Forever Enthralled (Variety, Screen Daily Reviews)

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Forever Enthralled (Variety, Screen Daily Reviews)

Postby dleedlee » Wed Jan 14, 2009 4:36 am

"Forever Enthralled"

Written by Derek Elley
Wednesday, 14 January 2009

"Forever Enthralled" ("Mei Lanfang")
(China-Taiwan-Hong Kong-Malaysia)

A China Film Group (in China) release of a China Film Group Beijing Film Studio (China)/Fat Penguin Pictures Corp. (Malaysia)/Emperor Motion Pictures Intl. (Hong Kong) presentation of a China Film Group (China)/CMC Entertainment (Taiwan)/Emperor Motion Pictures (Hong Kong) production. (International sales: China Film Group, Beijing.) Produced by Han Sanping, Du Jiayi. Executive producers, Han, Dennis Wu, Albert Yeung. Directed by Chen Kaige. Screenplay, Yan Geling, Chen Kuo-fu, Zhang Jialu, based on writings by Mei Shaowu.

Mei Lanfang - Leon Lai
Meng Xiaodong - Zhang Ziyi
Qiu Rubai - Sun Honglei
Fu Zhifang - Chen Hong
Swallow 13 - Wang Xueqi
Feng Ziguang - Ying Da
Mei Lanfang (younger) - Yu Shaoqun
Zhi Huifang - Pan Yueming
Yan Huizhu - Li Shengsu
Tanaka - Masanobu Ando

Saddled at the last minute with an awkward English title, Chen Kaige's "Forever Enthralled" is an occasionally engaging but largely workmanlike biopic of in travesto Peking Opera performer Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) that rarely achieves the artistic elevation it strives for and needs to succeed. Film largely gets by on its strong supporting perfs, rather than those of its two star leads -- a wooden, badly miscast Leon Lai and a perky but too modern Zhang Ziyi (as Mei's lover). Unfamiliarity of the subject matter and a segmented script that's light on real dramatic development make this a tough sell outside Asia.

Made under the official eye of the Mei family, pic opened well but not gangbusters in China Dec. 5, reportedly crossing the 100 million yuan ($15 million) mark after three weeks, but was eclipsed as a popular year-end attraction by Feng Xiaogang's "If You Are the One." In Hong Kong, where it opened Jan. 1, it's been a specialty item, as it's likely to be elsewhere.

With its good-looking production values and evidently serious intent, the film goes some way toward reinstating Chen's international rep after a string of wobbly movies ("Killing Me Softly," "Together" and the rather unfairly derided manga-like fantasy "The Promise"). But despite much talk about artistry, commitment and personal-vs.-professional life, the lumpily developed script never gets to the heart of Mei's amazing talent, which bewitched audiences of the time and has since made him one of China's national treasures.

Subject begs comparisons with Chen's 1993 Palme d'Or winner "Farewell My Concubine," but it's a very different movie, with a much less sensuous flavor and without the earlier film's ambitions to be a potted political history of China as well. Unfortunately, the 2½-hour movie is an equally bumpy ride dramatically, falling into sections (rather than connected acts) that don't have much of an overall arc.

Best seg by far is the first, 70-minute one, which opens with Mei (newcomer Yu Shaoqun, a Yue Opera student) reading a letter from his uncle advising him to quit the profession or prepare himself for a tough struggle. Though we learn little of Mei's background and childhood, pic neatly conveys the fragile social position of opera performers at the time before jumping forward 10 years, when Mei has already established himself as a hot new name.

Aside from a superb perf by newcomer Yu, whose demeanor and body language convincingly meld the on- and offstage Meis, the all-male seg also has two mainland actors, Wang Xueqi and Sun Honglei, at the top of their game. Wang (whose involvement with helmer Chen goes all the way back to 1984's "Yellow Earth") is electric as vet opera performer Swallow 13, an invented character representing established talents of the time, whose standing Mei finally undermines with his innovative style. Their public "duel" is the pic's dramatic highlight, with Wang savoring every poisoned syllable of his stagy dialogue.

As the story jumps ahead to the grown Mei (Lai) now married to his second wife, Fu Zhifang (Chen Hong), Sun's perf as his manager-cum-confidant, Qiu Rubai (another script invention, standing in for the real Qi Rushan), provides the sole connecting thread. Though his character is later left to wither dramatically, Sun convincingly draws a man whose love for Mei's art (and maybe the man himself) brooks no compromises when it comes to protecting him from distractions.

Chief among these distractions is Meng Xiaodong (Zhang), a young female opera performer who falls for the older Mei. Following the hard, all-male opening seg, pic takes on a lighter, more feminine tone as the upfront Meng challenges Mei's graceful courtesy, but is progressively seen as a threat to Mei's career by his manager and his wife.

Though over-modern and lacking in nuance, Zhang's perf is solid enough in biopic terms, though there's little chemistry with Lai to suggest their brief but passionate real-life relationship and the threat to the status quo it represented.

