#286 Peking Opera Blues

(1986, Tsui Hark)
刀馬旦

A while ago, I reviewed Once Upon A Time In China, a movie which was frequently presented to me as a serious film about Chinese history, and then it turned out to be a chop-socky kung fu flick. Well, Peking Opera Blues, from the same director, appears to have the same issue. Presented as a serious drama surrounding Peking opera, it’s actually a slightly silly action film. But is it any good?

Peking Opera Blues is set in 1913 Peking, centred on a rebellion against the government of the time. The story features three female leads who form an unlikely team: Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), a general’s daughter secretly plotting against her father, Bai Niu (Sally Yeh), the daughter of a Peking opera impresario, and Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a young musician searching for a box of stolen jewels.

Peking Opera Blues starts by throwing everything at us. Here’s a general’s daughter who likes to dress like a man! Here’s a musician trying to steal some jewels! Here’s some Peking opera! Here’s a huge rebellion! HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS!

The problem is, this initially leads to the viewer being horrendously overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot points and general goings-on, and it isn’t really a good way to start. For probably the first half-hour of the movie, I was lost. Too much was happening and too little was being explained and I was all set to hate everything.

But then the movie started getting somewhat silly. Over-the-top action sequences exploded onto the screen and the movie started chucking jokes around constantly, and my opinion dramatically changed. These action sequences are consistently excellent, with excellent choreography blending with expert comic timing, and it made the movie a lot of fun to watch.

It’s all basically what you’d expect from a heavily choreographed Hong Kong movie. We get crazy martial arts mixing into traditional Peking opera performances, tons of wire-work and fist fights, and some dramatic escape sequences too. Of course, I still don’t know why the film is presented as a serious drama about opera, because it really isn’t.

Also around this time, the movie starts being clearer about who our protagonists are, especially when they form their alliances, and the plot starts falling into place. Even better, once the confusion clears up, it becomes apparent that all of the leads are charming and likeable.

What’s more, this enhances the action. As the movie progresses, we start caring more and more about our protagonists and we want them to succeed. As I watched them flail around and generally kick ass, I felt myself cheering them on, wanting everything to turn out well. Silly scenes mixed in with all this, such as a series of scenes where the trio get drunk and then try and hide from Bai Niu’s father in her bedroom, add to the fun immensely.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. There is a desire to tell a serious story in here, and sometimes things can be a bit jarring at times. As an example, after lots of silly over-the-top action sequences and buddy comedy jokes, there’s a genuinely gruesome torture scene that threw me completely. It felt so out of place in such a fun movie that I began to wonder if I was beginning to watch a completely different movie.

It also still never consistently explains its central plot. Sure, we care about our characters and we know that the generals are bad people and we should be rooting for the rebels, but…there’s no backstory. Stuff just happens and we’re expected to understand. It’s a little bit disappointing, really.

But overall, Peking Opera Blues isn’t a disappointment. It’s a blast to watch, and hilarious to boot. Definitely recommended for fans of Hong Kong cinema.

Starring Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh, Paul Chun, Wu Ma & Kenneth Tsang
Written by Raymond To
Produced by Claudia Chung Jan & Hark Tsui
Music by James Wong
Cinematography by Hang-Sang Poon
Edited by David Wu

Favourite Scene: The drunken hang-out scene and the following bedroom scene with about four people hiding under a blanket.
Scene That Bugged Me: That torture scene really doesn’t fit at all.

Watch it if: You enjoy Hong Kong cinema
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a serious movie about the history of Peking opera

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Posted on May 20, 2014, in 1980s, Action, China, Historical, Political. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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