- The Worlds of Mei Lanfang
The Worlds of Mei Lanfang is an hour-long documentary about the most famous Chinese theatrical performer of the twentieth century. A charismatic figure, Mei Lanfang (1894–1961) was renowned for his delicate and tasteful characterization of dan, the female roles of Beijing (Peking) opera. The son and grandson of famous dan actors, he began stage training at the age of nine, made his professional debut by twelve, and by 1913, with his famous visit to Shanghai, he was head of his own company and acclaimed throughout China. Mei Lanfang became the first Chinese actor in modern times to be invited to perform in a foreign country (Japan) in 1919. He was a leading figure in spreading Beijing opera throughout the world, returning to Japan in 1924 and 1956, visiting the United States in 1930 and Europe and Russia in 1935. The sixty years of Mei Lanfang's professional life are interconnected with China's political activities and cultural changes during the twentieth century. The widely known 1993 award-winning film Farewell my Concubine, which is set against China's historical background from the era of the warlords to the Cultural Revolution, is loosely based on Mei Lanfang's life.
The Worlds of Mei Lanfang by Mei-Juin Chen takes into consideration the great actor's work on the stage, as well as his reactions to the dynamic Chinese political environment of his time. But neither area, indeed no area, is fleshed out in the documentary to the extent that a thesis is clear. Beijing opera is not the focus; neither is biography, political history, or gender issues—although this latter topic is touched upon intermittently. From the beginning of the documentary, one has the sense that the filmmakers have missed something—that they have entered in midpoint. Where are the background materials, the preamble of Beijing opera, a meaningful introduction to Mei Lanfang, a review of the situation in China in the early twentieth century?
The full presentation is disjointed and uneven. For instance, in the first half of the film a current Beijing opera female-role actor, Alan Chow, explains the meaning of some hand gestures in the art form, and then the documentary moves to Mei Lanfang's fame in Shanghai in 1913, opera innovations around [End Page 158] the time, such as a faux river on the stage, the fall of the imperial monarchy, new plays by Lanfang, and Lanfang's hobby of raising pigeons—all within five minutes.
Later, a chronology of Mei Lanfang's nationalist positions is given: his disgust for foreign invaders following the Boxer Rebellion, his distaste for the corrupt Ching dynasty and the cutting off of his queue to show dissent, his refusal to perform for the occupying Japanese Manchurian emperor in 1931, his protest in about 1937 by growing a mustache that prohibited his performing female roles when the Japanese occupied Beijing and Shanghai, and finally, his passion in staying true to China by taking three shots of typhus so that he would become too ill to speak on behalf of the Japanese. Indeed, though briefly presented, such information is important and insightful. But this chronology, which stretches from Lanfang's childhood to about 1944, is uncomfortably broken when the next major segment asks the viewer to backtrack, follow a parallel chronology, and envision Mei Lanfang's American and European performance experiences beginning in 1929.
Perhaps the most jarring and unnecessary segment of the documentary is the last, which brings up issues of homosexuality and asserts Western stereo-types of men acting in female roles. Throughout the film, it is pointed out that Mei Lanfang was not a homosexual, and, as presented, gender and sexuality were not major issues in his life. (The narrator remarks how Mei Lanfang's family disliked Farewell My Concubine because of its biographical inaccuracies: the leading, Mei Lanfang-esque character does not resist the Japanese and is gay.) Despite the above, the...