Wednesday, August 29, 2012

TV Bites: Peking Opera Blues (刀馬旦 - Dao Ma Dan)

THE SNACK:
Yam Dumplings (芋頭角 - Wu Gok)


Okay, this is part two of the Chinese dim sum double bill. (Actually, it's a quasi-triple bill as the next movie, even though not a Chinese-themed film, is paired with another Chinese dish. So stay tuned!)

Back in 1988, Film Comment magazine published an article on Hong Kong Cinema. Up until then, the only thing I knew about movies from there were the chop-socky and Bruce Lee films my friends into martial arts dug. I knew a little about Jackie Chan, but of the other films I'd seen, I didn't care too much for. But this article got me excited. There was a lot about John Woo, Tsui Hark (pronounced Choy Hok), and Ringo Lam. I jotted down some of the titles of films they mentioned, like A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, and Peking Opera Blues.

The problem was no "regular" video store had any of these films. So what's a fella to do? I headed down to LA's Chinatown and found a little hole-in-the-wall video store there. I bought a membership and just started from one end of their stack and worked my way through them all, renting five titles at a time. Some were certainly better than others, but I was getting an education in what was happening over there. I also started to go regularly to the movie theater in Chinatown once a week and watch whatever was there.

I tried to get my friends to watch these videos with me, but they weren't interested. They couldn't get past the typically poor subtitles nor the often complex (or confusing) plot lines. A couple of years into this obsession, through some mutual friends I got to know Gary Goldman (who is a very nice fellow and co-wrote Big Trouble in Little China - which as I write this realizing that this would have been a perfect film to pair with Chinatown, but too late now), and finally I had found someone to talk about this stuff with. What a relief! Right about that time, the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, started having these week-long Hong Kong movie festivals wherein they would show newer films that were not yet available on video at my little Chinatown store.

By 1992, Reservoir Dogs came out and Quentin Tarantino acknowledged he had been highly influenced by Ring Lam's City on Fire (and which I had been trying to convince anyone to option for me so I could write an American version of. But such is life.) Yet because of Tarantino, the floodgates of fandom were now open as Hong Kong movies grew greater audiences in the West (making available so many films to be seen - and be made - that we might never have).

As Chef du Cinema continues, there will be many more Hong Kong classics (and Chinese food recipes to accompany them) appearing here, for sure, but I decided to start with this one as it is yet another of these movies that whenever I need a good movie fix, it always entertains and puts me in a good mood. It's not a hard-boiled action movie, though it does have a bit of a graphic torture sequence. It's an action-comedy. Yet not a broad comedy as Hong Kong often delivers, and if I may, is Shakespearean in its way.

Peking Opera Blues is available for purchase from Amazon. (I do recommend the Fortune Star release on DVD/BluRay because the previous DVD transfers have crappy subtitles. These are moderately better. It's a real shame many of these distributors don't give a damn about their product for the most part.)

THE MOVIE:

"Do you want them to know we've got a girl in the theater company? I'll lose face! Go wash your face! You always dream of being on the stage, but what can you perform? If you want to be an actor... reincarnate as a man!"

Peking Opera Blues is one of those films which typically thrills viewers, but almost every review I've read stumbles in trying to explain why the film is so thrilling. Is it one of those things that you just have to experience that defies mere words? Or could it be that its inability to be defined is part of what makes it so good. Who knows?

On first viewing, and especially if you are a nascent student of Hong Kong cinema, you have to allow for no expectations. The film's co-producer/director, Tsui Hark (again, that's pronounced Choy Hok), is often compared to Steven Spielberg, especially with this film. While it has a lot to do with their mutual love for slapstick and adventure films of the past, perhaps more specifically at the time it first came out, it came two years after Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, with its famed nightclub fight sequence (which was inspired from Hong Kong movies, and has been suggested may have been an influence on Hark). But as Hark has said of the Spielberg comparison, "That's unfair to him, I think. It's unfair to me too... He's so rich."

Hark was part of a new wave of Hong Kong filmmakers who had studied overseas in the 1970s - in fact, Hark studied film right here in Austin, Texas. He worked for a time in New York, then returned to Hong Kong and began directing television programs and then graduated into feature films. He eventually started his own production company, flying in special effects technicians from the US to slicken up the quality of the films he was co-producing. His producing partner is also his wife, Shi Nansun, whom Film Comment magazine noted, is "[o]ne of the smartest, best-loved, and most powerful women in Hong Kong film; she and Tsui were the dynamic duo of the Nineties. He was making the movies and she was making the deals."

