Peking Opera Blues
Directed by Tsui Hark. Starring Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh. (1986, NR, 104 min.)
REVIEWED By Pamela Bruce, Fri., April 23, 1993
China, 1913. A shaky sense of stability reigns two years after the first democratic revolution when the Manchus are overthrown and the country establishes itself as a republic with a president. However, the presidency is soon seized by an ambitious general, Yuan Shih-kai who, through foreign support, attempts to establish himself as emperor. It is within this historical framework that Hark's splendid 1986 film (which made its debut in the U.S. last year) comes to life in a unique blend borrowed from such diverse conventions as a 1930s screwball comedy, a Hitchcock espionage thriller, and a Peckinpah/James Woo guns and guts fest. The film centers around three young women who are inadvertently thrown together in a web of political intrigue: the daughter of a general (Lin) is a revolutionary (whose character is patterned much like the real-life revolutionary/feminist heroine of the period, Qiu Jin) who must betray her father by stealing important financial documents that would further empower foreign interests in China; a gold-digging singer/musician (Chung) – who comes across as a Chinese version cut from the Gracie Allen/Carole Lombard/Betty Boop mold of zaniness – and who is trying to get her hands on a stash of stolen jewels; and the daughter of theatre owner (Yeh), who longs to be an actress in her father's repertory group, The Peking Opera, but is forbidden to do so because she is a woman (only men are allowed to be “actresses”). The trio spends the entire narrative – which often abruptly shifts from farcical to violent, to touching and suspenseful moods, amazingly without interfering with the smoothness of its trajectory – bounding back and forth between the hotbeds of deception and betrayal in culture and politics: the rich, colorful world of the theatre and the heavily guarded domain of the palace. Despite the awkward subtitles, there is never a dull, confusing, or wasted moment in Hark's film. It's pure viewing satisfaction that is sure to chase the mainstream movie blues away.