Director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) based his newest film on the life of legendary Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang.
In Imperial China women were not allowed on stage; therefore, young men were trained to play female roles. The thirteen-year old Mei Lanfang (Yu Shoaqun) wants to become an opera singer, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. He does not listen to his uncle opposing his choice, who predicts problems for a man when acting as a woman on stage. The young Yu (see photo), portraying Mei in his early years and himself a trained Peking opera performer, is a fascinating actor. He maintains a delicate equilibrium between the female persona onstage and his courageous straight-male image offstage.
Qiu Rubai (Sun Honglei) becomes Mei’s mentor and friend. With his support he modernises Peking opera performance, triumphing over Master Shishan. The Hongkong actor Leon Lai, in his role as the middle-aged Mei, seems at first very reserved but comes alive opposite the lovely Zhan Ziyi. She portrays Meng Xiaodong, a female opera singer for male characters. They become lovers. She adds a lively sparkle by changing her moods from being flirtatious and coy to cool and professional. Melodrama is never far away. The jealous Qiu Rubai succeeds in breaking-up the pair just before taking the show to America. The unexpected, overwhelming success on Broadway helps Mei Lanfang to overcome his private disappointments and to regain his self-esteem.
Under the Japanese occupation Mei refuses to perform. When the authorities force him, he finds a desperate way out by getting an overdose of typhoid vaccination to make him critically ill. Thus, ends his career as “the man who is more feminine than a woman”.
This sumptuous film shows stunning historical costumes, bringing alive the vibrant scene of the Peking opera in the 1930s. It may be difficult for western ears to endure the unfamiliar sounds and deliberate movements of the Peking opera. To appreciate this story fully, it is helpful to have a certain interest in Chinese history, culture and art.