Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Peach Blossom Land (1992) some 23 years on

My favorite actress of all time starred in the film version of Stan Lai's 
The Peach Blossom Land (image courtesy of www.taiwanacademy.tw)

The Peach Blossom Land (Taiwan, 1992)
- Stan Lai, dir.
- Starring: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Chin Shih Chieh, Lee Li Chun, Ismene Ting Nai Zang, Gu Bao Ming

For fans of Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, this 1992 Stan Lai film can be like the Holy Grail.  An acclaimed adaptation of a popular Performance Workshop play by Lai that premiered in 1986 in Taipei and has gone on to have multiple runs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and even mainland China, The Peach Blossom Land has the Taiwanese screen goddess essaying the same role that she did on stage in Taipei and Hong Kong during the 1991 runs of the slightly differently titled The (Secret Love of the) Peach Blossom Land.

More than a decade ago, I came across a laser disc of The Peach Blossom Land in a Penang video rental store -- but my ecstacy at doing so swiftly dissipated when I found that particular version of the Mandarin language movie didn't possess any subtitles (in English, Chinese or any other language)!  And although there also exists a VCD version of the film (though, as far as I know, nothing in VHS or DVD), it too is sans subtitles of any kind.

Out of desperation, I enlisted the aid of a fellow Brigitte fan(atic) who understood Mandarin to watch the laser disc version of the film with me and provide the closest thing to live simultaneous translation that she could do.  Although the viewing experience was hardly ideal, I did manage to get something out of it -- including enjoying hearing Brigitte Lin's real voice; something that is actually on the rare side, since the vast majority of the movies she appeared in were not synch sound productions.  (Among the other exceptions to the rule are A Journey of Love and Chungking Express. Her voice also can be heard on the Mandarin language track of Ashes of Time, as voiceovers on Bishonen and The Peony Pavilion, and in the documentary about her, Portrait of Lin Ching Hsia.)

Still, it wasn't until after I moved to Hong Kong and attended a performance of The (Secret Love of the) Peach Blossom Land that I got to realizing how excellently written this drama is, and full of emotional meaning and significance too.  But while the play I saw was impressive, the film that I recently got to view -- on a big screen with English subtitles! -- is still more powerful, due to the cinematic medium actually making the work more intimate (with cinematographer Christopher Doyle often offering up close-up shots of people's expressive faces) and, of course, the caliber of the people involved in the 1992 effort.

Playwright and scriptwriter (as well as director) Stan Lai's offering -- be it the stage or film version -- is a complex work that combines two unrelated plays (a sober drama entitled "Secret Love" and a fantastical farce entitled "Peach Blossom Land") along with a story of two different theater troupes encountering and trying to overcome all sorts of difficulties, including their looking to have been booked to take up the same time slot at the same rehearsal space shortly before the first performance of both of their plays!

Brigitte Lin appears in this offering as the actress charged with portraying a character in "Secret Love" named Yun Zhifan as a young woman in Shanghai and also an older woman in Taipei.  Pig-tailed, white dressed and looking pure and innocent in her scenes taking place in a Shanghai park, Zhifan has no idea that she'll end up being separated for decades from Jiang Bingliu, (Chin Shih Chieh), her lover who, shortly after their meeting, will flee with other Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan for what many of them thought would be a temporary sojourn but turned out to be a pretty permanent stay.     

The story of "Secret Love" can seem on the melodramatic and maudlin side, and yet the fact of the matter is that historical events ensured that there were plenty of real life equivalents of Yun Zhifan and Jiang Bingliu in both Taiwan and mainland China for decades, and even now.  Perhaps realizing that the work would be unbearably tragic if it focused alone in this tale, Stan Lai "married" it with a broad comedy about a cuckolded fisherman (Lee Li Chun) who finds peace and happiness in a utopian Peach Blossom Land he accidentally stumbles upon, even though the two denizens he spends the vast majority of time there physically resemble his cheating wife (Ismene Ting Nai Zang) and the man with whom she went on to bear a child (Gu Bao Ming)!

