Tsui Hark's 1986 "Peking Opera Blues" (at the Monica 4-Plex), one of the most celebrated Hong Kong movies of the past decade, has surfaced at local festivals and film series, but only now is having a regular run at a theater outside Chinatown. It's a giddy period comedy, loaded with action and more slamming doors and hit-and-miss encounters than a Feydeau farce. It's also surprisingly poignant and bursting with a witty feminist spirit.
The time is 1911, in the chaotic wake of China's first democratic revolution. Three beautiful, high-spirited young women of very different backgrounds but similar cravings for liberation cross paths and find common cause. First is a general's daughter, Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), who studied gynecology abroad and who wears Western-style men's attire, a la George Sand, not to disguise her sex but to enable her to move about more freely. She even gets away with wearing military uniforms, doubtlessly on account of her powerful doting father (Wu Ma). Second is the improbably named Pat Neil (Sally Yeh), daughter of the proprietor of a Peking opera company, and the third is Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a singer who has gotten her hands on a fortune in jewelry from a fleeing general's household only to lose it all.
Tsao Wan has joined a guerrilla movement whose immediate goal is to get its hands on a document revealing that the military Establishment, backed by foreign loans, intends to restore the monarchy to power and thus curtail the democratic movement. Meanwhile, Pat Neil schemes to perform in her father's company despite the ancient tradition that all female roles are played by males. Sheung Hung remains in pursuit of the elusive cache of jewels.
To Kwok-Wai has written a scintillating, endlessly inventive script with which Tsui Hark can run all the way to a triumphant battle sequence upon the opera company's treacherous tile roof.
"Peking Opera Blues" has the formidable coordination and energy of a complicated Chinese acrobatic act. Yet the film is by no means all action, with Tsui Hark deftly playing genuine, even delicate, emotion against the mayhem within a plot that is all artifice. In its breezy, light-hearted way, "Peking Opera Blues" has lots of fun sending up the excesses of male chauvinism. Tsui Hark points up the absurdity of an all-male audience swooning over the opera company's beautiful stars, forgetting, it would seem, that they are in fact all men. Gen. Tsao may be a devoted father, but that doesn't keep him from appearing with a different woman--or women--at his side every night.
Never do our three spunky heroines waste time lamenting their woman's plight; they're too busy drawing upon feminine wiles and raw courage in pursuing their goals and independence.
"Peking Opera Blues" (Times-rated Mature because some scenes may be too violent for small children) is gorgeous-looking in all its rich colors and lavish settings and costumes. All three of the film's stars are gifted actresses, but Sally Yeh, with her Modigliani-like beauty and sparkling, mischievous personality, is particularly irresistible. But then so is the film itself.
'Peking Opera Blues'
Brigitte Lin: Tsao Wan
Sally Yeh: Pat Neil
Cherie Chung: Sheung Hung
Wu Ma: General Tsao
A Rim Film Distributors release of a Film Workshop Co. Ltd. production. Director/co-producer Tsui Hark. Screenplay by To Kwok-Wai. Cinematographer Poon Hang-Seng. Martial arts director Ching Siu-Tung. Editor David Wu. Music James Wong. In Cantonese with English and Chinese subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Times-rated Mature (some sequences too violent for small children).