Monday, August 27, 2012

Have Camera Will Travel (Episode 4)

Time for another round of random amateur travel snapshots. So I can remember where I've been. Today's theme: street lights and stuff.
Antique guy in an antique car museum. I gave him a "donation".  ~  Grove Park Inn, Asheville, NC
Late night at a train station in Cairo, Egypt
Carcross, Yukon Territory, Canada (The last day of summer and everybody's gone, eh?)
Evening on the Mediterranean  ~  Alexandria, Egypt

Carriages awaiting their riders  ~  Giza, Egypt

Willow Pond  ~  Somewhere lost in China
Lonely thing in a field  ~  Raleigh, NC
Hong Kong Monument to the God of Commerce... Money
Storm's approachin'  ~  Asheville, NC
This last shot looks processed but it's not. I was on horseback riding through Zion Park in Utah, and was turning my camera off after each shot to save battery life. And when I would power up the camera to quickly snap a photo, the aperture did not have enough time to adjust to the brightness before I took the shot, so I got a series of hot bleached-out pictures. It was a very bright day and I had to hold the horse reins (to keep my horse from trying to eat the grasses) with one hand and shoot with the other. So I could not review the photos I was taking until much later. Honestly I didn't care so much about the pictures. I had some stomach virus and just wanted to lie down. It sure was a beautiful place though.
Zion Park, Utah

Peking Opera Blues: Pure Delirium

Going to the cinema is always a risk.
One that millions of us gladly take with little regard. We enter those darkened rooms full of hope that the film will at least be a pleasant experience for a couple of hours. And we hope all the best parts weren’t spoiled in the trailer. Yet, far too often it’s a waste of both time and money and we walk out feeling disappointed. Unenlightened.

But still we go. Because we know there’s a chance it can be a transcending experience with effects that last long beyond its running time. Whether it’s influencing your childhood fantasy playtime, as was the case after millions saw the original Star Wars for the first time, or scaring you from swimming in the ocean which happened to many who witnessed Jaws.

And yes, there remains that rare occasion, when it’s possible for a film to truly change the course of your life. 
This is that story. 
This is what happened to me.

Through a series of chance events I happened to catch Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson’s October 14, 1988 review of a Hong Kong film currently playing at the Biograph Theatre in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.). His opening line accompanied by a black and white photo of actress Cherie Chung caught my eye: “Watching Peking Opera Blues is like flipping through the most explosive, most exhilarating comic book ever made.” He went on: Peking Opera Blues makes you feel as if you're seated on the nose of a bullet.” Okaaay… tell me more. “The shootout on the rooftops that serves as the film's climax is an explosion of talent. Your mouth drops open at the sight of it.” Ok done. Sold. I’m there.
So I went. Not really knowing what to expect. Never having really seen a proper Hong Kong movie before. Maybe I caught a few poorly dubbed chopsocky flicks on late night TV. But certainly not in a theater. And not one like this. I was ill prepared for what came next. Or the new direction my life would take.

Directed and co-produced by Vietnam-born/Texas educated Tsui Hark, the film was originally released in Asian markets in September of 1986 during the height of Hong Kong’s hugely productive post-new wave golden age. The film took a couple of years to finally reach our unsuspecting shores. Originally playing in Chinatown cinemas and then later in so-called art-house theaters which mostly showed subtitled films, re-issues of older classics and animation festival collections. Peking Opera Blues fit the bill perfectly. It's subtitled, a modern classic and plays out much like a frantic cartoon. 

It stars three dynamic, beautiful and accomplished actresses who are totally suited for their roles. The revolutionary disobeying her father and heart-set on political change for the good of country: Tsao Wan played with earnest by Brigitte Lin (aka Lin Ching Hsia). The theatre owner's daughter who dreams of finally performing onstage for the adoration of the crowds (she must break with custom and disobey her father too): Pat Neil portrayed by the multi-talented Sally Yeh (aka Yip Sin-Man). And the gold-digger who's only concerned with herself and seems oblivious to the larger struggles: Sheung Hung performed with doe-eyes by the glamorous Cherie Chung (aka Chung Chor-hung). Three archetypes whose paths cross and interweave in spectacular fashion. On the surface the film is a hodge podge mix of genres, a period picture set in a time and place not that familiar to most Americans. It’s part political drama with intrigue and deception, part broad comedy with scenes straight out of a French bedroom farce, part martial arts actioner with high-flying gravity-defying acrobatics, and part subtle social commentary, all wrapped in colorful dress, bathed it romantic light and filmed through a soft gauze filter. Sugar-coated or not, it's a big pill to swallow. It’s shouldn’t work. On paper no studio in their right mind would approve this production. 
Tsui Hark

