After the critical mauling he received for his shabby wuxia would-be epic “The Promise”, it’s easy to see Chen Kaige’s return to Peking Opera and “Farewell my Concubine” territory as going back to the well. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as he certainly has a fascinating subject in the form of Mei Lanfang, a legendary figure known for his portrayal of female roles who toured the world and defied the Japanese during the Second World War. Given that he was the real life inspiration behind Leslie Cheung’s character in “Concubine”, his experiences seem a natural, if perhaps a little unimaginative choice for the director as he attempts to return to his glory days.
The film follows Mei Lanfang during three phases in his life – his early teenage years when he first rose to prominence by challenging and defeating a renowned traditional opera king (then played by Yu Shaoqun), the preparations for his first US tour ten years later (the role now taken by Hong Kong actor Leon Lai), and finally the tumultuous times surrounding the brutal Japanese invasion. The plot charts the most important relationships in his life, namely with his obsessed manager Qiu Rubai (Sun Honglei, “Blood Brothers”), who gave up his career as a teacher to follow the singer, his no-nonsense wife Fu Zhifang (played by the director’s own wife Chen Hong, who also featured in his violin drama “Together”) and the apparent true love of his life, fellow singer and male-impersonator Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi).
The downside of returning to the subject of Peking Opera is that “Forever Enthralled” perhaps inevitably compares unfavourably with “Farewell my Concubine”, which was not only the director’s best and defining work, but one of the greatest Chinese films of modern times. Still, there is certainly something to be said for Chen’s decision to play to his strengths and the first hour of the film sees him at his very best. This section makes for a deeply engaging character study of Mei as a young man, focusing upon his complex relationship with rival Shi Sanyan (played expertly by Wang Xueqi, and a fascinating character in his own right), and his struggles with the confines of opera tradition. Although the result of their popularity duel is obviously known, it remains gripping, and effectively maps his transformation from boy to star. Yu Shaoqun is excellent in the role, managing to be both innocent and driven, and giving a real sense of Mei’s desire to perform and innovate.
Unfortunately, things falter somewhat as the film leaps forward ten years, not least since it appears that a section has been cut from the film, likely the scenes involving Gillian Chung as Mei’s young wife. This is a real shame as it prevents the film from painting a full picture of his life, and misses out what would have been a vital part of his emotional development. To be fair, Leon Lai tries very hard in the role of the adult Mei, though he is no Leslie Cheung, and struggles to show either much range or indeed much emotion in general, and the viewer never really comes to understand the complex and conflicted singer. As a result, his relationships with both Fu Zhifang and Meng Xiaodong fall a little flat, partly due to the fact that neither has much screen time. It doesn’t help that like Lai, Zhang Ziyi is not really up to the challenge of her role, and spends most of her surprisingly brief appearance with an odd grin plastered over her face.
To an extent, such complaints are mostly Chen’s fault, as he seems strangely determined to keep Mei at a distance, preferring to spend time with those around him, in particular manager Qiu Rubai and throwing in the odd incident to keep things moving such as assassination scheme. All things considered, this is possibly for the best, as the supporting characters are interesting, thanks in part to uniformly strong performances from the rest of the cast, as is the film’s cultural and historical backdrop. Through this, the proceedings do enjoy a quietly epic feel, perhaps marking the film as a more of a historical drama rather than a biopic as such.
It’s here that the film really shines, thanks to some gorgeous visuals, with Chen as ever showing a great eye for detail. The sets and costumes are all convincing and beautiful, and his unobtrusive style brings the past to life with a deft, grounded touch. Although long, the film is well paced, and could have been longer, especially given the question over the possibly excised footage. Chen certainly knows opera, and indeed these scenes are the best in the film, colourful and lively and likely to catch the eye and imagination of viewers, whether they are interested in the form or not.
This helps to distract from the film’s failings, and as a result, whilst not in the same league as “Farewell my Concubine”, “Forever Enthralled” is a creditable and interesting piece that is still very much worth watching for fans of the director and subject material. Whilst it would have benefited from more character development or a stronger set of leads, it manages to engage throughout, and sees somewhat of a return to form for Chen, if not a particularly convincing one.
Kaige Chen (director) / Kaige Chen, Geling Yan, Kuo-fu Chen (screenplay)
CAST: Leon Lai … Mei Lanfang
Ziyi Zhang … Meng Xiaodong
Honglei Sun … Qiu Rubai
Hong Chen … Fu zhifang
Masanobu Ando … Ryuichi Tanaka
Shengsu Li … Yan – Huizhu
Yueming Pan … Zhu Huifang