Movie Review: Peking Opera Blues (Hong Kong, 1986)

The Middle Kingdom has collapsed. As a democratic government struggles to find its feet, several factions are jockeying for power. In the chaos in a general’s mansion, traveling musician Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung) bops a hapless soldier, Tung Man (Cheung Kwok-Keung), on the head with her instrument, and scampers off with a box of valuable jewelry. To evade the police, led by Inspector Liu (Feng Ku), she stashes the box on a cart belonging to a theater troupe. It shouldn’t be too hard to follow it to the theater, sneak in backstage, and collect it, right?

At that very theater, manager Master Wong (Wu Ma) is struggling to get tonight’s production off on schedule. His daughter, Bai Niu (Sally Yeh), isn’t helping. She wants to be in the show, but he knows well enough that the theater is no place for a young lady. Especially because any distinguished guest might want to order an actress to come home with him – and the manager would be powerless to refuse.

One of those “distinguished guests” could be General Tsao (Kenneth Tsang), who is on the rise in the local game of “king of the hill”. What he doesn’t know is that his recently returned from abroad daughter, Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), has sided with the new democratic government. In cooperation with a young army officer, Pak Hoi (Mark Cheung), she’s plotting to pilfer the documents that would prove dad is in cahoots with foreigners to pretty much sell out the country.

Can these three young ladies find happiness, friendship, and success?

It is entirely possible to see this as some sort of Chinese “Charlie’s Angels” without Charlie, if that’s what you want. It’s definitely got the “Fempowerment” thing going on. The two main male characters, Tung Man (and yes, that’s the name of the character*) and Pak Hoi, turn into love interests, but they are not there to save the ladies. They can handle themselves once they’re in a fight, but they are the ones who need rescuing from jail.

Director Tsui Hark learned filmmaking in the US in the early 70s – about the same time as another “New Wave” of American flimmakers was getting started. Whether he was influenced by them or not, when he went back to Hong Kong, he was tagged as one of that group, and would even be compared to Steven Spielberg. Like them, he’d take the usual genres, and reinterpret them in new ways. Peking Opera Blues is something of a tribute / homage to traditional Chinese opera. Not only are scenes from some of the classics played out on the stage of the theater as part of the plot, there are a bunch of other references, call-backs, and “Easter eggs” to other operas.

Kenneth Tsang and Brigitte Lin are fantastic in their scenes together as General Tsao and his revolutionary daughter Tsao Wan; the familial love and respect comes across – as well as the sadness Tsao Wan feels as her duty requires that she betray her father. There are also plenty of purely comic scenes of the sort that are funny without needing to be translated.

And, of course, there’s tons of action! What else would you expect from Hong Kong cinema? Note to self: Don’t get into a huge brawl in a theater, where the entire theater company is on the other side. All those trap doors, stage rigging, curtains…. It’s pretty convenient that the gunslinging bad guys seem to have their weapons on the “Always Miss” setting (for the most part). Well, if you’re going to have a happy ending, only the people who deserve it should die – not henchmen or bystanders.

The ending, by the way, is happy – just not what you’d expect. It does fit right in with the era in which the movie is set, though. Not quite the usual “they got married and lived happily ever after”, but they all emerge from the chaos unscathed, and free to head off to more adventures. In it’s own way, it’s perfectly satisfying.

* Regarding names, you’re going to find LOTS of variations in the names of the actors. It seems to be standard with Asian cinema – the “round eyes” and “Foreign Devils” can’t get their tongues around the correct names, so they’ll create any number of pseudonyms. I hope I’ve gotten them as close to correct as I can.

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