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  • DIAU CHARN (1958), the first color film made at Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio, is a Huangmei opera/costume drama adapted from a story told in the classic Chinese text, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." Hong Kong superstar Linda Lin Dai (1934-64) plays the title character, an orphaned girl who works for a government minister in ancient China (ca. 190 A.D.) and is recruited to participate in a plot to topple the cruel tyranny of Prime Minister Dong Zuo. To sum up the plot line, the minster, Wang Yun (Yang Chi-ching), has Diau Charn masquerade as his daughter and, during a visit to the Prime Minister's palace, he promises the girl to the Prime Minister's adopted son, General Lu Bu (Chao Lei), who is quite taken with her (and she with him). The crafty Wang Yun then visits the Prime Minister, Dong Zuo (Lo Wei) and he promises Diau Charn to him as well. Dong Zuo thereupon takes her as his mistress and sets her up in his house right away. When the lovestruck General Lu discovers this, he angrily protests, but Wang Yun lies about it in an effort to turn General Lu against Dong Zuo. Eventually, after the inevitable clash, Wang Yun confronts Diau Charn with yet another task, one that places her in an untenable moral dilemma.

    It's a fairly simple story, told with great intensity and featuring only four main characters. Much of the dialogue is sung, in the Huangmei Opera style, with characters singing their positions back and forth. As a fan of this kind of storytelling (see LOVE ETERNE and THE GRAND SUBSTITUTION, both also reviewed on this site), I found the whole thing quite compelling. I like the type of music employed here and the particular rhythms used to guide the singing of the dialogue. Linda Lin Dai played in many films of this type and her florid acting style was well-suited to the genre. The viewer's interest is also sustained throughout by the overall design of the film with its beautiful rich colors and lavish, well-appointed sets and costumes.

    This release is one of the latest batch of restored/remastered Shaw Bros. films put out by Celestial Pictures/IVL. It opens up an area of Hong Kong film history that has not been the most accessible. It joins such other restored Shaw Bros. color Huangmei Opera films as THE KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY (1959) and BEYOND THE GREAT WALL (1959), both also starring Linda Lin Dai, and THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE (1960, aka YANG KWEI FEI), starring Li Li-hua, as well as numerous later productions.

    The Celestial/IVL release of DIAU CHARN comes with a supplement offering six short segments making up a compilation tribute to Lin Dai. There are contemporary interviews, but they're in Cantonese and Mandarin with no English subtitles. The longest segment is a 19-minute b&w news film produced by Shaw and called, "A Tribute to Lin Dai," which was most likely shown in theaters in late 1964. It has a female narrator and is mostly subtitled in English, although there are several long stretches of narration without subs. It shows Lin Dai's apartment after her death, recalls her 1961 wedding and all the media fuss around it, and shows footage of an exhibition devoted to her mounted in Hong Kong's City Hall and the crowd it drew. We also see the star-studded gala premiere of THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG, which took place on August 26, 1964, a month after Lin Dai's suicide. (It wasn't Lin Dai's final film; she still had about four others in the can when she died, including THE BLUE AND THE BLACK, Parts 1 & 2, also reviewed on this site, as is LAST WOMAN OF SHANG.)

    ADDENDUM (8/10/09): I re-watched the Japanese animated film, GREAT CONQUEST: ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS (1992), aka SANGOKUSHI, which I've also reviewed on IMDb, and which is based on the same source material as DIAU CHARN. When I last saw it a few years ago, however, I was unfamiliar with the story of Diau Charn (or Diaochan as she's named in the edition of the book I own) or the Hong Kong film about her. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered that the animated version includes a sequence about halfway through it that compresses the entire story of Diau Charn into seven minutes.