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November 21, 2005

Two Hong Kong Dreams

The Blade
Tsui Hark - 1995
M.I.A. Video Region 2 DVD

Dream of the Red Chamber
Jin yu liang yuan gong lou meng
Li Han-Hsiang - 1977
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

The Blade is unlike Tsui Hark's other period films. Where the action is clear and easy to follow, such as in the Once Upon a Time in China series, here it is more difficult to follow. Tsui's visual choices are deliberate and make sense at the conclusion of the film. Unlike the other films that can be read from the point of view of an objective observer, the visual motifs of The Blade are very subjective, even without the use of point of view shots.

The point of view is expressed by voice-over narration by Ling, the daughter of a master sword-maker. Her love of two younger sword-makers, On and Iron Head, is counterpointed with On's search for the man who killed his father. The story is secondary to the cascade of imagery. Much of the film is shot with tight close-ups or quick medium shots that render the action as a series of abstract images. Dark blue, brown and black dominate the color scheme with period splashes of red and orange. Often the characters are shot in shadow, or are seen distantly as indistinct shapes. Much of the action takes place at night. If it is sometimes difficult to tell who is fighting who, the action on screen replicates the sense of a disoriented person caught in mayhem.

Ling seeks a clearer sense of self, a sense of belonging. This quest for identity, for being part of a family or country is a common theme for Tsui, identified as a Hong Kong filmmaker, although culturally an outsider having been born in what is now Viet-Nam. Of the dozen films that I've seen that Tsui either fully directed or supervised as a hands-on producer, The Blade is visually unique in its representation of events seen through the haze of memory, or opium dreams.

Dream of the Red Chamber is more like the technicolor dreams of Vincente Minnelli. The camparison is not too far off as the film belongs to the Huangmexixi genre, a regional form of Chinese opera, with a story of the heartbreak of love, family discord, and concerns of social standing. Between the themes of the narrative and the lush use of color, Dream of the Red Chamber shares elements of Gigi, Meet Me in St. Louis and Home from the Hill.

The story is about two cousins in unrequited love. The female cousin, Lin, is of fragile health. Her suitor, Bao Yu, is an impulsive young man. The film was the last of the genre, a victim of changing tastes in the Hong Kong market. Li's films were expensive by Hong Kong standards, and Dream of the Red Chamber has an undeniable polish that equals Hollywood productions. If the film represented old style Hong Kong filmmaking, two of the stars became associated with Hong Kong's new wave of film school trained directors, particularly Tsui Hark. The actress who played Lin, Sylvia Chang, also is a screen writer and director. Bao Yu was portrayed by Brigitte Lin, the first of several male roles she essayed.

I am hoping to find some text or texts explaining gender roles in Hong Kong films. In films like Come Drink with Me (1966) with Cheng Pei-pei, or Dragon Inn (1992) with Maggie Cheung, a female character is temporarily disguised as a man. Lin also stars in this version of Dragon Inn, and the sparks are quite palpable in the scenes where she flirts with Cheung. Lin appears as a somewhat delicate young man in Dream of the Red Chamber, but it seems almost inevitable that she would play a character named Asia the Invincible.

Posted by peter at November 21, 2005 04:40 PM