Now I've watched Peking Opera Blues a dozen times or more and have never felt the need of a history lesson to enjoy it, or as one reviewer put it: "You need a fairly thorough-going grasp of the political and factional fall out from China's 1911 revolution to make sense of the plot... Happily, the plot doesn't matter. The film is a speed-crazed riff on what happens when a spy melodrama meets a backstage comedy: Feydeau with blood at 150 beats per minute."

I'm here to help you grasp (perhaps) a slight grasp of the time period in which the story takes place (even IMDB has this all wrong), so here goes - but with the disclaimer that in no way am I a Chinese history scholar, so don't use this to study for your final exam. Okay? So, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen spent several decades in exile trying to bring democracy to China. By 1912, it appeared he had succeeded and was named president by the new provisional democratic government. However, by early 1913, hoping avert a civil war, he offered to step down and give the presidency to Army General Yuan Shikai, a "former" warlord who basically ruled Northern China. But Yuan wasn't really interested in something as messy as democracy. He wanted to control all of China - a new dynasty with himself as supreme ruler. And by 1915, he had dissolved the new government, declared himself the "Great Emperor of China," and ordered the arrest of Sun Yat-sen who fled back into exile.

Got that part? Okay. Let's move on.... The film is set in 1913 in Northern China. Various minor generals (aka warlords) under Yuan were squabbling over their fiefdoms. As the film opens, a General Tsao has won control of the city from General Tun by beating him in a game of mahjong rendering him broke and must flee his palace in fear that his soldiers will revolt over not getting paid. Meanwhile, a pro-democracy underground has received word that General Tsao is planning a meeting with nefarious Western interests who wish to pledge money to help Yuan realize his imperial plan (and probably plunder their natural resources in return). Two "freedom-fighting" spies are assigned the task of getting this document in the hopes that once brought to the government's attention, it will stop Yuan's political machinations. One is a Ling Pak-Hoi, a handsome young man, who is a little too quick to draw his gun. The other is General Tsao's daughter, Tsao Wan. Beautiful and smart, she is her father's pride and joy. Now add to this that Wan has just returned from studying in the West and dresses in Western-style men's clothes with her hair cut short like a man's, for as she says, it allows her "to move more freely."

As the plot quickly thickens, three other characters are introduced: Sheung Hong, a ditsy, money-obsessed, traveling singer/musician who is after some jewels she's tried to steal from General Tun's wives; Tung Man, a reluctant soldier under General Tun who joins Pak-Hoi's cause; and Bai Niu (who for some strange reason in some subtitled versions is called "Pat Neil"), the daughter of the owner of a traveling Opera troupe who dreams of acting on stage, but in those days acting was a strictly a man's job.

The story moves quite quickly as well, as Hark has said of Hong Kong cinema, "We are very nervous people. That’s why our movies go faster than other movies. I think we were a little bit faster than normal people in those days because we felt like we had to tell a longer story in a shorter time." They were also under tight 90 minute limits from distributors.

A lot has been made by critics and others of the film's use of three women as the primary lead characters. Yes, this was a pretty radical door opening for actresses in Hong Kong, but I will disagree with those who read this shift as something that Hark came upon primarily from any sort of "feminist agenda," but rather from a desire to just be different, to turn the genre upside down, and additionally took place within a shift in movies in general at the time.

"Rather than examine the relationship between a group of men, I wanted the relationship to be between women," Hark said.

At that time, he stated elsewhere, "all of the stars in the movies are like Karl Mak, Sammo Hung, Bruce Lee - they have this kind of characteristic face. And those pretty faces, those women, were all hidden behind them. So I said, 'Why don't we just make a movie with no guys, just women? And doing all male customs."

My understanding is that these films' primary distribution were in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, and other countries hosting Chinese communities. Movies featuring women lead roles were already becoming successful in the West by 1986, the year Peking Opera Blues was released. Popular films of the early 80's included Silkwood, Aliens, and Desperately Seeking Susan. Certainly Chinese moviegoers familiar with Western films and television of the time, would not have viewed Peking Opera Blues as an anomaly, but rather as part of the expansion of strong women characters they'd already been exposed to.

Interstingly, Hark, as producer of A Better Tomorrow, had argued for the lead to be played by a woman, specifically Michele Yeoh, but it memorably starred Chow Yun-Fat. Again, to put this in context, A Better Tomorrow came out in 1986 (the same year as Peking Opera Blues), and four years later you have La Femme Nikita. So the women action lead was something that was bubbling up from the zeitgeist during this time and I think Hark's desire to shake things up and reinvigorate the genre was more his motive.

