Tsui Hark's classic Peking Opera Blues is an
amazing piñata of a movie that combines more
genres and Hong Kong-specific themes than one could
possibly imagine. An unlikely concoction of historical
and political intrigue, acrobatic action, screwball
comedy, and unabashed romanticism, Blues holds
up even fifteen years past its release.
The film takes place
at a firmly established crossroads in modern Chinese
history. The year is 1913, and General Yuan Shi-Kai
has taken power in the wake of the Qing Dynasty's
fall. Yuan requires a large sum of money from European
governments to stay in power, and General Cao (Kenneth
Tsang) is helping Yuan secure the loan. However, his
daughter Cao Yan (Brigitte Lin) is secretly working
for the revolutionaries, and plots to steal the loan
documents from her father.
However, things aren't
that easy. In the process of trying to steal the documents,
she gets involved with two very different women. Bai
Niu (Sally Yeh) is the daughter of Wu Ma, who runs
a Chinese Opera troupe thatas was the custom
at the timefeatures an all-male cast. Bai wishes
to be an actress onstage, but tradition forbids it.
Meanwhile, golddigging musician Hong (Cherie Chung)
arrives at the opera house while chasing a wayward
box of jewelry. The two become involved in the intrigue
when Cao Yan attempts to meet revolutionary spy Ling
(Mark Cheng) at the opera house while her father is
taking in a performance. However, the local law enforcement
is on to them, which leads to complicated circumstances
and exhiliarting happenstance.
To call this film vintage
Tsui Hark would be an understatement. The plot of
the film deals with real history and politics, while
the conflicts and growing friendship of the women
take on universal significance. The setting is the
Peking Opera, which Tsui glamorizes and simultaneously
parodies. The gender roles are subverted, with the
females appearing "masculine" while the
males appear the opposite. The film features staged
acrobatic swordplay (during the Peking Opera scenes),
followed immediately by over-the-top, intricately
staged gunplay. And there's physical and verbal comedy,
which amazingly doesn't distract or even annoy. And
even more amazing: the disparate genres and tones
(the film shifts from wacky to wrenching in a split-second)
actually work together. Peking Opera Blues proves to be as emotionally resonant as it is wildly
To properly explain
how Tsui does this would be impossible. The film is
a testament to his bizarre sensibilities and almost
impenetrable filmmaking style, which haven't always
produced the best results. Here, everything works.
The comedy is endearing, and the action exhilirating
and sometimes painful. The audience finds themselves
pulled in many different directions simultaneously,
and are treated to moments that are both emotionally
tense and irretrivably whimiscal. Tsui's sudden shifts
in tone might appear to be sudden, but the cinematic
panache he displays is extremely winning.
Equal credit should
go to the actors, who turn in performances that are
devoid of artifice, yet are decidedlyand entertaininglyexaggerated.
Brigitte Lin anchors the film with her fine presence,
but it's Sally Yeh who walks away with the picture.
Her performance as Bai Nui is strong, but vulnerable.
Bai Nui has the most at stake: in helping the revolutionaries
she risks her life and her family. However, loyalty
to her friends is what drives her, which inevitably
leads her into conflict with the more self-involved
Hong and Cao Yan. Eventually, what they discover is
that they must trust and believe in one another to
acheive their goals.
The ultimate irony of
Peking Opera Blues is that the victory contained
within the film is really an empty one. In the tapestry
of history, the characters' struggles have really
no effect on China's future, nor on the destiny of
the people. Following the events in the film, China
reverted to internal strife and more years of "revolution."
The characters only won one battle in a war which
they eventually lost.
Yet, that complexity
of emotion and theme is one of the reasons that Peking
Opera Blues is such a wonderful Hong Kong film.
The best films of Hong Kong's recent Golden Age (the
late eighties and early nineties) possess the same
mixture of despair, hope, and universal emotion that
this film embodies so perfectly. Tsui Hark has always
been a filmmaker who mixes messages, and even though
he does so here, the result doesn't feel compromised
or muddled. Instead, it gives the film an added dimension
thatcombined with surprising themes, genial
comedy and thrilling actionmake the film a true
cinematic wonder, and a genuine Hong Kong classic.