|Forever Enthralled (a.k.a. Mei Lanfang) is a fine historical primer, but as an actual biopic it feels conspicuously lacking. Director Chen Kaige returns to Farewell My Concubine territory, telling the story of famous Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang and his rise to legendary status. Mei Lanfang was renowned for his portrayal of female roles, winning acclaim throughout China and ultimately abroad. The film opens in the early twentieth century with Mei Lanfang as a young man, played by newcomer Yu Shaoqun. Called Wanhua in his regular (read: male) guise, Mei Lanfang earns acclaim for his delicate, beautiful female impersonations. Already possessing of a devoted following, Mei Langfang works beneath the watchful gaze of elder opera singer Shi Sanyan (Wang Xueqi), who acts opposite Mei Langfang in the male roles.
Though still a relative newcomer, Mei Lanfang starts to develop his own style, inspired largely by Qi Rushan (Sun Honglei), a civil servant who's disdainful of the Peking Opera but becomes an instant convert after seeing Mei Lanfang perform. Qi Rushan preaches reform within the art, asking for greater depth of characterization in the female roles. However, Shi Sanyan disagrees as it removes the focus from his male performance. This rift between senior and junior becomes a full-blown competition, with Shi Sanyan and Mei Lanfang competing for audiences, leading to an affirmation of Mei Lanfang's talent and Qi Rushan's mentoring. A burgeoning career and marriage to fellow performer Fu Zhifang (Gillian Chung, in a "can't see her face, but that's her" appearance) signal the end of the beginning for Mei Lanfang. Cue fade to black and the reveal of a mature Mei Lanfang, played now by Leon Lai.
Unfortunately, the transition between actors is where Forever Enthralled deflates. Chen Kaige's initial introduction to Mei Lanfang and his "battle" with Shi Sanyan makes for involving drama. Strong performances from Wang Xueqi and Sun Honglei help, as does the presence of Yu Shaoqun. The opera-trained Yu brings an authenticity and freshness to the title role that makes the character seem more authentic and even alluring, bringing some understanding to the rampant male fascination with Mei Lanfang's female characters. Once Leon Lai takes over as Mei Lanfang, there's a noticeable shift, the character becoming less defined and compelling. Lai is a decent actor, but he doesn't bring greater insight into Mei Lanfang, and the performance is ultimately unremarkable. The fact that he's doubled during the opera scenes doesn't help, either.
However, even before Lai makes his first appearance, the film shows clear narrative gaps, with some details glossed over or even omitted. The loss of Gillian Chung as the young Fu Zhifang hurts, not because the film necessarily needed Chung's presence, but because some introduction to Fu Zhifang at a younger age would have helped elucidate the character. Chen Hong (a.k.a. Chen Kaige's wife) essays Fu Zhifang as an older woman, and her role in Mei Lanfang's life is a vital one. Qi Rushan also continues as a large influence, with Sun Honglei turning in the film's best performance as Mei Lanfang's biggest and most frustrated fan. The events and characters surrounding Mei Lanfang turn out to be much more interesting and complex than Mei Lanfang himself - which is a ultimately as much of a knock on the filmmakers as it is on Leon Lai. This is a movie about Mei Lanfang, so we should get to know Mei Lanfang. Curiously, the character remains largely distant.
Chinese censorship likely played a role here, as many facts surrounding Mei Lanfang's life are tiptoed around, if not made purposely ambiguous. In his later years, Mei Lanfang meets male-impersonating opera singer Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi, in a smaller-than-expected role), who would go on to become his lover, but the film never explicitly reveals their relationship to the audience. The only admission made is that Meng Xiaodong is Mei Lanfang's "true love", but a person could easily watch the film and think that the two never even kissed, much less had an affair. It's possible that Mei Lanfang's family (who participated in the production) were interested in a sterling portrait of their ancestor, with the understanding that initiated viewers probably know the truth hidden in the narrative ambiguities.
The problem then is that the film doesn't help the uninitiated, who will have to do their own research (Wikipedia, here we come!) if they want to fill in the blanks. To Chen Kaige's credit, he gives his subject enough elegance, intrigue and historical relevance to spur interest after the film ends. Mei Lanfang's later history - particularly his involvement with the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese war - plays a large part in his acceptance as a cultural hero. Leon Lai brings more to the character in these later scenes, as it requires the character to display righteous anger - one of Lai's established acting modes. Forever Enthralled sags during its mid-portion, but manages to close effectively.
However, none of those positives helps Forever Enthralled match the promise of its subject matter. The acting and the production are both solid, but the film can't close the gap with its audience, and never truly becomes intimate with its main character. The film makes much ado about Mei Lanfang's loneliness being the key to his success, but that information never feels like more than explanatory screenwriting. Maybe it was restrictions from SARFT or Mei Lanfang's family, or maybe Chen Kaige and co-screenwriters Yan Geiling and Chen Kuo-Fu had a hard time translating Mei Lanfang's story to the screen, but ultimately, Forever Enthralled is a better introduction to Mei Lanfang than an actual biography of him. Emotionally and dramatically, Forever Enthralled never reaches the heights of Chen's superior Farewell My Concubine, proving only interesting and respectable, and not much more. (Kozo 2009)