Getting back into the filmography of Tsui Hark reminds me how little I know about China and Chinese cinema. Peking Opera Blues is a film I’ve long considered my favorite by Tsui, as many others do, but watching it again for the first time in years I was struck by how little I understood what was going on in it. It’s aimed at an audience that’s assumed to understand the historical background, it’s frenetically fast-paced, so you have to grasp exposition quickly, and the English subtitles on the Hong Kong DVD I have are so horribly mangled that it’s often difficult to tell what the hell they are trying to say. The wonder of the film is that it works as a kind of pure cinema even when you aren’t really following the story.
So I’ve been reading about the movie. Most commentators point out the connections between Peking Opera Blues and Shanghai Blues, which is another musical comedy starring the actress Sally Yeh. Tsui apparently at one point intended to make a third “Blues” movie to make a loose trilogy, but one of the interesting aspects of this idea is that the blues are only referred to in the English titles of the movies. The Cantonese titles have no shared elements, so on that level the trilogy idea is more conceptual, or perhaps more generic in the sense that both films are musicals. The Cantonese title of Shanghai Blues is translated as Shanghai Nights, which is the name of the song written by the male protagonist in a popular style associated with the Shanghai music industry. But aside from the musical-comedy genre, another thing the two films share is an ironic ending in which the triumphant protagonists depart their respective cities not realizing that history is about to turn China upside down once again.
Even having read up on the political elements of Peking Opera Blues, there are still a few things that are unclear to me. The action is set in Beijing in 1913, two years after the Xinhai Revolution that replaced the Qing Dynasty with the Republic of China. The leader of the republic is Yuan Shikai, who would eventually abandon democracy and declare himself the new emperor of China. In the film, the new Republic of China is already torn between various warlords, represented in the story by General Tun, who is in control of Beijing in the first scene, and General Tsao, who replaces Tun when he’s forced to flee the city. General Tsao’s daughter, Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), is a secret revolutionary in the cause of democracy, looking to hook up with other revolutionaries in the city.
What’s still unclear to me is that the revolutionaries are said to represent a democratic government in the south of China, and I’m not sure what that political entity was or what its fate was. General Tsao is colluding with Western powers to undermine democracy in China, and many commentators see in this aspect of the story Tsui’s sly commentary on the politics around the Hong Kong handover agreement between the United Kingdom and the PRC. How the history of the 1911 revolution fed into the future struggle between the Communists and the Kuomintang is another thing I’m unclear about. Is the Republic of China in this film the same one that ended up taking over Taiwan when the Communists took over mainland China?
If anything, the Peking opera references are even harder to sort out than the political background. It’s pretty easy to figure out that, like the Elizabethan theater, women were not allowed to perform in Peking opera and men played the female roles in the operas. We get that from the fact that Sally Yeh’s character, Bai Niu (Pat Nell in the DVD subtitles), yearns to perform on stage but is prevented from doing so by her father, who tells us his troupe would be banned if he allowed it. But what of the specific operas that the troupe perform in the course of the film? Do they comment on the action? Some critics find significance in the fact that the opera performed in the finale is The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, in which eight Taoist immortals get drunk and try to cross the sea, but are stopped when they make fun of the Goldfish Fairy, who beats them until they apologize. Tsao Wan plays the Goldfish Fairy in the brief excerpt we see in the movie, so apparently the allegory is that the Immortals are the warlords who insult the Democracy Fairy? I’m still not clear on all that.
And what of the Cantonese title of the film, Do ma daan, which refers to a role in the operas commonly translated as Knife Horse Actresses? What I haven’t been able to figure out is whether that’s a category of female warrior characters or whether it’s a specific female warrior character in a specific opera. The plural “actresses” would seem to imply the former. Bai Niu plays a spear-wielding warrior on horseback in her first opera appearance — a character that’s then duplicated to everyone’s consternation and amusement when Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung) cluelessly appears on stage in the same costume — but is that the character Do ma daan or just an example of such a character? Whatever the case, the resonance of the title is that all three female leads are playing a kind of female warrior in the film we are watching.
Peking Opera Blues is rife with gender play, developing even further the interest in strong female characters that Tsui exhibited in his earlier movies. It’s not just that the three women are the protagonists and drive the plot, but it’s also the way that several of the men are cast in either feminized or homosexual roles. So we have men playing women on stage, and many of those men are stereotypically effeminate off stage. That aspect of the gender play feels at least slightly retrograde to me, but Tsui complicates even this by having Liu, the commander of the police (called Ticketing Agents for some bizarre reason in the DVD subtitles), fall in love with the Fa, who is the lead actor playing a female character for the opera troupe. Liu is a sadistic bastard, but his love for Fa seems genuine, or at least earnest. No doubt Tsui is having way too much fun when he has his female protagonists playing women playing men playing women on the stage.
