Diau Charn (1958) — March 3, 2017
The Shaw Brothers’ first color film, a huangmei musical based on the story from Romance of the Three Kingdoms about the woman who tempted the great general Lü Bu into murdering his patron and father-in-law, the usurping Prime Minister Dong Zhuo, in the latter days of the Han Dynasty. Li Han-hsiang directs, and while his and the Shaws’ sets and costumes aren’t quite as ornate as they’d become in a few years, the way they dissolve quickly into painted backdrops adds an eerie level of abstraction to the already highly theatrical performances. Linda Lin Dai is pretty magnificent as one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, a Dietrichean woman resolute in her determination to assassinate the cruel and illegitimate rulers of her kingdom, yet innocent enough to fall in love with the man she’s manipulating. Look for future Bruce Lee director Lo Wei as Dong Zhuo. I assume the movie is called “Diau Charn” instead of “Diao Chan” because of a Cantonese/Mandarin switcharoo, but the movie, like all the Shaws’ products, is in Mandarin, so I don’t know.
The Enchanting Shadow (1960) — July 29, 2014
A non-musical Li Han-hsiang film, an adaptation of the same source material as the late 80s Tsui Hark/Ching Siu-tung masterpiece A Chinese Ghost Story. The story comes from Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a collection of tales composed in the late 1600s and published in 1740. Made in 1960, it’s weird to see a Shaw Brothers film that not only doesn’t begin with the familiar anthem and shield logo, but is in Academy ratio rather than Shawscope. But the colors, sets and costumes are unmistakably Shaw.
A traveling scholar (a tax collector in fact) arrives in a remote town and decides to stay for a couple of days in a nearby abandoned temple, despite warnings that the temple is haunted. There he meets a mysterious swordsman who seems nice enough and, late at night, he helps a pretty girl (superstar Betty Loh Ti) compose some poetry. And then the girl is a ghost.
In a stark contrast to the later film, a hallmark of Tsui and Ching’s whiplash style, effects-driven and dizzying in pace and editing, Li’s story seems like a whisper. All the same beats are hit, but effortlessly. There are some spooky images, decent performances from the men in the supporting cast and a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a Star Trek episode, but what lingers is Loh’s ephemeral artist, jealous of the ducks in the pond.
The Love Eterne (1963) — June 11, 2014
Shaw Brothers musical adaptation of the Butterfly Lovers story (also done as a non-musical by Tsui Hark in 1994 as The Lovers), where the heroine disguises herself as a boy to go to school and falls in love with a fellow student who doesn’t know her true gender. After several years, the truth is revealed but they’re still kept apart by the girl being forced into an arranged marriage. Death and transfiguration ensue.
The gender relations are further complicated with a meta-twist wherein both leading roles are played by women (one playing a woman pretending to be a man, the other simply a woman pretending to be a man) and both actresses (Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po, respectively) are terrific. The lavish and intricate Shaw Brothers sets and Li Han-hsiang’s flowing camera movements mesh beautifully with the delicately propulsive rhythms of the songs, and there are hints of the kind of Sternbergian obscuring of the frame that Chor Yuen would take to extremes in his 70s wuxia films.
Beyond the Great Wall (1964) — October 23, 2014
Li Han-hsiang’s huangmei musical adaptation of an oft-told true story, that of the concubine Wang Zhaojun in the later days of the Western Han Dynasty (sometime in the 30s BC). In this version of the story, after refusing to pay a bribe to the royal portrait painter (the emperor chooses his women by their portrait, and the women must pay the painter to get a favorable image), Wang (played by Linda Lin Dai) languishes in the palace unseen by the Emperor for three years. When he finally does meet her, they fall instantly in love. However, due to the treachery of the now-fled painter, Wang is forced to leave the Han court and marry the nearest Xiongnu chieftain.