"For me," Hark said, "being commercial is very basic because you need the box office record in order to keep the investor surviving in this industry. But then, you need to be different. You need to be outstanding in terms of film; how you make films in a way that people think you're a great filmmaker."

"I think 1984 was a very critical moment when I decided to write about women and simply ignore the men's characters for one project that was called Shanghai Blues," he continued. "I know so many friends that were actresses, like Brigitte Lin, and they felt very frustrated for having no scripts written about women. That's why... I decided to start making movies with these people being the priority character of the story."

Hark added, "I think I'm trying to do something where the women are less predictable and a stronger character. In my action movies, that makes the movie more interesting than just seeing the movie as what we have seen before in the past."

Besides having women leads in Peking Opera Blues, there is a whole conversation going in the movie dealing with transgender issues, which I think is even more radical, especially for the time. In the era during which the film takes place, as in Shakespearean England, women weren't allowed to be actors and the parts of women were played by men. While most of the male acting troupe act like a bunch of queens, the lead actor, Fa, doesn't. He becomes horrified when the man from the tax collectors' office (in some subtitled versions, he's incorrectly stated to be from the "ticketing office") not just proposes marriage, but demands it [and the collector is fully aware Fa is a man, he just portrays a woman on stage].

Hark noted that when he was a child his mother took him to see an opera performance where all the female roles were played by men. He remembered looking back on it and pondering how it seemed very natural to him then, suggesting that when we grow older we develop prejudices.

"[W]ith Peking Opera Blues," Hark said, "I said I wanted to try to bring back the kind of feelings that I had when I was a small kid. I am curious about how people react to these sex crossing roles."

Then we also have Tsao Wan, who dresses like a man but is not a lesbian as conceived by Hark.

"It's funny because the actress Brigette Lin, I got her to play in Peking Opera Blues and I cut her hair like a guy's," Hark explained. "I said in this film you shall play like a man's role. We don't have an important man's role in the movie, so you are the person to play the man's role. So people say you want to create this lesbian image of Brigette Lin. I said, 'No.' I mean, why is cutting your hair short being a lesbian? We are not talking about being a lesbian, we are just talking about cutting your hair short."

In one interview, Hark seems to say he at one time was planning on dubbing Lin's voice with a man's voice. However, in all the versions I've seen, it's Lin's voice, but Hark apparently, at least, tested some scenes that he showed to Lin with a man's voice dubbed for hers.

"So we made the film and it turned out to be, 'Wow!' A success. Since then," he added, "everybody gets [Lin] to play that role, the guy role. Now it not a problem; it's a trend!"

Of the three lead women roles, Hark recalled, "Cherie Chung said, 'Why do you have to make me so money crazy in the movie? Is that the way you think of me?'" He answered her: "'You are the simplest mind among the three. So, yes. Seriously yes.' I think Cherie has the simplest mind; Brigitte and Sally sometimes don't know what they're thinking.... One is an adventurer, one is an artist, one is a businesswoman.."

One of the things I really love about this movie is that there are future romances inferred, but all the characters know they are on a mission and their emotions have to be put away for another day. First, we have the relationship between Sheung Hong and Tung Man - we get several scenes where they almost get closer, but don't. Then there's the subtle romantic triangle with Bai Nui in love with Pak-Hoi, but she thinks Pak-Hoi is in love with Tsao Wan. Is he? Is Tsao Wan in love with Pak-Hoi? We'll never know....

But there are other themes swirling around in the film too, Hark maintained. "The reason I used those three characters was there are several reasons. One reason is that anyone of them could get married and retire very easily. For that moment they are very fantastic and silly characters in the movie; probably later they would never have that chance again.

"I had a big problem with how do I make this believable? There's something about women in the Chinese viewpoint - when I start to go into that, I start to see women in early, early, early Chinese history. And to make a comedy of it is kind of like an unholy thought, because that period in history, those political situations, shouldn't be made fun of. When I said [it's] a comedy, people didn't really like it at all. But I feel the only way to solve a problem is with a light heart.


But finally, he added, "I have this thing for Peking Opera. I always thought [it] was good material for a comedy, so I made use of that."

Peking Opera Blues was nominated at the Hong Kong Film Awards for action choreography, cinematography, editing, and art direction. Both Sally Yeh and Paul Chun received nominations for their roles.

BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:

According to Hark, the film's English title was his wife, Nansun's, decision. "In Shanghai Blues, it was because of the music," he said. "And then when it gets to Peking Opera Blues it's sort of like a continuation of Shanghai Blues. I was thinking about maybe just Peking Opera, but Peking Opera Blues was more interesting. So we added Blues to Peking Opera. Actually, there are no blues in Peking Opera at all!"

The Chinese title of the film, Dao Ma Dan, is the name of a famous Chinese opera character type and translates in English as "woman warrior."

"In the Chinese Opera, there are generally four main categories of roles: sheng (the male roles), dan (the female roles), jing (the painted face roles), and chou (clowns)," according to an article by Peter Nepstad. "Each category is further subdivided into distinct types. An actor typically trains for a single type of role within one category. Actors who can play multiple types of roles within a single category are considered especially talented. An actor almost never plays roles outside his or her category.... There are twice as many female role types as there are male. They are divided according to character, status, and age."

Dao Ma Dan, he continues, "typically wears full armour and great peacock feathers in her hat. The famed military heroines of China are all played as Dao Ma Dan."

"Chinese opera together with Greece tragic-comedy and Indian Sanskrit Opera are the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world," according to this Chinese travel site. "During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), the Emperor Taizong established an opera school with the poetic name Liyuan (Pear Garden). From that time on, performers of Chinese opera were referred to as 'disciples of the pear garden'. Since the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368) it has been encouraged by court officials and emperors and has become a traditional art form. During the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), it became fashionable among ordinary people. Performances were watched in tearooms, restaurants, and even around makeshift stages.

Nepstad explains, "Chinese opera has many strong female roles, though for most of its history, no females to play them. Women in China, especially of the upper class, had to observe very reserved and controlled conduct, and for the most part confined themselves indoors. A woman who paraded herself on stage would be considered no better than a prostitute. Instead, men would play the female roles. At certain times in opera history, these female impersonators were the greatest stars of the stage.

"Beginning in the 1930s, it became acceptable for women to perform in the opera. This led to the gradual disappearance of the female impersonator role, so that now, women almost always play the female roles, even though the mannerisms, vocalisms, and styles of the role were developed when meant to be played by men
."

"Certain scenes and characters [in Peking Opera Blues] are meant to suggest scenes from famous operas," Nepstad wrote in an essay about the film. "For example, in one scene, Tsao Wan is comforting Pat Nell when suddenly it begins to snow. At first I thought it was just the seasons changing, but in fact it's not. The weather is quite warm during the rest of the movie, both before and after the snowfall. Rather, the unseasonable weather suggests to an audience familiar with Peking Opera a particular opera story, June Snow. In it, a great injustice is committed, and a woman, before being cruelly sacrificed, prophecies that it will snow in June to cover up her corpse to prove her innocence. This comes to pass after her death, and not long after that the villains are brought to justice and put to death in their turn. The snow then is symbolic of innocence, and of an injustice recognized in heaven that will soon be set right."

When Bai Niu/Pat Neil takes Fa's place on stage so he can escape, she is, according Nepstad, "playing the most famous Dao Ma Dan, or woman warrior, role of them all - Mu Guiying, the bandit's daughter who marries into the Yang family and becomes a great general. Another opera tells about a time after she is widowed, and she leads other women generals of the Yang family to war and defeates the invaders from the Xia regime.

"As Pat Nell is delivering her performance, Sheung drops onto the stage, dressed identically. 'There are two Mu's!' the audience shouts, confused. But actually, there are three, including Tsao Wan, who joins them shortly thereafter. Or perhaps Tsao Wan, in her men's clothing, is the modern equivalent of another opera warrior: Hua Mulan, the woman warrior who had to disguised herself as a man to go do battle against her enemies. Whatever the case, when they all stand together, it is obvious that the three heroes are modern day equivalents of the women warrior
."

THE SNACK:

Early on in the film, Bai Niu/Pat Neil tells her father she's making Sukiyaki (or hot pot, depending on the subtitles) for dinner. He yells at her not to, and just to make "potato." This bothered me as Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish. So I assumed the person doing the subtitles just put in a recognizable name for Westerners. Then later in the film, Tsao Wan complains when a waiter serves some dim sum to her father that he doesn't like those and gives the waiter different ones (her plan is to substitute dim sum spiked with a laxative so her father will have to go to the bathroom - watch the movie). In this case, I wondered if they were referring to any specific dish or what the dim sum was on that plate.

I sought answers at the LoveHKFilm website and posted on their forum. One of those things we love about the Interwebs is that all answers are out there and all you have to do is find someone who is willing to share them with you.

