Chinese director Chen Kaige did the Chinese proud by directing Farewell My Concubine in 1993, which turns out to be the first Chinese film to receive an Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Features (1994) and brings home The Golden Palm Awards in 1994 Cannes Film Festival.
Farewell tells us a story of 2 Peking opera actors and the bond shared between both from the 1930's till the early 90's. Today, Chen wants to bring the magic back again, and here we have his latest feature, Forever Enthralled. Also known as Mei Lanfang in Mandarin, the film serves to be a tribute to the late Peking opera master, Mei Lanfang, who was not only well known for portraying female roles in the play, but also being the first Chinese actor to performed in America.
Sad to the say, the magic seems to fail despite placing lots of effort to bring the life story of the late Peking opera master to screen.
In a duration of 147 minutes, you will see the life of Mei in three stages: teenager, young adult in his 20's, and a more matured Mei in his 40's. Featuring Leon Lai as Mei in his adulthood and Sun Honglei as Qiu Rubai, the movie should be renamed as 'Mei Lanfang and Qiu Rubai - The Two Sworn Brothers'. This can be supported with Qiu Rubai attracted and bedazzled with Mei's skills in portraying a female role, which leads him to support Mei's career in various ways.
From the young Mei Lanfang competing with his actor grandfather, short romance with fellow actress Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi) after married to another fellow actress Fu Zhifang (Chen Hong), to how he refused to performed for the Japanese during World War 2, Qiu Rubai has always been with Mei Lanfang in all ways.
The main highlight of the film which keeps the audience going on for more will be the first 50 minutes of the film. A teenage Mei (Yu Shaoqun) was a famous actor, which makes him to go a path less traveled by changing the style in a Peking opera. The conflict between his grandfather and Mei shows how Mei wants to change the presentation of the opera, so as to live up to the words left by his great grandfather, where Mei is to bring Peking opera to a new level where actors gained their respects. By defying his grandfather's wishes and creates a new play, Mei has become more famous than ever, which leads him to his stardom for the next few decades.
This is the only part of the story that really lives up to the title. The moment Mei reaches adulthood, the story has fall flat, unfortunately. Even when Chen Kaige wants to highlight the important point of Mei being the first Chinese actor to perform in America, it fails to salvage the remaining parts of the story. Being the most important point of the story, it was given a mere 10 minutes to summarize Mei's fame in America. Yu Shaoqun shines as a young Mei, where not only he was given ample time to portray his inner struggle, but also appears in various plays in the film. Leon, however, doesn't get much chance to put on the thick makeup and impersonates the beauties of the past in his play.
Too much focuses were given to Mei's romance with Meng, and how Mei refused to performed for the Japanese. Zhang's appearance of Meng takes up only 30 minutes of the story, despite being highlighted as the leading actress. Apart from a bad dubbed over during her opera performances, Zhang wasn't given much chance to explore her role. Chen Hong gets a bigger share in terms of appearances, but less lines. Her appearance as a middle-aged Fu Zhifang is a replacement of younger Fu Zhifang, portrayed by Gillian Chung. Chung's appearance in the film has been removed after the nude photo scandal in 2008, which has unfortunately, damaged part of the film. One will not know how Mei befriends Fu and in the later years of their life, husband and wife.
It was Sun Honglei who makes the film watchable. Playing Qiu Rubai from an adult to an elderly, his influence towards Mei has changed Mei's life, which was described in detail.
It is not surprising that one will compare Forever Enthralled with Farewell My Concubine. In all, Mei Lanfang shines in the real life, but Farewell My Concubine will still be everyone's favorite in reel life.
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