But Tsui Hark, bless him, is not and most likely never has been in his right mind. It took a mad genius to mix all these ingredients into one soup and make it delicious. And delicious it is. Despite Western audiences’ near complete lack of knowledge of the intricacies of Chinese Opera. In spite of the famously poor English subtitles. It works. It all seems so… foreign. So alien. So beautifully artificial. Yet the infectious joy of spending 104 minutes in the world of the film is undeniable. It plays as a sheer celebration of life and energy and all our mad human pursuits. Our own lives seem so dull by comparison. When the lights come up at the end there's an audible moan of "Oh. Right. Damn. Back to real life now." 

And yet, after all the energy is spent onscreen, it has the audacity to question if it really got us anywhere at all. A final point the film makes with gusto in conclusion, with a "masked" character literally laughing in our face at the futility of it all. Indeed we all play our roles, but are the characters we inhabit doomed from the start? Is the play of life cyclical by nature? Do we always end where we began regardless of our actions? Perhaps. Humans tend to repeat history time and time again. So then is it all about how we spend our own 104 minutes. Perhaps. Perhaps not.  But it's a good question to ponder. Maybe this is an art film hiding under sheep's clothing.

The coast is clear... I think.
The Crescendo: One last strut on the stage before they all break character. And make a break for it.
Their only escape... seems unlikely.
Customarily, as was the practice during Shakespeare's time and on into the early twentieth century, women did not perform on a public stage. It simply was not the place for a lady. So female characters in plays were always portrayed by men. Sometimes effeminate men, but still men. The Chinese title for Peking Opera Blues is Do Ma Dan which is what the warrior women characters were called in Peking Opera. This style of performance incorporated flamboyant costumes, martial arts, dance, singing, live music and dramatic themes. It bares little comparison to the somewhat more staid, but no less tragic, European opera. The title is an obvious metaphor for the strong female characters portrayed in the film performing on and off the stage. The three leads are the "do ma dons" of the film, as each pursues their own goals regardless of the difficulty or what's expected of them, and for a brief time, those pursuits coincide with each other and they choose to work together. To this end the whole cinematic production has the atmosphere of a stage play. The rooms are deliberately "set-like" in their design, the drama and comedy overly melodramatic and the action highly stylized and posed. It becomes this unexpectedly giddy hybrid of a movie of a play within a film that itself feels like a filmed play. Where does the stage end? Not until the last shot of the film, does it truly feel like the characters are outside. As if they've finally broken free from the stage. And they all part ways, just as the audience must too.
No need to cut away to reaction shots, everyone involved in this scene is in this ONE SHOT. And you can see all their faces. Brilliant.
Although not a mega blockbuster, the film was a solid hit at box offices across Asia. While the film's apparent mainstream commercial appeal at home may have hurt its cache with high-brow HK cinema critics, foreign reviewers (such as those in the U.S and Europe) immediately were struck by the film's daring themes of female empowerment. This was not so common in the mid-1980's. The U.S. had The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman (both canceled television programs from the 1970s) and perhaps the character of Ripley from the two Alien films released at that point. Other than a few old exploitation titles on VHS, audiences stateside did not see many strong dominant females on film. But in Hong Kong, the Girls With Guns phenominon was a popular thriving subgenre all it's own. Thanks to the likes of action powerhouses Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh/Khan, Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Khan, and others such as Sibelle Hu. In fact P.O.B. leads Brigitte Lin and Sally Yeh had twice before starred together in high-octane Taiwanese female actioners from the Seven Samurai/Dirty Dozen mold. (Golden Queens Commandos/Commando Amazons, and its sequel Pink Force Commandos) Note: Lin also went on to do a third film in the series called Fantasy Mission Force with Jackie Chan. 

