremony in Beijing, December 2, 2008.

Director Chen Kaige "humbly extends an invitation to critics and hopes that everyone will point out any mistakes" at the "Forever Enthralled" premiere ceremony in Beijing, December 2, 2008.

As the name of "Mei Lanfang" has never faded from the public eye, it is possibly unnecessary to hail the leading actors Zhang Ziyi and Leon Lai as the film's major attractions. Chen himself has said he would rather stay in the background and let Mei Lanfang shine, and he hired Mei's youngest son and his respected Peking Opera heir, Mei Baojiu, as a consultant to the movie.

Generally speaking, "Forever Enthralled" can be seen as a three-act Broadway drama depicting the first half of the Peking Opera master's life: Act I – the disciple's challenge; Act II – lovers torn apart; and Act III – gentle resistance.

The story begins with the young Mei Lanfang reading a letter from his uncle that tries to persuade him either to quit the field of opera, or to find in himself the determination to go on without fear.

A cameo of his uncle shows a royal artist prevented by the death of his own aunt from wearing red clothes in the palace to celebrate a Qing Dynasty queen mother's birthday; a eunuch whips him and puts him in a thin paper shackle, saying "Break this shackle and you will die".

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