Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Raymond To
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh, Cherie Chung, Wo Ma, Mark Cheng, Cheung Kwok Keung, Ku Feng, Kenneth Tsang
Country: Hong Kong
AKA: Do ma daan
Although not working alone by any means, Chinese-born, American-trained Vietnamese director Tsui Hark is the man most synonymous with launching what became known as the Hong Kong New Wave at the dawn of the 1980s. Hark, along with Hong Kong talent as diverse as Jackie Chan, Ching Siu-tung, John Woo, and Ann Hui began breaking away from established studios and established ways of doing things, rapidly modernizing the Hong Kong film industry and ushering in an era of creativity that has rarely been matched. Although remembered primarily for his special effects laden fantasy films, one of Tsui Hark’s most respected and beloved films of the New Wave is Peking Opera Blues, a fast-paced espionage film about three women who find themselves caught up in a plot involving stolen documents during Chinese tumultuous 1911 revolution.
The exquisite Brigitte Lin stars as Cho Wan, the cross-dressing, Western-educated daughter of warlord General Cho (Kenneth Tsang). She’s also part of a rebel movement seeking to undermine the crumbling, ineffectual remnants of the Ch’ing Dynasty and transform China into a modern republic, a crusade that will eventually bring her into direct conflict with the father she dearly loves. Across town, Sally Yeh is Bai Niu, daughter of the director (Wo Ma) of a modestly successful Peking Opera troupe. Although she’s an exceptional performer, her father does not allow her on stage, as women simply do not take the stage in the all-male world of Peking Opera, where even female roles are played by men. Bai Niu is thus relegated to menial tasks behind the scenes while dreaming of being an actress.
Rounding out the trio of female leads is Cherie Chung as Sheung Hung, an orphan (presumably) and former courtesan of the previous warlord, who was tossed out of power when Brigitte Lin’s father rode into town, leaving Sheung Hung homeless and forced to revert to her old skills as a hustler and petty thief. In fact, her theft of a box of jewelry during the evacuation of the warlord’s palace is what brings her into accidental contact with Bai Niu and the Peking Opera troupe, setting in motion a series of events which, in true Hong Kong New Wave form, is as consistently thrilling as it is occasionally confusing. Attempting to hide the jewels while hitching a ride on a cart of props bound for the theater, Sheung Hung loses track of the box and sneaks back stage to track it down on the same night that Cho Wan, her father, and seedy secret police investigator Liu (Ku Feng) arrive for the show. Also on hand are Cho Wan’s accomplice Ling (Mark Cheng) and a luckless soldier (Cheung Kwok Keung) who has found himself roped into everything by circumstance.
One of the hallmarks of the Hong Kong New Wave was a breathless pace, often maintained at the expense of a well thought-out or particularly coherent script. Written by Raymond To – doubtless with input from Tsui Hark, who was usually hands on in every aspect of his films – Peking Opera Blues just barely manages to hold itself together, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Clever plotting and dialogue is not the point of the film. It functions primarily as a vehicle for action spectacle and the development of the relationship between its three very different but very similar leads. And in both of those departments, the film delivers and earns its reputation as a classic of the New Wave.
Lin and Yeh are fantastic, with Yeh proving that her overdramatic histrionics in John Woo’s The Killer weren’t her fault. This might be my favorite role for both women, and they have both done a lot of great work. Cherie Chung manages over the course of the film to turn a shallow, annoying caricature into an actual character. Even underneath the layers of post-production dubbing (the standard for Hong Kong films at the time) and “English as a third language” subtitles, the three women forge a believable bond and share considerable chemistry. You could pretty much drop poor Mark Cheng and Cheung Kwok Keung entirely. They’re fine in their roles, but this movie belongs to the women, and rightfully so.
The only weak spot in the acting, and this is the only real weak spot in the film, is the flamboyant “1980s gay joke” style showcased by most of the supporting characters playing members of the Peking Opera troupe. I have never been back stage at a Peking Opera in the 1910s, so I can’t say for sure what it’s like, but they play it pretty broad here, with lots of prissy hand-waving and sashaying and screaming. but at least they’re the good guys, so clumsy stereotypes aside, that somewhat mitigates the crudeness.
The film’s second goal – to deliver wild, over-the-top action – is also realized handily thanks to seasoned action choreographer Ching Siu-tung, who collaborated with Tsui Hark frequently, including directing his own stellar New Wave fantasy films Chinese Ghost Story and Duel to the Death. The action in Peking Opera Blues is more subdued than in Tsui Hark’s name-making blockbuster Zu, relying less on high-flying martial arts and more on gunplay, slightly more realistic fighting, and that move where you just yell and dive into an oncoming crowd of half a dozen guys. Setting the film partially among Peking Opera affords it a chance to take advantage of the art form’s fanciful costumes and stage trickery, all culminating in a wild rooftop chase and shoot-out.
Some of the comedy is arch, bordering on slapstick, especially when it involves Cherie Chung. But that tendency eventually evens out, and anyone familiar with Hong Kong action films knows that you usually just have to roll with the market’s love for goofball shenanigans even amid otherwise serious and tragic turns of events. Overlooking that (and, truth be told, some of the comedy is actually pretty effective), there’s a reason Peking Opera Blues was so beloved – and no reason, other than disinterest in older films and squabbling over rights – that it has lapsed into near total obscurity these days. It was rightfully one of the foundation films of a Hong Kong film education. It made the careers of Brigitte Lin and Sally Yeh. Well, OK, it made them even bigger than they already were. And it’s one of the few action films of the era not just to star women (there were tons of those), but to focus developing them as characters rather than as mere vehicles for delivering punches and kicks. It’s a shame to see such a classic drop from the public consciousness, but we’ll do what we can to keep the memory alive, because Peking Opera Blues is Hong Kong action cinema at its best.