Also interesting is that gay/lesbian groups immediately voiced their support of Lin's gender-crossed attire, appearance and mannerisms. Finding a lead character in a mainstream film they could finally identify with (although it’s never stated in the film that she is in fact homosexual).   
There were even published comments of admiration for the atmospheric, almost sensual way the torture sequence was presented in the film by those who have a particular interest in those matters.

Other audiences were simply blown away by the combination of immensely colorful pageantry, high flying physicality, gorgeous stars, and breathless pace of it all. Theatergoers would exit with their head spinning, mumbling “I dunno what I just saw but it was something. When can I see it again?”

When I left the first screening I knew I had seen something too. Something unlike anything I'd seen before.  And it left me wanting more. For instance there are clips of a scene that plays under the closing credits that was cut from the film, and it angered me because I wanted to see that part too

Of course now It's impossible to see this film through 1986 eyes (or even 1988 eyes) to truly understand it's impact. So much has come since. Just as one can still enjoy 1933's King Kong for what it is, but we can never experience the same impact it had on that 1933 audience. For me the nostalgia factor of my first screening is always and forever attached, so the film is now lodged firmly into my psyche. So if you are to go watch this film for the first time now after reading all the hype, you're bound to be somewhat disappointed. All I can say is, don't let that stop you. Enjoy it for what it is.  

So yes I liked the film... but how did it change my life?

At the time I was 19 years old and had been developing a keen interest in Asian cultures. (Particularly Chinese and Japanese) The beauty of the arts. The music. The culture, customs, beliefs. The history. The architecture. The language (I took night courses in Mandarin). It all fascinated me and the deeper I dug the more interesting it became. Like peeling an onion. (Only with less tears.) So Peking Opera Blues was like one gigantic chocolate cream-filled candy bar for a hungry sugar junky. I gladly ate it up. And went to every showing. Then I finally got the courage to invite my friends. “You have to see this thing,” I’d tell them. “Even if you’ve never watched a subtitled movie before. You don’t wanna miss this.”

Three months later in January 1989, the nearby Kennedy Center had a retrospective of the films of Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin (Lin Ching Hsia). This of course included a couple screenings of P.O.B. among some of her other films. AND… she would be there IN PERSON. How cool is that?

So I took some friends, even dragged my conservative parents out there for a screening. Brigitte Lin came out for some Q&A and then (long story sorta short) I got to meet her, chat awkwardly and get an autograph. She was very accommodating, beautiful and seemed genuinely surprised that she had “gweilo” (Caucasian) fans here in the States. It was like she stepped off the screen for just a brief moment, and just as quickly, slipped into a car and was whisked away again. Seemingly back to the world of the silver screen where she lived. Like she would melt if she stayed in our world too long.

During this time I also discovered the American Theatre (which despite its name, only showed Hong Kong movies) located deep underneath L’Enfant Plaza. For six dollars you got a HK double feature and enough trailers in-between to make you feel as if you’d seen about 8 movies that night. HK trailers are notoriously long and show you everything. Like a 4-minute condensed version of the whole movie. And they offered dried cuttlefish at the snack bar instead of popcorn. That was my Sunday evening ritual. Just me, and a whole new world of cinema to discover. Apparently my friends just didn't "get it". That's okay. It was something I was happy to do alone. In fact the theater was nearly empty except for a bum or two who'd come in from the rain to get dry or sleep. There might be 2 or 3 Asian teens in attendance, but they would always sit in the back row in the dark.

