The history of modern China is a turbulent mess. Rocked by the invasion of the Japanese during World War II, the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution, the people of China have seemed to endured it all with such grace. And yet they are still reeling under a communism that is at times suppressive and at other times surprisingly liberal. Has the revolutions, the wars, the destabilization of several different governments been worth it? In the lives of two men who perform in China’s Peking Opera, I don’t think it was.
Dieyi and Xiaolou play two young men who forever linked in their roles on the stage. One plays a concubine to the other king character. They are both suited for their respective roles in ways that they could not for see at first. Dieyi is a homosexual with a grace and presence of a woman. He is in love Xiaolou and wants nothing more than to be with him the rest of his life. Xiaolou is a heterosexual who rejects Dieyi’s love and instead decides to marry a prostitute, played with such devilish vivacity by Gong Li. Their three lives intersect again and again as they struggle to keep a tradition alive even in the most acidic of circumstances. Their whole lives revolve around the Opera and they will live and die in turn by the opera. At the beginning of the film, having only seen Peking Opera in passing, I was taken aback by the peculiarity of the performances. But as the film goes on and I get more and more involved with their lives, their performances take on something that seems otherworldly on stage. You see Dieyi and Xiaolou perform the same passages from the same opera again and again and yet each performance is so wildly different in the emotional presence behind them. I wonder if I will still have the emotional response I had with those performances if I see a real Peking Opera performance.
This film is an epic in every sense of the word. Spanning decades of China’s history, the two characters are woven into the fabric of each destabilizing event. This comes with comprising ideals, oppression, retribution for being different, and of course persecution. But not only is the plot epic, but so is the cinematography. When Dieyi escapes his training school to see a real Peking Opera performed for the first time, the contrast between the murky browns of the school and vivid yellows and reds express the wonder that Dieyi feels. I am usually not a big fan of epics, but this one really impressed me. There is so much that I can point and say yes that works well, but then it would devolve into just a laundry list of things. So I will give up here. See the film. But only if you have two and half hours to spare.