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Mei Lanfang: A treat of an art house blockbuster
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Mei Lanfang (Leon Lai) and Qiu Ruxue (Sun Honglei) in 'Forever Enthralled', which will open in Chinese theaters on December 5, 2008. [File photo]

Mei Lanfang (Leon Lai)  and Qiu Ruxue (Sun Honglei) in "Forever Enthralled", which will open in Chinese theaters on December 5, 2008. [File photo]  

It is Qiu, played by actor Sun Honglei, who encourages Mei to break free of the traditional rules of the art. There were always paper-shackles present in Mei's life, but the master chose an approach of "gentle resistance" as his weapon against the greedy outside world. "Mei never had any enemies in his life," one historian has said of Mei Lanfang's famous "gentle resistance", which also protected him when he refused to perform for Japanese invaders in the late 1930s.

Sun Honglei was completely obsessed with the role of Qiu. "I was blessed by the role; for a year I was crazy about the role," Sun told us yesterday. Throughout the entire film, he plays a paranoid, ambitious and devout member of "Mei's Party" but eventually recognizes that Mei is actually a normal person rather than an icon after claiming that whatever the present or the war should bring "Mei Lanfang should be timeless".

"Wouldn't the British people play Shakespeare if their country was occupied by Germany?" he asks. A Japanese fan and invader who once held the same belief as Qiu, kills himself in his office when he realizes that he cannot persuade Mei to perform again, – Mei has even grown a beard on his delicate face to show his determination. Maybe this is what the film title means: "Forever Enthralled".

The Mei Lanfang biopic has great flavor, epic vision and genuine humor. However, the best of it comes from the film's impressive supporting cast. For all that the screenplay writer has done some flirting with the imagination in terms of Mei's personality of "gentle resistance" the confines of the story may have imposed limtiations on leading actor Leon Lai's ability to give of his best.

The last part of the movie fails to live up to anticipation and offers little in the way of exciting drama, conflict or climax. Thus the film falls short of the classic "Farewell My Concubine" but is far better than "The Promise".

"Forever Enthralled" may be the art house film with the heaviest promotion in China's movie history. A record-breaking 1400 copies will be sent to movie theaters nationwide on Friday and a 20-million-yuan (US $2.9 million) TV advertising campaign has been launched. Three years in the making, the producer has lavished over 100 million yuan (US $14.53 million) on various movie scenes and settings, trying to recapture the buildings, costume, and furnishings of old.

Director Chen Kaige (L), Mei family's heir Mei Baojiu (C) and China Film Group's boss Han Sanpin (R), show a treasured Mei Lanfang relic which was used in the film at the 'Forever Enthralled' premiere ceremony in Beijing, December 2, 2008.

Director Chen Kaige (L), Mei family's heir Mei Baojiu (C) and China Film Group's boss Han Sanpin (R), show a treasured Mei Lanfang relic which was used in the film at the "Forever Enthralled" premiere ceremony in Beijing, December 2, 2008.  [China.org.cn]

China Film Group boss Han Sanping said yesterday that this movie will introduce new form, new content and new joy to China's film audience and to the movie industry, but he did not elaborate. Insiders told me the movie company hopes the film will generate as much as 200 million (US$29 million) gross in box office receipts.

The movie will also revive both enthusiasm for and interest in traditional Chinese opera, which was formerly a major entertainment for the whole of society. Now for many Chinese it has become the sort of "exotic" art form that it was to American eyes in 1930. If the people of China treat Chinese Operas only as an obscure form of entertainment, they may well soon be consigned to a museum, and find themselves appearing on the UNESCO intangible heritage list.

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