My love for Hong Kong cinema grew with each Sunday. But by June, the American Theatre closed it's doors for what they called "renovation". But as I had feared, it was indeed a permanent closure. Other than the occasional art house showing, the video shops and Chinese-language movie magazines (such as Cinemart and Milky Way) were my best connection to the "scene". So this lead to searching for more Asian video rental shops, which tended to be hidden away in little alleys and dusty out-dated strip malls. I found several good ones but they were a bit of a drive to get to. And sometimes in shady parts of town. Jackie Chan was seven years away from successfully (and accidentally) breaking back into the US market, so there really weren't many of us gweilos visiting these shops. And HK movie titles were not yet common at US video shops. The best place I found was Video City located in Rockville, Maryland. It happened to be the farthest away, but well worth the commute.
Tsao Wan introduces her friends to a globe... and "western" eveningwear. Ms. Yeh's gift for comedy is evident throughout the film.
The film's story is very much told silently in a series of "forceful looks and knowing glances".
Now is the time for the players to rewrite their play.
Over time I spent more and more time at Video City. The video tapes were not organized into genres or categories like you'd find at a typical US video shop. I felt doing that might help customers (especially non-Chinese) more easily find what they were looking for. And since I had seen so many of the movies and was familiar with them, I offered my services to help reorganize the store inventory for the owner. She didn't seem too eager to do it herself so she agreed to my assistance. Since I was an artist and was studying Mandarin, I also volunteered to hand-make new illustrated bilingual signage for the shelves. It was a pleasure for me. And customers responded favorably. Even more gweilos streamed in.

Pretty soon I quit going to the other videos stores and Video City became my homebase. The owner eventually stopped charging me for rentals because I was always there, like a non-paid employee, suggesting titles to customers or helping them find a title they wanted. Sometimes we would get a bite to eat after closing up shop. Perhaps you can now foresee where this is leading. 
Sally Yeh was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in the film.
Yep. We got married, bought a house, sold the store and have been together ever since. Over twenty years now. So if it wasn't for Peking Opera Blues and the new direction it pointed me, I would not literally be where I am today. Or with who I am with. That movie changed the second half of my life. I had absolutely no idea when I entered the Biograph Theatre in October of 1988 that my life was about to be altered. A new destiny set in motion. But the simplest thing can do that. I can honestly attest to that. Even the flicker of light on a blank screen. 

Also of note: through another series of events related to Peking Opera Blues I became friends with actress-singer Sally Yeh and her collaborator husband actor/singer/songwriter George Lam. They are wonderfully down-to-earth and extremely open and kind people. Very cool. And yep, she's every bit as stunning and energetic in person as she is on screen and stage. And still active in the music industry even today. (Her big September, 2012 Hong Kong Concert series is approaching.) 

So for me this film, perhaps above all others, holds a very special place in my heart. It's brought me years of joy. Thrills. Fun. Dreams. Friendships. And most importantly... love. Not bad for the price of admission.
With her friends injured, Wan takes charge during the rooftop finale.
Racing across the rooftops in a scene the critics said "out-Spielbergs Spielberg".
In a bit of brevity, the recipient of this bullet feels the need to proclaim "Nice shot" as he falls.
Shamefully no proper home video version currently exists on DVD or Blu-ray. Sure, several distributors have released DVDs over the years and Fortune Star put out a Blu-ray in 2011. But all these seem to be struck from a print which removed the burned-in opening and closing onscreen subtitles. And sadly that text was never added back as a digital overlay. So the opening of the film on DVD and Blu-ray now has nothing to "set the stage" and the ending is simply an odd freeze frame with no historical context or climactic coda to the story. Furthermore no US DVD has ever been released, though the distribution rights are held. Why buy the rights to release a film and then just sit on it? All that does is anger the fans and force them to import the HK DVD. Currently the best home video version is the Fortune Star/CMS Blu-ray Disc. Although the picture quality could and should look a lot sharper and the colors be more vibrant. The film normally has a bit of grain and that is retained here, but the transfer is too soft and washed-out. The Fortune Star/Joy Sales remastered DVD looks nearly as good as the Blu-ray and adds several bonus features to the Blu-ray's only bonus theatrical trailer. The DVD also includes a photo gallery/slide show, newly edited and original trailer, and an interview with the late composer James Wong and another with the still-beautiful Sally Yeh. Both in Cantonese but with optional English subtitles. The film's subtitles have been cleaned up a bit for both these releases but are still not perfect.

Below is the opening and closing subtitles present on the VHS, VCD and LD releases, but (so far) absent from the DVD and Blu-ray Disc versions.
Original opening subtitles, missing from  DVD and Blu-ray.

