Forever Enthralled

Reviewed by: sukting

December 13, 2011

Rating: three

How long
2.5 hours

"Forever Enthralled", is a biopic about the life of renowned Peking opera artist Mei Lanfang. It tells the rise of Mei's career, describing how he competes with his master. Mei is credited for raising the status of Peking opera and promoting the art form on the international stage. He is also known as a patriot for his refusal to perform during the Japanese occupation of Beijing between 1937 and 1945.

Story/Introduction on characters
A young Mei (Yu Shaoqun) works hard and he rises to fame in the Peking opera world for playing female roles. His master, Tan Xinpei (Wang Xueqi) is a very traditional man who insists that Mei follows his way. Qiu Rubai (Sun Honglei) is a scholar but is later captivated by his performance. Although keen, he doesn't let his traditional family know that he has befriended Mei as they will oppose to this.

He decides to become Mei's mentor and gives him tips in presentation. When this becomes open, he is disowned by his family. Tan is annoyed when Mei doesn't follow his instructions and is in the limelight. Tan finally declares war so that both perform at different places at the same time and puts his costume given by the dowager plus his own fortune as stake. For his first performance, Mei gets so nervous that he nearly forgets his lines.

Once he is on stage, he attracts every one with his engaging performance. He upstages his master and breathes new life into the traditional art form with his innovative ideas. Here comes Tan's downfall when no one watches his stunts and the owners destroy the furniture. He finally realizes that his days are numbered. Upon knowing what has happened, Mei rushes to visit Tan – still in the opera clothes and make-up on. He never expects this to be their final farewell as Tan dies later.

Mei gets married to Fu Zhifang (Chen Hong), who gives up her singing career due to him. She is unhappy with Qiu for wanting them to stake their own fortune to pave the way to perform in the US. Mei (Lai Ming) is sandwiched between them although he is eager to make advancement in his career.

A rising Peking opera performer Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi) sweeps Mei off his feet in a symbolic role reversal. Meng, used to playing male characters, is aggressive and headstrong, whereas Mei is shy and reserved. Surprisingly, they hit off well on and off stage.

The married Mei carries on an affair with Meng – starting from borrowing and returning her umbrella. He doesn't care about Zhifang , leaving her to dwell in her own jealousy. Zhifang confronts Meng but Meng refuses to give in. Mei and Meng do not have the chance of watching a movie together. Their affair doesn't stay long though. The three attend a gathering. A fan comes in with a gun, declaring how he loves Mei.

He is eventually shot to dead by the police but Mei discovers that the gun has no bullets. He is badly affected by this. Meng realizes and understands Zhifang's words when she tells her that Mei Lanfang is not theirs but to his fans. Meng ends the affair with Mei and disappears from his life. Mei then becomes completely devoted to his family. It is later that he realizes Qiu is the one who bribes the fan but has never expected that to happen.

Mei sees himself as merely a performer and his efforts paid off when Westerners admire his performances. But soon, the Japanese invades China. “If we can tame Mei Lanfang, we can conquer China," notes Japanese officer Tanaka (Masanobu Ando), also an admirer of Mei. He suggests to his superior about it but Mei is adamant not to sing. Qiu sells him out as he longs to listen to him again.

Zhifang gets frustrated as she wants Qiu out of their lives. Qiu exclaims that Mei is not meant for an ordinary world. He has associated Mei to his roles and fails to see Mei as what he longs to be: a simple man. In order to escape, he has a jab to pretend that he is seriously ill to avoid this. Tanaka gets punished by his superior but he has no regrets as he treats Mei with respect. Mei finally sings again after the occupation and his supporters are back in the hall for him once more.

Most favourite character
Mei – the young one – he portrays so much innocence although his profession is complicated.

Most hated character
Qiu, he is only living in his dream. Although he helps Mei in his career, he controls his like a puppet.

Interesting facts
Chen Kaige stated that his previous film "Farewell My Concubine is fiction" was based on Li Bi Hua's novel. With the biographical Mei Lanfang, Chen was more careful. Chen consulted with Mei's son about the film's story, such as Mei's extramarital affair, but Mei's son gave his approval but to deal with respect.

Before Lai Ming played Mei, Chen Kaige considered Taiwanese star Wang Li Hong. (I nearly screamed at this choice – how after his almost close disaster encounter in 'Lust Caution'?) Lai Ming and Zhang Ziyi, underwent training with veteran Peking Opera singers to ready themselves for their roles. Chung Yan Tong – the other half of twins was initially asked to act as Fu Zhifang but she was later removed. Not sure if it was due to the scandal or under Mei's family's request.

Yu Shaoqun won best newcomer awards at Asian Film award 2009, Golden Phoenix and Golden Horse Film awards. Wang Xueqi won best supporting actor awards at Golden Phoenix and Golden Horse Film awards. Zhang Ziyi won outstanding actress award at Huabiao Film Awards. It also won best film at Golden Phoenix award, Nominated for best Asian film at Hong Kong Film Awards.

It was nominated for best film for Asia Pacific Screen Award, best supporting actor Wang Xueqi for Asian Film Award. Chen Kai Ge was nominated as best director at Berlin Film Festival and Zhang Ziyi as best supporting actress at Golden Horse Film award. It was also nominated for best foreign film at Academy Awards.

Did you notice that Yu gets every prize for every nomination? He truly deserves it as he shines as Mei's younger self, and his uncanny portrayal of a female on stage somewhat also seeps onto his off stage portrayal of young Mei! I was totally attracted by his presentation – smooth and natural. It seems that his movements can talk – especially his eyes! I was already thinking if Mei was like that in his younger days. Chen made the right choice to have him in this movie. But the movie goes downhill once he disappears.

The personality is not seen in the older Mei, by Lai Ming. Lai's portrayal is almost bland and robotic like a fish out of water. He only adds some warmth later. I still stubbornly think that he is at his best when acting in TVB dramas. Zhang's rendition of Meng is passable and not really fantastic. There is zero chemistry on the peking opera stage, not like the intense struggle between Tan and Mei.

I don't understand why Director Chen must add his wife, Chen Hong who is an average actress to act in every movie. She doesn't help much here. This movie loses miserably to "Farewell My Concubine" as it is a copycat. It is a tedious and painful 2.5h journey if not for Yu and Wang who truly glow in their roles as the master and disciple.

Sukting's ratings :
On acting : **** (Scale of 5) (Due to Wang and Xu)
On story : *** (Scale of 5)

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