Wang is thus portrayed as a heroically patriotic figure, exchanging her love and her beautiful life for the dusty barbarian plains solely for the good of the Empire (her marriage will avert a war between the Han and the Xiongnu). That Li divides his story roughly in half, the first part chronicling the life of a woman literally reduced to a transactional object, the second showing how that same woman, rather than seeking revenge, instead sacrifices herself for the sake of the society that so reduced her. But not before she vents her furious anger at the painter who wronged her, lecturing this cowardly and once-powerful man about the true nature of things, of honor, and of patriotism. She’s a superhero, but the fact that she has to be is a tragedy.
This is the more or less correct name for this group of people, though they’re called “Huns” in the subtitle translation I watched. The Xiongnu, who occupied roughly the same steppe area as the later Mongols, may very well have been related to the Huns, or possibly even the same group, but the history of the nomad horse archers of Central Asia is notoriously slippery. ↩︎
Dream of the Red Chamber (1977) — June 21, 2014
Added May 17, 2018:
In 1977, [Sylvia Chang] appeared opposite Taiwanese star Brigitte Lin in Dream of the Red Chamber, an adaptation of one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature. The film was part of an attempt at reviving the huangmei genre, a peculiar musical style something like an operetta, with lush costumes and sets telling stories of romantic tragedies from China’s literary and folkloric tradition. Huangmei films like The Love Eterne, The Enchanting Shadow, and Diau Charn had been the specialty of the Shaw Brothers studio in the 1950s and early 1960s, before they shifted gears into wuxia and kung fu movies. The leading director of the style was Li Han-hsiang, and Dream represents Li’s return to the genre after a decade spent in Taiwan trying to build a film industry there independent of the major Hong Kong studios (with limited success). As was conventional in huangmei opera, all the major parts, male and female, are played by women, which is why Brigitte Lin is playing the lead role as the adored son of a wealthy Qing-era family. He falls in love with his cousin, played by Sylvia Chang, a delicate, earnest, yet sickly young woman. The tragedy comes when Lin’s family schemes to have him marry another woman, without his knowledge, which breaks everyone’s heart with all the usual dire consequences. The film is unusual in the huangmei canon in that the first half hour or so is more or less a normal film, with most of the singing confined to an off-screen chorus. But as the sense of emotional doom builds, more and more of the film is expressed in song, until it becomes a full-blown opera by the end. Lin and Chang too bring a different dynamic to the genre than their predecessors, a more modern approach to acting than 60s stars like Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po. It’s a film out of time, straddling past and future.
A Ghost Story (1979) — October 19, 2018
(Kara) Hui herself makes a brief appearance in 1979’s The Ghost Story, which is unlike any of the other films in the Metrograph Shaw Horror series, in that it’s directed by a major filmmaker (Li Han-hsiang), is not especially graphic in its gore, and is not quite an original story. It’s instead sourced in the 18th Century short story collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling, which also provided the basis for King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, and Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story. Li himself had adapted one of the Strange Tales with The Enchanting Shadow, from 1960, when he was the star Shaws director, specializing in decorous huangmei musicals like The Love Eterne and Diau Charn. But by the end of the 70s he had been to Taiwan to help launch their film industry (where he also lured King Hu), begun specializing in softcore porn films, and made his way back to Hong Kong, where he tried to revive the huangmei genre with Sylvia Chang and Brigitte Lin in 1977’s Dream of the Red Chamber. The Ghost Story isn’t a musical, but it does have lots of sex and nudity. Essentially two mystical stories tied together by a framing device in which an elder is telling stories to a group of villagers (he sends the children away at the beginning the movie), the first is a variation on Homer’s Circe, with a group of Tang Dynasty women hoteliers turning the soldiers who try to rape them into pigs and selling them at the local market. The second jumps forward a thousand years (though ostensibly the same main characters thanks to the wonders of reincarnation) and tells of the consequences of lust as a young man falls for a demonic woman, mainly because he’s super-excited by her tiny, tiny feet.