Original closing subtitles, missing from DVD and Blu-ray.

I know it’s JUST A MOVIE. I keep telling myself that.
But for some reason … I don’t listen. It never sinks in.
Peking Opera Blues has always been more to me than just flickering light on a blank screen.
More than just rolls of celluloid. 
It’s this magical place I wish existed.
A destination I could visit.
And if I use my imagination… I can. 
It's art... that moved me to action.

Perhaps this reviewer said it best:

"The finest moment in the careers of Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh and Tsui Hark, PEKING OPERA BLUES may also be the finest moment for cinema, period. Representing the best of everything that movies can be, PEKING OPERA BLUES is one hundred years of filmmaking captured in 104 minutes of celluloid. A women's movie, a comedy, a serial cliffhanger, a romance, a musical, and a tender whiff of nostalgia as the present forever turns into the past, PEKING OPERA BLUES fulfills all the promises the movies ever made to you. It's a kiss to make it better for all the times you've bought a ticket in good faith and left the theater with the taste of ashes in your mouth. Its makings are obvious. Tsui Hark rolled all the movies he ever saw into a giant joint, hunched over in the corner away from the other kids, huffed and puffed, and then, eyes streaming, hair crazed, heart pounding double time, high on the fumes of the movies he loved, he directed the most sustained burst of cinematic inspiration ever put on film. By the time this movie is over you expect the entire planet to turn out the lights and call it a day."

Annnd… scene.

Don't worry. I gotcha.

Click HERE to view a higher quality version of the HK theatrical trailer 



Hong Kong Lobby Cards (15 unique cards in a set)
Norwegian Poster
Brigitte Lin (VCD packaging)
"Can't Hide Away"(Peking Opera Blues Theme Song) 2 Track EP from Israel (text in Hebrew)
German Press Sheet
Image used as a subway teaser poster in HK in August 1986
Luminous Leading Ladies: (L-R) Sally Yeh, Brigitte Lin, and Cherie Chung
Sally smiles
Japanese Laser Disc cover (This LD features a Cantonese interview with Tsui Hark as a bonus)
Set Design Sketches
Cherie Chung (VCD packaging)
Hong Kong Poster
Brigitte, Cherie and Sally
Sally Yeh's 1986 LP and CD featuring "Can't Hide Away" (Peking Opera Blues Theme Song)   
Various DVDs, VCD and Blu-Ray
Very hard-to-find UK DVD from the now defunct Hong Kong Legends 
Photos from the German Press Kit
Hong Kong Lobby Card
Promotional photo
Cherie joins the charade
Malaysian VCD (Rare 'Picture Disc' Version)

German poster
Fresh-faced Brigitte posing in front of the Hong Kong P.O.B. Poster
The three leads pose for a photo
Brigitte Lin in Action!
Hong Kong Laser Disc cover
Sharing a laugh during a promotional photo shoot
Taiwanese Poster
Still frame from a deleted action sequence
Sally Yeh Commands the Stage!
Moments in time
Tsao Wan gets serious
Hong Kong Postcard
Thai Poster
Sally commands the stage
Tsao Wan illustration by UK artist Stephen Elford

Brigitte, Sally and Cherie wait between takes
P.O.B. inspired T-Shirt from Shelf Life Clothing

Rare Poster

Sally Yeh
Lin Ching Hsia (or as she's known in Cantonese: Lam Ching Ha)
VHS Tape cover (Mandarin version)
Colors Fly

Brigitte quiets Cherie

Lobby Cards -15 to a set. (The German versions simply removed the Chinese text)

Cover of UK Hong Kong Legends special magazine profiling P.O.B. (which was included on DVD)

UK Hong Kong Legends magazine (page 1)

Korean VHS Tape Cover

Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh

Add caption

Director Hark with his cast

VHS Tape from North America
The cast share a laugh

The German press kit.
The film received substantial marketing in Germany with it's own press kit, lobby cards, poster and even German-dubbed DVD release.

The limited edition German DVD, housed in book-like clam shell packaging, was German-dubbed but does feature a voice-over of the missing epilogue during the freeze-frame at the end.

Original Hong Kong Trailer (suffers from "speed-up")