It’s curious to me, however, that in his own comments Tsui says he feels his approach to female characters was intended to correct the traditional Chinese approach. It most likely reflects my own cultural ignorance, but from what I’ve seen Tsui was, at least in his wuxia films, returning women to the central roles they’d had in ’60s films such as The Jade Bow and Come Drink with Me, after a period in which directors like Chang Cheh had pushed female characters to the side. It could be that I’m misunderstanding Tsui’s comments and that what he’s really talking about is the traditional approach as seen in Peking operas. He talks about how there was some resistance to treating these classical female characters in a comical way.
One of the fun things Tsui does update is the wuxia conceit of the woman who disguises herself as a man, as in King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. Here Tsao Wan is always dressed in contemporary male clothing, with Brigitte Lin cutting a very dashing figure in a dinner jacket or military uniform and overcoat. The difference is that Tsao Wan is not trying to disguise herself as a man, but rather, as she explains, just finds that she is treated more respectfully by both genders if she dresses that way. It’s a feminist point that’s treated as completely natural, but it’s an odd enough detail that I was never completely sure, until digging further into the commentary, whether some of the other characters perceived her as male. The gender pronouns in the subtitles are malleable enough that they were confusing on that point as well.
Tsui describes the three women as representing “the Chinese mentality … . One is an adventurer, one is an artist, and one is a businesswoman.” Describing Sheung Hung as a businesswoman is a little strange, because she’s basically a thief, but I suppose the general point is that she’s materialistic and acquisitive. (Stephen Teo, in Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions says she’s a sing-song girl, which is a kind of courtesan or concubine, but while that fits with the opening scene and maybe also the later fake-seduction of the general, Teo is the only critic I’ve seen characterize her that way.) What’s more interesting is the point Kozo makes at Love HK Film that Bai Nui — the artist — is the truly selfless one of the three. She risks her life and her father’s opera business to help the revolutionaries, and she does it for friendship rather than political idealism. The political idealist, Tsao Wan, is in fact initially indifferent to the fates of her new friends, which is perhaps why Tsui refers to her as an adventurer. It’s no surprise that the materialistic Sheung Hung doesn’t exhibit loyalty initially either, but on the other hand Bai Nui’s selflessness is perhaps a bit self-congratulatory on Tsui’s part, since the opera players are pretty obvious stand-ins for the film-makers.
The nuances of these characters is what gives the story much of its complexity, and their coming back together after turning away from each other is what provides the emotional climax of the film. It’s much the same theme as Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, with Tsui exhorting his Chinese audience to find ways to unify despite their different agendas and different mentalities. But this film is more cynical than Zu, because the unified action that leads to the satisfying resolution of the plot is quickly undercut when we learn that the actions of the democratic revolutionaries had no effect at all on Chinese history. Tsao Wan’s victory in this film is an empty one.
Or so I’ve learned from reading about it. The DVD, for whatever reason, leaves off the end cards explaining the fates of the characters, just as it leaves off the opening cards explaining the historical setting. (I’ve seen Peking Opera Blues once in the theater, so I probably did see the explanatory cards in that version.) As an emotional experience, the movie works fine without the ironic historical note, and it’s actually possible to see Tsui’s cynicism here as a mask for a pointed reminder that the forces of democracy in China still need to find a way to pull together. Certainly it’s hard to ignore the enthusiastic charge the film delivers via its hyperkinetic action and goofy humor. Whether you believe in political change or not, it’s hard to see this as a tragic story. Tragic-comic perhaps, but mostly comic despite the acknowledgement of mortality and the nightmare of history. What fools these mortals be, but fools are, after all, figures of comedy.
On that optimistic note, what better way to end this than to refer you to Peking Opera Blues: Pure Delirium, which is not only the source of most of the screencaps I’ve used here, and not just a celebration of the film’s joyous delirium and great artistry, but is also an amazing personal testimony about how Peking Opera Blues changed one person’s life. For reals. It’s an extremely moving piece of writing about moving pictures, featuring personal appearances by Brigitte Lin and Sally Yeh. Film writing doesn’t get much better than this.