Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FOREVER ENTHRALLED - REVIEW

梅蘭芳 (Forever Enthralled)
Released 12.5.2008


Directed by Chen Kaige
Written by Chen Kaige, Yan Geling and Chen Kuofu



"Forever Enthralled" tells the story of Mei Lanfang in a showcase of Peking opera offering luring looks behind the curtain. This pageant of performances makes for a pretty and promising biopic, but it will likely feel pedantic before the end.

"Forever Enthralled" is a biographical picture on Mei Lanfang, China's most famous star of the Peking (Beijing) opera during the first half of the 20th Century. Not unlike Shakespeare times, the female parts in these operas were originally played by men (called "dan"). This immediately emerges as the most fascinating aspect of the story. There is a prize performance from Wang Xueqi in the first act who plays the veteran opera dan and has a competition with Lanfang, who seeks to bring change to the "old ways." Lanfang is led by Qi Rushan (another notable performance here by Sun Honglei), the two become blood brothers of a sort and dedicate their lives to opera. We spend time with Lanfang (his stage name) at various ages, but mostly follow the goings-on in his adulthood where he is played just fine by Leon Lai. I still want to know if it was really the actor singing during the opera, I doubt it. If so, I am deeply impressed.

Probably most interesting segment is when Meng Xiaodong (played by the exquisite Zhang Ziyi) shows up in the middle, an alluring opera star herself who easily seduces the already married Mei Lanfang. I like how The China Post put it in their review, "Meng Xiaodong sweeps Mei off his feet in a symbolic role reversal: Meng, used to playing male characters, is aggressive and headstrong, whereas Mei is shy and reserved." Though I'm told this subject is given more and better consideration in "Farewell My Concubine," a critically lauded film that the same director delivered nearly 20 years ago.

As is custom with Asian period pieces, the production design is immaculate. While working with only a fraction of the budget of most Hollywood productions, "Forever Enthralled" manages to be every bit as stunning. The operatic performances themselves are a foreign delicacy. For Western audiences the film plays with this expectation when Lanfang takes his tour to New York City. The reception of that performance becomes one of the film's highest stakes and plot points.

The third act becomes particularly strenuous to sit through. I cannot imagine anyone being forever enthralled with the story by this point, especially when it felt like it was winding down some scenes earlier. By this point the most interesting chapter (with Xiaodong) is but a memory, for Lanfang and us. Yet the film keeps skipping along like a strange stone, taking its time with seemingly throwaway scenes (for example, Lanfang eating soup while chatting with a servant). The Japanese occupation (and the mentioning of Nanjing) rekindled my interest briefly, but it doesn't go anywhere as visually interesting as the first half. I suppose that is the point: we experience the lows with Lanfang and long for the war to be over. At least the film ends in a right place, even if it doesn't feel like the right place. "Forever Enthralled" is worth seeing, I just wish all of it was as good as some of it. If such cannot be achieved, you may be better off trimming it.

 ★★ 

CONTENT: some violence and sexual implications

1 comment:

Galyn said...

I watched the trailer on You Tube, but without subtitles, so I was pretty much in the dark. Some of the actors look familiar. It looks like it was beautifully filmed.