In Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles
Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Leon Lai, Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei, Chen
Hong, Ying Da, Wang Xueqi, Li Shengsu, Pan Yueming, Yu Shaoqun,
2 hrs 30 mins
Released By: GV & Scorpio East
Official Website: http://meilanfang.sina.com.cn/
Opening Day: 19 February 2009
Mei Lan Fang was born to a family of Beijing Opera performers in 1894. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, the social status of opera performers was equivalent to prostitutes of that time. Though his performance was appreciated by many, his feminine roles received disdain. Mei Lan Fang incurred the wrath of veteran performer and family friend Shi Sanyan. Mei Lan Fang's outstanding performance captured the love and admiration of the young audience and this threatened Shi Sanyan's prestigious status. With Mei Lan Fang overshadowing him, Shi Sanyan launched a duel with Mei Lan Fang. Mei Lan Fang was unwilling to continue the duel with Shi Sanyan as he knew he was leading and that Shi Sanyan was just fighting for his dignity. However, Shi Sanyan was adamant on competing till the end, and as a result, he was defeated and died. With Shi Sanyan's demise, Mei Lan Fang feared that he would end up the same way. He went on with his life and married Fu Zhifang. Not only he built a family, he also built an esteemed career that made him famous in Asia. Upon invitation, he went to perform in United States and met a fellow actress, Meng Xiaodong, who performed masculine roles. Mei Lan Fang was attracted by her open mind and humour and they became confidantes. Fu Zhifang interfered in the blossoming friendship, thus resulting in Meng Xiaodong's decision to leave Mei Lan Fang. Despite the loss of a confidante, Mei Lan Fang continued to do excellent portrayals in his performance, thus winning the hearts of Western audience. In his whole life, Mei Lan Fang lived his whole life in the paper cangue and calmly took it for granted. He won people's love with a bravery to confront all calamities. He conquered the shame and fear he was born with. When he himself was no longer an obstacle, nothing would be.
Biopic Forever Enthralled stages director Chen Kaige’s anticipated return to his Farewell My Concubine roots but falls short of matching up to his previous Palme d'Or winning film at the Cannes Film Festival. Still, it makes for a commendable and lavish production vis-à-vis the critically panned The Promise in 2005.
Non-Beijing Opera buffs need not fret over any inability to lap up this film as Forever Enthralled has indeed been tailor made for the accessibility of the masses. This submission for Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear award follows Mei Lan Fang (Leon Lai), one of China’s most legendary opera actors in its modern history, on his life journey. For the unintiated, Mei was widely renowned then for his dexterous and uncanny portrayals of women. Under mentor Qiu Rubai (Sun Honglei), Mei’s rapid ascent to fame was not one without hurdles. His short-lived extra-marital affair with Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi), another prominent opera actor, shook things up both on and off stage. The Japanese Occupation of China too took a toll on Mei’s career, but what probably encapsulated his seemingly troubled self may be attributed to the way people, even his loved ones like Qiu, seemed to be ‘forever enthralled’ by the actor.
The first segments of Forever Enthralled can be said to be the highlight of the film. Mei’s surpassing of veteran actor Shi Sanyan captivates one as we watch the two battle it out in a smogasbord of opulent performances with intricate costumes and skills. However, the demise of Shi seems to cast a shadow on Mei’s bright future prospects and one cannot help but worry about what is in store for this star amongst the inevitability of the rise and fall of actors in the opera world. Shi’s insistence on carrying on with a performance despite an empty house is particularly heartwrenching when juxtaposed with the cacophonous reception Mei receives.
Despite this sterling start up, the rest of Forever Enthralled sags with bits that do not quite seem to fit in. The Japanese Occupation part, for instance, seems as if it was hurriedly inserted into the film and does not exactly flow.
However, all these are fortunately buoyed by exceptional acting from Sun Honglei and Zhang Ziyi. Sun, especially, commands a stellar performance as the dedicated Qiu. He even threatens to outshine Lai in certain scenes by pushing the envelope with his depiction of Qiu’s wholehearted devotion to Mei and this is what ultimately ties the threads of this film together. Meanwhile, Zhang puts the spring in the step of Forever Enthralled with an ever so effervescent Meng. The Memoirs of a Geisha actress’s recent scandal of topless cavorting with her Israeli beau may have made the headlines for the wrong reason but she more than makes up for it in her light-hearted but enjoyable acting in this film. A poignant scene where she and Mei’s wife (Chen Hong) sit broodingly in her courtyard exudes a sense of forlorn pensiveness.
On the other hand, leading actor Lai comes across as being visibly wooden as pivotal character Mei and his attempts to appear distant and removed may not sit well with audiences.
a side note, one wonders though if Forever Enthralled
might have brought more substance had Gillian Chung (one
half of Hong Kong girl duo Twins)’s role had not been
axed from the film as a result of her scandal laden year involving
bad boy Edison Chen that took the media by storm.
expect to be 'forever enthralled' by this unsettled albeit
Review by Priscilla Gan