Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review - The Peony Pavilion

July 23, 2020

Peony Pavilion, The – Hong Kong, 2001

There are stories that demand a longer running time. Suffice to say, Yon Fan’s The Peony Pavilion is one of them. In fact, I would venture to say that about eight hours are needed to adequately tell the story that Fan jams into just over 120 minutes. Predictably, the results are mixed. While the film’s central story of forbidden - and perhaps unacted on – love is magnificently told, many of its subplots receive so little attention that when they come back, it is hard to believe that they were as important as they are made out to be. Take the character of Butler Yee, for instance. He appears in roughly five minutes of the film, hardly speaks, helps out Cui Hua, his employer’s fifth wife, and then heads off to a war that he doesn’t return from. The character didn’t make much of an impression on me, yet there was Cui Hua sobbing later on in the film after learning of his death.

The Peony Pavilion is about two young women, Cui Hua (Rie Miyazawa) and Lan Rong  (Joey Wang). Cui Hua is the fifth wife referenced earlier, while Lan Rong is her sister-in-law. One look at the way they stare into each other’s eyes while singing operatic standards – Cui Hua in tradition attire, Lan Rong in a two-piece suit - is enough to know there’s a bit more to it than that - at least internally. The film begins with a preface – that everything we are about to see exists only in dreams now, and for a moment, that nostalgic sentiment seems to apply to some golden yesteryear in which a family had wealth, kids respected their elders, and the family courtyard was frequently filled with singing and dancing. As the action commences, though, we soon realize that these so-called golden days were also times of financial waste, massive opium addiction, and a general sense of indifference to anything from the outside world that didn’t have anything to do with fashion or items that the head of the house could use to flaunt his wealth. In fact, that explains why Cui Hua joined the family. The master simply had to have his own opera singer.

The film makes frequent jumps back and forth in time, and in its scenes set later on, we watch Lan Rong, sans the make-up and fancy clothing, making a living as a teacher, having clearly been ostracized from her family. Eventually Cui Hua and her daughter, Pearl, come to stay with her, and they begin to have the life together that would never have been possible within the confines of Lan Rong’s family home. Everything seems to be going swimmingly until a young government official named Zhi Gang (Daniel Wu) threatens to come between them. Oh, did I mention that Zhi Gang is a man?

In other words, The Peony Pavilion is a movie about relationships, perhaps too many of them to do them all justice. There’s the moving and involving relationship between Cui Hua and Lan Rong; a mostly unexplored one concerning Cui Hua and Bulter Yee; an intense physical attraction that develops between Lan Rong and Zhi Gang; and the slightly incomplete bond between Cui Hua and Pearl. In other words, there’s far too much for the film to cover satisfactorily in two hours. The film is at its best when it focuses on Cui Hua and Lan Rong, and I would loved to have seen a few normal conversations between the two of them – you know, the kind most of us have around the dinner table or on the couch after a long day at work. I’d love to have heard them talk about their relationship and society’s reaction to it. Sadly, the film has no time for such trivialities. So, Zhi Gang never evolves into anything more than a very fit hunk; Pearl is portrayed as the perfect child, thereby justifying the exclusion of additional scenes with her; and Butler Yee remains a convenient sacrifice.

The film is beautifully shot, and there is honesty in its early scenes at the big house. In most films, performances are presented as sacred; here, children run around singers as they are performing, whispering questions to their parents, and getting answers from characters most movies would depict as giving their complete attention to the entertainers.  I loved these scenes. I also cherished the adorable moments when Lan Rong just can’t resist joining Cui Hua in song, and a scene in which she and Cui Hua dance across the terrace is just perfect. But the film cuts corners and suffers as a result. By the time the credits rolled, I had far more questions than answers. Sometimes this is a sign of a great film, but on this occasion, it was a reflection of frustration, of the awareness of the potential for the source material and a feeling that what I had experienced represented a missed opportunity. Maybe there’s a director’s cut. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 stars

*The Peony Pavilion is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

No comments: