This is a biographical film about Mei Lanfang, who lived from 1894 to 1961, and is generally regarded as China's greatest opera singer. He began his career at the age of 10, but the film concentrates on his life in the years 1919 to 1937.
I had great problems getting used to the film. I felt uncomfortable watching it for the first 90 minutes, after which I finally got a feel for it and enjoyed the last hour. The problem is that I know nothing about opera, and even less about Chinese opera. As my Chinese readers will verify, Mei Lanfang is a woman's name. He was born as Wan Hua, but later changed his name when he became famous for appearing on stage as a woman. That was obviously common in China at the time. On stage he dressed like a woman, moved like a woman and sang with a woman's voice. I strongly dislike female impersonators, even though the Chinese opera singers of the early 20th Century were completely different to the drag queens who perform on Birmingham's Hurst Street.
Mei married when he was young, but had problems with his wife from the beginning. She was domineering and tried to control his life. When he was going through emotional problems and felt unable to sing, his wife didn't try to comfort him, she just called him "useless". It's no surprise that he began an affair with a fellow singer, Meng Xiaodong, a woman who performed on stage as a man. That seems so ridiculous to me. Why should the men be women and the women men?
|Mei Lanfang on the left, Meng Xiaodong (with false beard) on the right.|
|Mei Lanfang on the left, Meng Xiaodang (without beard) on the right.|
Apart from revolutionising the style of Chinese opera, Mei Lanfang was the first Chinese opera singer to appear in other countries. In the 1930's the Peking Opera performed in America and all over Europe. As a reaction to the Japanese invasion of Peking in 1937 Mei announced his retirement. The Japanese wanted him to sing for propaganda purposes, to show that a leading Chinese celebrity supported the Japanese, but he refused, and he went as far as having a doctor inject him with drugs to make him incapable of performing. After the Japanese were defeated in 1945 he came out of retirement and performed until his death in 1961.
My reason for watching this film on a subject that doesn't usually interest me is that it stars Zhang Ziyi as Meng Xiaodong. She's one of the most beautiful actresses I know, but the beard doesn't suit her.