- Reflections on the Film Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang)
Mei Lanfang is the most influential Peking opera star in China's recent history. Having performed in Japan, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, he became the most internationally recognized opera performer of the early years of the Republic. Chen Kaige's 2008 film Forever Enthralled (Chinese title: Mei Lanfang) cannot in the strictest sense be considered a biography, but since it takes the form of a biopic, it has been regarded by many people as a documentary of Mei Lanfang's life and experience. Even while the film was still in production, a great number of prerelease advertisements were already being spread through the mass media. After the film was released, it aroused strong reactions in the Chinese opera world, with much public and private criticism of the gap between the film and historical fact.
The relationship between the filmic Mei Lanfang and the historical Peking opera performer Mei Lanfang thus became a serious topic of conversation. The challenge of turning the extremely dynamic life of Mei Lanfang into film resided in the editing, in how to balance the sections on his art and those on his daily life. The film patched together four fragments, each of which had something noteworthy and mesmerizing to contribute: this is a rare accomplishment. People say that Hollywood biopics are rarely worth watching, but compared with these, Mei Lanfang ought to be ranked above average. As for the fact that it failed to win international awards, in no way is that the only standard by which to prove a film's worth or, indeed, one worth regarding at all. At a minimum, the film did fine at the domestic box office and was well received in Japan and other countries. In this sense, it won the success expected of a commercial film.
I don't understand film, so I cannot discuss the cinematic aspects with my fellow researchers of opera film; I can only discuss Mei Lanfang. Movies are movies: we cannot demand that they be filmed according to historical fact. However, it would not be entirely wrong to make some comparisons between the movie and Mei Lanfang's life, including that period of history.
The film's character Shisan Yan is modeled on Tan Xinpei—you don't need to know much about Peking opera to be able to see that.1 Shisan Yan really captures a bit of the arrogance of the "King of the Opera World," even in the way he talks. In the film Mei Lanfang and Shisan Yan duel for dominance; in the end, Shisan Yan loses and then suddenly breathes his last. This event, of course, is fictional. From the time they were small, actors were educated and nurtured [End Page 476] within the theater; because they were generally looked down upon by the rest of society, they would take the internal rules of the trade all the more seriously. Groups on the margins of society are all like this—the rebellion of the heroic outlaws of Mount Liang2 was aimed at undermining the social order, but their internal rules and sense of order exceeded even those of the external world, otherwise they could never have established a foothold in the underworld brotherhood of "the rivers and lakes." There is indeed a code of behavior among thieves: at the core of this code is the word "honor." The world of the theater takes after the underworld in this: Mei Lanfang was so deeply respected by those around him precisely because he always put the word "honor" first, no matter whether it was toward his superiors or juniors. Tan Xinpei was the head of the actors' guild and belonged to the most revered senior generation of actors. If Mei Lanfang had really dueled with him and made him die of anger, then, in the worst-case scenario, he would have had to find a rope to hang himself in order to expiate his crime. In the best-case scenario, for the rest of his life, he would never have been able to overcome this event. If he had tactlessly attempted to...