Chinese film offers a rare look at an ancient inscrutable art form

December 22, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

Beijing -- Art and life commingle in the lush new Chinese film, "Farewell My Concubine" -- particularly for Guan Yong.

The widely acclaimed movie touched Mr. Guan not simply because his sister's grandson appears in it. It hit home because, as a boy learning to be a Peking Opera performer, he was beaten in the same cruel way as his grand-nephew and other young actors playing opera students in the film's early scenes.

"Only I was beaten worse -- much, much worse," says Mr. Guan, 58, vice president of the China Traditional Opera College here.

Such punishment now is not allowed, but much in the arcane world of Peking Opera is timeless. And "Concubine," winner of the Palme d'Or award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and scheduled to open in Baltimore at the Rotunda early next year, provides a rare glimpse into this world. Director Chen Kaige's masterful, epic-length movie mixes seamlessly the large-scale tumult of China's history from the 1920s through the 1970s with the intimate details of a tangled love triangle involving two Peking Opera stars and a prostitute. It's about art, love and betrayal.

In the West, much already has been written about the film because it was temporarily banned here earlier this year by authorities. The reasons were the movie's focus on homosexuality, long a taboo topic here, and its ending, which casts doubt on the official line that Chinese life was on the upswing at the end of the Cultural Revolution's decade of ultra-leftism in the late 1970s.

Western audiences

As it turns out, these aspects of the film may make less of an impression in the more jaded West than here. Western audiences may be struck more by the unfamiliar spectacle of Peking Opera, the dominant form of Chinese opera that has endured for two centuries.

Many Western tourists who dutifully attend a Peking opera performance view it much the same way that many foreigners view baseball: as something impenetrable and boring. Its bright costumes, painted faces and acrobatics may attract, but its strange-pitched music and language tend to conjure the image of alley cats fighting.

These days, many young Chinese don't warm to the operas either, preferring to entertain themselves with Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop songs in the growing number of Japanese-style karaoke clubs.

Young Chinese frequently don't know the historical tales on which the traditional operas are based. "I prefer TV because at least you understand the language and can learn about new things," says Wang Jun, a 23-year-old Beijing electrician. "Opera is for the old people. It is something with which they can connect. We young people have our own music."

Mr. Guan, teachers and students at the opera school -- China's top institute for the traditional art -- acknowledge they're facing increasing competition from the more fast-paced diversions of modern life, from TV-watching to money-making.

Subtle and slow

"In today's market economy, no one has time for traditional opera," says Wang Xu, 27, who is studying to be an opera director. "Peking Opera is subtle and slow, like sitting and drinking tea."

It's remarkable then that the school has about 600 students who've opted to spend their lives performing traditional Chinese operas. They start during their junior high school years and spend seven to 10 years studying myriad skills: music, voice, acting, history, literature, language, acrobatics, stage design and directing.

These skills are pursued with a diligence uncommon in the West, says one of the school's half-dozen or so foreign students, Anna Ericsson, a 27-year-old Swedish actress."When they study a skill," she says, "they do it until it's perfect. Then they do it so delicately that they make it look easy."

Ms. Ericsson says she came to China to study Peking Opera because, as opposed to Western theater's naturalism, it is "so melodramatic. If the character is sad, she's really sad. It makes life as large as it really is."

Dress rehearsal

That could be seen on a recent weekday afternoon at the school, when some of its students staged an informal dress rehearsal of a famed opera, "Yang Guifei Becomes Intoxicated."

Yang Guifei is perhaps the most famous concubine in Chinese history; a Tang Dynasty emperor was so infatuated with her that she controlled the court. A rebellion led by her adopted son marked the beginning of the end of one of China's greatest dynasties.

This opera is a simple tale. The emperor is off with two other concubines. Concubine Yang is jealous, so she drinks several cups of alcohol and becomes progressively more tipsy.

This takes more than an hour and involves a court of maidens in full regalia, a couple of smart-aleck courtiers and constant music -- from the strumming of two-stringed Chinese "erhu" to the clashing of cymbals.

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