After an OK reconstruction of Mei's 1930 perf on Broadway, pic moves ahead to its most confused seg, encompassing the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and Mei's famous refusal to perform for the invaders.
Viewers with any knowledge of Mei's life could justifiably carp about the number of invented characters, the script's fast and loose playing with the facts and the almost total lack of resemblance between most of the thesps and their real-life counterparts. Lai, in particular, has a tall, gaunt, northern demeanor totally at odds with the real Mei's chubby-faced but delicate features. None of this would matter if the pic were dramatically or emotionally engaging on its own terms, but it isn't.

Aside from Wang and Sun, acting kudos are also due Chen Hong as Mei's protective wife, and it's a shame the script never goes into their family life (Mei had four kids). Scenes featuring Hong Kong actress-singer Gillian Chung as the younger Fu have been completely cut from the movie, following the actress' involvement in a sex-photo scandal last year.
Production design and costuming are particularly strong in the first seg, with duds and makeup more biopic-stagy thereon. Zhao Jiping's score injects some feeling and neatly segues in and out of the early opera sequences -- which are often too long (and will feel especially so for foreign auds) and don't explain the secrets of Mei's virtuosity and innovation.

Camera (color, widescreen), Zhao Xiaoshi; music, Zhao Jiping; production designer, Liu Qing; costume designer, Chen Tongxun; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Danrong; artistic consultant, Mei Baojiu. Reviewed at Golden Harvest Shenzhen Cinemas 3, Shenzhen, China, Dec. 23, 2008. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 146 MIN.
(Mandarin, Japanese, English dialogue)
Last edited by dleedlee on Thu Feb 12, 2009 12:46 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Forever Enthralled (Variety Review)

Postby dleedlee » Thu Feb 12, 2009 12:45 am

Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang)

Dan Fainaru in Berlin
10 Feb 2009 13:18
Dir: Chen Kaige. China. 2008. 147mins.

In this ambitious but only partly successful film, Chen Kaige uses the life of Mei Lanfang, one of Peking Opera's greatest talents, to return again to the theme of the artist's position in society which he tackled in the Palme D'Or-winning Farewell My Concubine. A large, colourful and often fascinating period piece, this would have worked better either radically cut back from its 147 minute running time or in TV serial format. International audiences may also have difficulty with the extensive stage excerpts during the film's first and probably best hour.

Chen follows Mei, scion of a Peking Opera dynasty of stars, from his early youth, when the profession was only slightly more respectable than prostitution. Jumping forward 10 years (several more similar leaps will come later) young Mei is already a rising star, shy off-stage but always eager to learn more and in full command of the feminine roles for which he was to become famous. The centrepiece of this section is a competition between Mei and his master (Wang Xueqi).

After this, Forever Enthralled's stage sequences move to the background, and it changes focus to Mei's life; his up-and-down marriage to the business-minded Fu Zhifang (Chen Hong), his affair with a female star of the Peking Opera specialising in male characters, Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi), and the demands of his mentor Qiu (Sun Honglei) to accept the offer of an American tour. The final section covers the Japanese invasion of China, Mei's refusal to perform for the invaders, and a final coda which mentions the fact that he returned to the stage after the War, dying in 1961.

The theme of the artist's status in society is dealt with in the film's opening sequence and Forever Enthralled moves on to related topics, such as art versus entertainment, the responsibility of the artist to his public and to his art, loneliness as the price for creativity, and finally, politics and the artist. If there is a main conflict, it is between Mei and Qiu, a lawyer who abandons everything to take care of the artist he worships. Qiu's argument is that wars come and go but art is forever; this leads him to interfere in Mei's life to keep his career alive against the wishes of the artist himself.

This gorgeously shot, lavish production, feels, however, as if it has been cut radically to bring it down to its barely-manageable length. All the footage of Gillian Cheung playing Mei's wife at a young age has been removed, leading to a shortage of character groundwork. Mei's children also have the habit of appearing and disappearing at will. While Yu Shaoqun is a find for the young Mei, Leon Lai has neither the aura nor the temperament required by the part of the older singer. Sun Honglei's Qiu provides a complex character who might have been a dedicated aficionado of Peking Opera and of Mei's art, or perhaps he was just so obsessed with the artist that he could not leave him alone at any price. As for Zhang Ziyi, the film's biggest star, while she is as stunning to watch as ever, her lively insouciance makes her seem as if she belongs either in a different film or epoch.

Production companies
China Film Group Corporation
CMC Entertainment
Emperor Motion Pictures

International sales
CMC Entertainment
(886) 939 908622

Han San-ping
Du Jiayi

Yan Geling
Chen Kuo-fun
Zhang Jialu

Zhao Xiaoshi

Production design
Liu Qing

Zhou Ying

Zhao Jiping

Main cast
Leon Lai
Ziyi Zhang
Sun Honglei
Chen Hong
Ying Da
Wang Xueqi
Yu Shaoqun ... ryID=42976
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