1 January 2016 | BrianDanaCamp
THE BUTTERFLY CHALICE – Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera
THE BUTTERFLY CHALICE, produced in 1963, but not released till 1965, is a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera production in which portions of the dialogue are sung. (I would estimate a third of the dialogue, with the two leads doing most of the singing.) It tells a simple tale of a magistrate's son (Chin Feng) and a fisherman's daughter (Pat Ting Hung) and how they come together after he has accidentally killed a man who had bullied the fisherman (Tien Feng) and caused his death. The dead man is the son of the local Governor-General (Ching Miao), who puts pressure on the magistrate to turn in his son. The son becomes a fugitive and is aided in his escape by Feng-lian, the Fisherman's daughter, on whom he bestows the chalice of the title, a family heirloom, as a betrothal gift and sends her to his parents. While on the run, he winds up helping the Governor-General defeat a pack of bandits and, under an assumed name, becomes the Governor-General's adopted son and together they drive the bandits away. Eventually, the case is revived and the magistrate's son has to face the music for his earlier action, despite his new status.
The film offers an interesting glimpse of the judicial process in Old China, with the Governor-General making numerous demands but being held in check by a panel of ministers who insist on more concrete evidence and a search for more witnesses. At some point, when it looks like it's all been resolved, the fisherman's daughter, still seeking justice for her father, makes demands of her own. In so many Shaw Bros. films like this, harsh punishment is meted out, often on those falsely accused or who at least deserve leniency because of mitigating circumstances, but here a much milder version of justice is, thankfully, in play.
This is the first directing credit for Chang Cheh, listed as co-director with Yuan Chiu-Feng. Chang quickly went on to become the Shaw Bros. studio's leading director of kung fu and swordplay films right up to the early 1980s, so it seems like quite a stretch to see his name on a Huangmei Opera production. However, there is a fight scene midway through the film in which General Shi, played by Lo Lieh, the future star of so many Chang Cheh martial arts films, takes on a pack of bandits with a two-pronged spear and leaves a lot of bloody corpses, a clear sign of Chang's participation. I'm not as familiar with the co-director, Yuan Chiu-Feng, who's only done a couple of films that I've seen, THE DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1962) and DUEL AT THE SUPREME GATE (1968).
I don't know who sings for Pat Ting Hung or if she does her own singing, but it's a beautiful voice. Miss Hung went on to co-star in such films as THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG and THE BLUE AND THE BLACK, PARTS 1 & 2 and played the title role in PRINCESS IRON FAN. I've reviewed all four films on this site. The cast is filled with familiar Shaw Bros. actors who can do these kinds of roles in their sleep and are always a pleasure to watch, including Ching Miao, Tien Feng and Li Kun. I was particularly pleased to see Li Ying, who played the tyrannical minister in THE GRAND SUBSTITUTION (1965), turn up here as a much more benign authority figure.