Peking Opera Blues
Director: Tsui Hark
Stars: Brigette Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh
This is one of the most-loved and critically acclaimed Hong Kong films of all time. Along with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (which premiered around the same time), it gave a huge boost to the HK film industry that spawned a period of activity not seen before or since, lasting until the mid-1990's when Hollywood films finally began to gain a strong foothold. What makes Peking Opera Blues so special? Like many great films, it's hard to pinpoint one particular aspect. I think, though, it is the way that Peking Opera Blues is at one both universal, yet so uniquely Hong Kong-ish (is that a word?) in nature that holds the key to its lasting appeal.
The film's universality comes from its' basic structure. Peking Opera Blues' plot itself is fairly simple; with the three leads banding together to help each other out during the tumultuous times following the 1913 Chinese revolution. The movie plays out a bit like a 1930's Hollywood serial, with the characters having to face several "cliffhangers" and then think of inventive ways to get themselves out of the situation at hand. Even though there are numerous references to particular aspects of Chinese society and history, the movie doesn't depend on them so much as to lose the non-native viewer.
Peking Opera Blues' Hong Kong film techniques are quite apparent as well. For instance, there are several large (and often violent) action sequences that most Hollywood directors wouldn't even think of. There are numerous genres mixed into the film as well -- it literally runs the gamut from slapstick comedy to a bloody torture sequence. Sometimes this (which seems to be a uniquely Hong Kong invention, or at least they have perfected it) tends to go a bit overboard, but in the hands of an expert director like Tsui Hark, the changes in emphasis are refreshing, not jarring. I can say that there is not a slow moment in the entire film, because it touches on so many genres without letting any of them overpower each other.
Mostly, though, the Hong Kong film feeling comes through the three leads. Western films often wouldn't allow a film starring three women to be anything other than a tear-jerker or exploitative action flick. Certainly, the three female leads acknowledge their femininity -- most pointedly thorough a touching scene when they shed their respective outfits (thus their respective professions and place in society) and bond together just as women. But at the same time, they're not whiny, trampy, needy, greedy or any of the other female stereotypes which tend to make their marks in film. People tend to think of Asian countries as having a "lower" view of women, but films like this show how much farther we (as Westerners) have to go with our own ideas of how strong women should be portrayed in movies (Erin Brockovich, anyone?). As I have stated in other reviews, I'm no book-waving/tree-hugging feminist and do enjoy the good exploitation movie every now and then, but a film like Peking Opera Blues shows how refreshing an honest portrayal of women can be.
Despite horrible subtitlng and sub-par picture quality found in many video versions, Peking Opera Blues is a film that's well worth seeking out. It's quite honestly one of the few true cinematic masterpieces ever produced and it only gets better with age, especially compared with most of the dreck coming out on both sides of the ocean these days.
A review of the VCD for this movie can be found here
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