The plays of Shakespeare have made it into film on at least 420 occasions. Peking Opera – a Chinese stage art that combines singing, acting and acrobatics – has proven less amenable to the big screen. But a new movie hopes to change that.
Indeed, Xiao Feng, the movie’s director is extremely optimistic that his film can even go global.
The origins of Peking Opera are in folk arts; but the genre really took off when the Empress Dowager took a liking to it in the 19th century. By the early 20th century it was flourishing and had become an integral part of Chinese popular culture. However, after the revolution in 1949 its popularity waned, in large part because Mao Zedong’s last wife, Jiang Qing tried to reform it for propaganda purposes.
Xiao is hoping to reawaken interest in this classical art form – which many associate with fake beards, loud drums and falsetto singing – by taking a more innovative approach. So while the film’s cast includes Peking Opera stars – such as Yu Kuizhi and Meng Guanglu – it also incorporates 60 minutes of special effects. These simulate grand battles scenes and dramatic weather.
The opera he has filmed – it is the first full-length Peking Opera to hit cinemas since the 1970s – is Yuan Chonghuan. The work is a tragedy about the Ming Dynasty general of the same name. Yuan occupies an interesting place in Chinese history. He won the battles of Ningyuan (there were two) and thwarted the invading Manchus, but became a victim of intrigue in the Ming court and was sentenced to death ‘by a thousand cuts’. He died in 1630; his last words: “A life’s work always end up in vain.”
Absent its greatest general, the Ming Dynasty was quickly toppled by the Manchus – who took the dynastic name of Qing and would go on to rule China until 1912.
As a spectacle the opera has a lot going for it. There are the battle sequences – plus the inherent drama of a virtuous and heroic man brought to ruin by the guile of his duplicitous enemies. To add to the sense of tragedy, Yuan’s entire family is also murdered.
Whether Yuan Chonghuan will find favour with audiences remains to be seen. The China News Network has its doubts. It wonders whether true opera fans will go to a movie theatre rather than watch a live performance at an opera house; and likewise whether cinemagoers will pay to see a Chinese opera – especially when there are so many films to choose from.
More optimistically, Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled did prove a hit earlier this year. As a biopic on opera star Mei Lanfang, it included music from some of the country’s most loved productions. One section of the film even depicts Mei on a sellout promotional tour of the US in the 1930s.
Peking Opera’s goal of going global remains – or, more specifically, conquering America. On March 16, highlights of the opera Red Cliff were shown on eight screens in New York’s Times Square.
But even Peking Opera’s most ardent cheerleaders will know Yuan Chonghuan is likely to lose out to more mainstream box office fare.
But as Mei Lanfang’s own master points out in Forever Enthralled: “Shame lies not in losing, but in being too timid to win.” No one could accuse Xiao of being timid. As he says of Yuan Chonghuan: “Peking Opera can become a world language because it is beautiful. And the beauty of Peking Opera is magnified in this film.”
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