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July 14, 2011

"A queer illness"

Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera
Siu Leung Li - 2003
Hong Kong University Press

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The Love Eterne/Liang Shan Bo yu Zhu Ying Tai
Li Han=hsiang - 1963
IVL Region 3 DVD

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Dream of the Red Chamber/Jin yu liang yuan hong lou meng
Li Han-hsiang - 1977
IVL Region 3 DVD

If there is any kind of English language overview about women playing the part of men in Hong Kong action films, I have yet to find it. The roles I am thinking of generally involve a woman who is in a situation temporarily forcing her to disguise herself. Probably the best known example in Chinese history and art is Mulan, the female general, even the subject of a Disney cartoon feature. My earliest exposure to this particular role was seeing Maggie Cheung briefly disguised as a young man in Dragon Inn, and one of the first Hong Kong films to feature a female action heroine, Come Drink with Me starring Cheng Pei-pei.

An inquiry with a female professor who has written about Chinese language films didn't answer my question. Instead, I was referred to writings about lesbian representation in Chinese language films. The upside was that in turn I was directed to some more good films I might not have seen. One of the books also referred to Siu Leung Li's book, Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Even though nothing specific about women playing the part of men in Hong Kong films has been answered, I feel like I'm starting to connect a few dots between some traditions in Chinese opera and Hong Kong film.

My problem with Li's book is that too much of it is queer theory, and not enough is history. What I have been able to glean for my particular purposes is that the earliest known examples of female actors performing male roles took place during the Third Century. There were acting troupes that were all female and well as some that were both male and female. Even in the mixed troupes, female actors would sometimes play the lead male role. While nothing is stated, I have to assume that the inspiration for the Shaw Brothers to start the process of story lines involving women disguised as men came from certain strands of Chinese opera.

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One of the stories the Li refers to, "The Butterfly Lovers", has been retold multiple times in different on stage and film. Essentially, a young woman with scholarly ambitions convinces her parents to allow her to go to school disguised as a young man. The girl's desire to study is described by her father as, "a queer illness". Perhaps unintended but the line also adds to the reading of the film, as do some other lines and scenes, particularly one suggesting same sex marriage. Adding to the confusion, at least for western viewers, is that the students are played by a mix of female and male actors. While at school, she make friends with another young scholar. The young women hides her romantic feelings, and manages to also hide her true identity over a three year period. Still pretending to be a young man, she arranges to have her friend become engaged to the "twin sister" at home. The young woman discover her parents have arranged marriage to another man. The young scholar, meanwhile, has died prematurely, discovering that the truth about his friend but also heartbroken that they can not marry. On the night of her arranged marriage, the young woman stops at the tomb of her would-be love. The tomb opens and the young woman jumps in. Two butterflies emerge, flying away together.

The story has been staged and filmed traditionally with two women in the lead roles. As such, it lends itself to multiple readings as simultaneously a love story between two men, two women, and a man and a woman. While the main role is of a woman who disguises herself as a man, the other lead is that of a male. One of the most famous film versions is The Love Eterne, written and directed by Li Han-hsiang. There is no way one can watch this film and not mistake Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po for two women, even when they are suppose to be appearing as two men. Ling not only became a major star, with a significant female fan base, but appeared in other films of the Huangmeixi Opera genre, in male roles.

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Li Han-hsiang not only was the one to create the genre with Diau Charn in 1958, but he also closed it almost twenty years with Dream of the Red Chamber. The two stars, Sylvia Chang and Brigitte Lin, would be better known internationally for their work with younger, frequently western educated filmmakers. Chang would also be known as a respected writer and director. Tsui Hark would make use of Lin's peculiar beauty in such films as Peking Opera Blues and Swordman II. Of the films I've seen her in, Brigitte Lin has never appeared more feminine than in Dream of the Red Chamber, where she plays the male lead. Lin first appears prancing with a pinwheel in hand. Again, there is the stage tradition of a woman playing the part of a young male scholar. Not only does Lin look more feminine here, but she acts more feminine, especially when the young scholar has emotional outbursts. There is also a female actor, Niu Niu, who plays the small role of a male actor visiting the mansion where the film takes place.

The scene with Niu Niu is of interest in that it discusses the standing of actors in "classical" Chinese society. As the character puts it, an actor's status was above that of musicians and prostitutes, but less than a dog. Seeing The Love Eterne and Dream of the Red Chamber together, both beautifully restored on DVD, one also notices Li Han-hsiang's use of lateral tracking shots, usually from right to left, as well as his astute use of studio sets blending both the artificial and the natural elements. Interestingly, both films were made as competing productions, with Li's version of The Love Eterne totally displacing Cathay Studios production, directed by Li's mentor. At the time Li made Dream of the Red Chamber, there was another version being filmed starring the woman Li had made a star, Ivy Ling Po.

What probably aided the popularity of the Huanmeixi films is that the subject was romantic love versus arranged marriages, or couplings dictated by social roles. Having films with two female leads could be seen as a way for some to enjoy a film about same sex love at a time when such issues were not yet addressed by Chinese language filmmakers, even if events turn out tragically for the lovers. John Woo, no stranger to homoerotic interpretations of his films, turned the concept of the woman disguised as a man around in Red Cliff. In Woo's film, Vickie Zhou, a member of a royal family, infiltrates an enemy camp as a soldier. Disguised as a man, she becomes emotionally close to a good hearted, if naive, soldier. The relationship is doomed sexually, socially and politically. Zhou's own career brings the idea of woman disguised as men back to its classic beginning as she also played the title role of Mulan.

The DVD supplements to The Love Eterne and Dream of the Red Chamber also include discussions from several Shaw Brothers veterans that assist in putting the Huangmeixi films in context in regards to Chinese language films. It should also be noted that while Shaw Brothers was based in Hong Kong, where the dominant dialogue was Cantonese, the films were released in Mandarin and were hugely popular in Taiwan. What is needed is more English language material to understand how some of the gender issues raised in the films, both in subject matter and presentation, were understood within their original time and for the intended audience, rather than the filters of contemporary western culture.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 14, 2011 08:09 AM