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Mei Lanfang: A treat of an art house blockbuster
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In ancient China the performing artist belonged to one of nine low-level professions, and his fate was often tragic. On stage they were like today's concert superstars, but their social status in real life was lower than an ordinary person's. That is why even today traditional Chinese parents will not allow their children to become performing artists, even though they accept that their children will adore their stage idols and know there are opportunities to make enormous fortunes.

Mei Lanfang

As the movie depicts, Mei Lanfang was raised in hard times, and was given a demanding mission to fulfill.

The first part of the story tells how the young Mei Lanfang begins to challenge his master Shi San Yan, a traditional and stubborn master, and here Yue Opera newcomer Yu Shaoqun and veteran actor Wang Xueqi provide the audience with a first climax. This is where young Mei must defeat Shi San Yan to establish his innovative style and declare that his time has arrived.

Moviegoers will surely enjoy the most riveting performances since the originals were themselves in competition at the opera box office. Never before having played an opera artist in his career, Wang Xueqi must go on to win a best supporting actor award somewhere – his vocals and bearing, and even his command of dialect, are graceful and approach perfection.

Shi San Yan dies after losing the competition to young Mei, and his last words to Mei also assign to him the mission to raise the social status of opera artists. His advice before the two throw themselves into the last round of the competition – "Shame lies not in losing, but in being too timid to win" – become one of the axioms of the movie.

In truth, Shi San Yan himself did not actually exist as an individual. Lightly based on the "King of Peking Opera" of the time, Tan Xinpei, he is an incarnation of all of the old generation of opera artists in China. And there are several collective incarnations in the Mei Lanfang biopic: Shi San Yan is one, Mei's wife is another, and Mei's top advisor Qiu Rubai is a third.

Act II of the film tells of a beautiful love affair between two operatic geniuses: Mei Lanfang and Meng Xiaodong, played by Chinese heartthrob Zhang Ziyi. In reality, Mei had two wives before Meng, the first, Wang Minghua, died of a fatal illness; the second was Fu Zhifang, an opera starlet. Meng Xiaodong was therefore Mei's third wife; she had become his secret lover during his second marriage, and later separated from him in a bitter divorce. In the film, the first two wives become one, Fu, while Mei and Meng are involved in a Platonic love affair. I don't know why this change has been made, but since Mei Baojiu, Mei's son with Fu, is the movie project's consultant, the director may not have wanted to cause excessive offence to the Mei family.

A movie still shows that Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi) and Mei Lanfang (Leon Lai) walk in an alley. The biopic 'Forever Enthralled' will open in Chinese theaters on December 5, 2008. [File photo]

A movie still shows that Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi) and Mei Lanfang (Leon Lai) walk in an alley. The biopic "Forever Enthralled" will open in Chinese theaters on December 5, 2008. [File photo] 

"I don't think the relationship between Mei and Meng is the main storyline in my film," Chen Kaige said yesterday, but he denied that Mei Baojiu had placed him under any restrictions. "Master Mei Baojiu's heart is open. He never placed any restrictions on our creativity. It was I who decided to present the story of Mei and Meng in this way."

At that time, women were denied access to both theater and stage – that is also why Mei Lanfang, although a man, played a woman's role all his life on stage. Meng Xiaodong, a woman who played male roles on stage, was a new symbol and an operatic powerhouse in what was a revolutionary and turbulent time. In the film, the two lovers are separated after a strange assassination attempt: a Mei fan who hates Meng for her relationship with his idol tries to shoot her. In fact, in real life the situation was the opposite – the attempt was on Mei's life.

The director has said that he had always wondered about Mei's decision to tour the United States at the time of the Great Depression in 1930, when the nation knew almost nothing of Mei Lanfang. Now he has his own explanation in the film: the break-up of the relationship and Mei's determination to fulfill his life's mission: to improve the social status of the artist.

"Shame lies not in losing, but in being too timid to win…" Mei murmurs the words again. And in reality, Mei's Broadway show was a huge success. "It is as beautiful as an old Chinese vase or tapestry," the New York Times commented. "You can appreciate something of exquisite loveliness in pantomime and costume, and you may feel for yourself vaguely in contact, not with the sensation of the moment, but with the strange ripeness of centuries."

True history: Mei Lanfang (L) and his top advisor Qi Rushan (R). [File photo]

True history: Mei Lanfang (L) and his top advisor Qi Rushan (R). [File photo]

Act III is really about Qiu Rubai, mentioned above. Qiu was based on Mei's chief advisor Qi Rushan, who was a semi-mentor, advisor and friend of Mei and the mastermind of the Mei phenomenon. But in the film Qiu is a collective incarnation of Mei's circle of close advisors, who called themselves "Mei's Party". This circle included bankers, government officials, foreigners and warlords. They were either fans or masterminds. They had the power to bring Mei and Meng together, and also to drive the two apart when Meng Xiaodong exerted too much influence over Mei's loneliness. "Everything Mei Lanfang had achieved comes from his loneliness," Qiu asserts in the film, "The one who destroys that loneliness, will destroy Mei Lanfang."

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