I was lucky enough to hear back from a poster named "Wongsaurus" who explained: "On the Fortune Star digitally remastered version of Peking Opera Blues, the line is correctly translated in English as hot pot, not sukiyaki. [Bai Nui/Pat Neil]'s father puts her off with the exclamation 'Potato!' Specifically, he says sweet potato. This is again referred to when [Bai Nui/Pat Neil] later asks her father for grocery money and he tells her to just get by with eating the previous night's leftover sweet potato.

The dialogue in the dim sum scenes are not specific. As you can remember seeing, the attendant brings a tray of goodies that [Tsao Wen] rejects. The camera momentarily flashes on the tray with one of the dishes oddly looking like mid-autumn festival moon cakes. [Tsao Wen] asks for the alternate choices and the camera momentarily dwells on the scene to show the three dim sum dishes, none of which are identified by name or even recognizable by me
."

I decided to put the two foods in the movie together and went with a dim sum dish made with sweet potato.

Now, sweet potato and yam are often interchangeable for the average Westerner (I recommend checking out my post on The Royal Tennenbaums where I discuss the whole sweet potato versus yam business. But basically yams were first found in Asia & Africa and sweet potatoes in the Americas, but now they're all everywhere). But now I'm going to make this even more confusing, because when a Chinese or other Southern Asian person refers to a yam, it seems, what they sometimes are referring to is taro root.

For these I used Japanese yams, which, according to the sign at the market, like the Garnet, Jersey and Jewel yams, are, in fact, actually sweet potatoes. Confused? Of course you are. So am I. But let's just go with the flow. That's all we can do.

As always.... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Yam Dumplings (芋頭角 - Wu Gok)
Click for Printer-Friendly Version


Makes approximately 14 dumplings

for dough:
1 pound yams (or sweet potato or taro root)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon wheat starch
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet potato flour
1/2 tablespoon all-purpose (AP) flour
1/4 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
1 tablespoon lard/shortening

filling:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, for frying
6 ounces pork, 1/4-inch cubes (tenderloin, shoulder, or belly)
4 ounces shrimp, peeled & deveined, minced
3 dried black or shitake mushrooms, soaked, diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 scallion, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

extra AP flour for dusting
vegetable oil, for deep frying

For the filling:

Heat oil in pan and add pork, mushrooms and garlic. Stir fry until pork loses pink color. Add shrimp and continue to cook until shrimp loses transparency. Add scallions, rest of the filling ingredients, and continue to simmer for about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat. Refrigerate until completely cooled. (Can be prepared a day in advance.)

(NOTE: Feel free to substitute other protein such as tofu, chicken, or ground meat.)

For the dough:

Either peel, then roughly chop and steam the yam in a steamer basket pot/wok until done (about 15-20 minutes), OR wrap whole in plastic wrap and steam in microwave for about 5 minutes, until done, unwrap, then when room temperature – peel. (Also can be prepared a day in advance.)

Place yam in food processor and pulse until mashed. Mix the remainder of the dough ingredients in a bowl, then knead by hand (or in processor pulsing) until dough is formed. (You want a firm, not sticky dough, but not dry. A lot will depend on the wet the potato is, which will vary. Add a little more flour, if needed. Play-Doh-like is what you're looking for.) Form into about 14 golf-ball sized balls.

When ready, heat cooking oil to 350*F.

Put some more flour in a small bowl or plate, then also lightly flour your hands. Take one of the dough balls in hand and flatten it into a pancake. Place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center, then carefully fold the dough back over to reform into a ball. This is a little tricky, but make sure filling is completely enclosed inside dough, then lightly roll in flour and set aside. Repeat until all the balls are filled.

Working in batches, deep fry (Don't overcrowd!) until golden brown, remove and drain on paper towels.

Serve hot.


LINKS:
LoveHKFilm Web Site
A Short History of Chinese Opera @ The Illuminated Lantern
Interview with Tsui Hark @ IGN
The Unofficial Tsui Hark Site (run by Lisa Morton)
Peking Opera Blues Program Note, by Chale Nafus @ Austin Film Society
The Incredibly Strange Film Show - Tsui Hark @ YouTube
Army of Harkness, by Beth Accomando @ Giant Robot
Tsui Hark @ Senses of Cinema
Tsui Hark Interview @ Film Comment

BUY STUFF:
Peking Opera Blues DVD
The Cinema of Tsui Hark, by Lisa Morton
New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics, by edited by Nick Browne, et al
Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, by Stephen Teo

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