This is the second film I’ve seen recently that relates to opera and China, the other being the disappointing M. Butterfly. Thankfully, Ba wang bie ji is not a confused adaptation of a confused stage play; rather, it is a quality adaptation of a popular novel. Unfocused and abrupt in some sections, but expertly orchestrated in others, it tells an involving and epic story with often stunning visuals and confident direction.
While I was watching, I was struck by how much more substance was present than in Yimou Zhang’s recent epics, Ying xiong and Shi mian mai fu. Those films are stunningly beautiful and extremely entertaining, but they just don’t have the depth of Ba wang bie ji. Very basically, it’s a love story – two characters and their loves for the opera stage, a woman, and most of all each other – but their detailed exploration makes it more than that. These are complex characters, full of hope, sadness, regret, and great love that spills all over the screen; I remember someone referring to those Zhang films as ‘China discovering Shakespeare’, but to me this is more Shakespearean because it deals in important themes while telling a good story.
Because Mandarin is so different from English, I usually find Chinese acting stilted and awkward and lacking in emotion. Not so here. The three leads (Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang and Gong Li) are compelling and offer affecting portrayals of tragic characters; the child acting in the earlier Full Metal Jacket-esque scenes is also very good. In particular, Cheung is superb as the confused Dieyi; he has too much love to give, and it is heartbreaking to watch as it slowly destroys him. It is particularly sad to watch now, as he committed suicide three years ago.
I’m particularly unfocused with this review; perhaps that’s because the last half hour covered too much ground too quickly. A film of nearly three hours should feel complete and satisfying, and such feelings are nearly impossible when it crams a lot of plot development into the final reel. By that stage the themes are well established and we are just waiting for them to be rounded out, but the introduction of these plot elements is distracting. It’s not enough to derail the film, but I would like to think they could’ve spent a bit less time further back in time in order to give the later periods better coverage.
Overall it’s worth seeing, at the very least for a few scenes which were so good they sent shivers down my spine. It’s the best film I’ve seen from the Republic, and probably better than any Hong Kong film I’ve seen, too. Kaige Chen shows that he is an extremely capable director (I couldn’t believe this was the same guy who made Killing Me Softly), and the actors offer impressive characterisations. I guess my lack of focus with this review shows that I wasn’t completely struck by greatness, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have watched it in two goes. Another viewing, a complete viewing, would probably make my opinion more solid. It doesn’t matter; it’s good cinema.