Although "Secret Love" is a serious romance and "Peach Blossom Land" tantamount to a comedic anti-romance, they still have lines and themes in common -- as becomes evident in an amazing scene where the two theatre troupes take to rehearsing their plays at the same time on different parts of the same stage.  In addition, it's obvious too that the Taipei-based director of "Secret Love" sees the play as telling the story of him and the love of his life in Shanghai, something which increases the pathos in a later scene in which Zhifan and Bingliu are more akin to the director's real advanced age, rather than that of the decades younger actress and actor playing those characters.

Watching The Peach Blossom Land twenty-three years after it was made further adds to its emotional impact.  In particular, I found it unexpectedly affecting to watch a then 38-year-old Brigitte Lin poignantly playing a character in the climactic scene who now is actually far closer in age to the real life personality than was the case back in 1992.  

There are films that seem dated when you watch them decades after they were made, and there are those who are said to have stood the test of time.  One could comfortably state the case for The Peach Blossom Land being among the latter -- but I'd go even further and suggest that this work actually may have benefited from being viewed at this later point in time now that there's even more nostalgic feelings surrounding, and infused into, it (and the performance of its first-billed actress).

My rating for the film (viewed with English subtitles in 2015!): 9.0

8 comments:

Bill said...

Hi YTSL,

A very informative piece about Brigitte Lin, especially to learn which films contain her "real voice". The Peach Blossom Land sounds as if it is worth watching out for, should it ever become available in wider distribution.

An article about Brigitte Lin always summons images from her films in my mind...I like her early Taiwanese film, Ghost of the Mirror...I also like Dream Lovers, a regal and mysterious performance by her...Fire Dragon may not be one of Woo Ping's better films, but Brigitte Lin gives such a sensitive and memorable performance, it elevates the movie...I've always thought the first half of Chungking Express was best because of Brigitte Lin, but after she drops her wig, the film becomes meandering and repetitious...I feel the same way about Ashes of Time. Wong Kar Wai should have given her a bigger part.

My favorite Brigitte Lin role exists only in my imagination. It is a kind of sequel to Ashes of Time, but with Brigitte Lin in the starring role (and the film would be directed by someone other than Wong Kar Wai). In her prime, Brigitte Lin would play a conflicted swordswoman, living in the desert, struggling with her own inner conflicts created by her past actions. With her on screen all the time, it would have been a classic intimate portrait of a doppelganger.

Bill


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

Definitely re "The Peach Blossom Land" being worth watching out for -- particular its print version that comes with English subtitles! Don't think it'll ever go on wide distribution but you should look for it at film festivals and retrospective programmes.

As for the Brigitte Lin movie I would love to happen: it'd hands down be an extended version of "Peking Opera Blues", with far more Brigitte in it than Cherie Chung or Sally Yeh! ;b

sarah sbk said...

Hi ytsl & Bill

There is a download of the film here in the US on YouTube but it doesn't have any subtitles.

An interesting note: when I Googled the title I got a hit for a performance of the play, directed by Stan Lai, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. It's playing there April 15-Oct 3, 2015.

YTSL said...

Hi sarah sbk --

I had a look at the film on Youtube. Even if it had subtitles, it'd not be the ideal format to watch it in. Better to wait for the chance of it appearing at an art house cinema venue (somewhat) near you! Or, yes, watch a performance of the play -- though, of course, that wouldn't have Brigitte Lin in it... ;S

sbk said...

I might consider the play if Brigitte were in it and then drive down the coast to San Diego.

It would be great if the movie were shown in this area of the country. It would make a great road trip.

YTSL said...

Hi sbk --

Hmmm, before anything else, looks like you managed to get rid of the "sarah" in front of the sbk!

An appearance by Brigitte -- be it in a play or movie -- is worth a roadtrip. I still have great memories of my taking the train from Philadelphia down to Washington, DC, for a screening of "Peking Opera Blues" at the Smithsonian! ;b

sarah sbk said...

Hi again,

Can I brag? I will anyway. I went to New York to see her in person....along with WKW and a drunk Chris Doyle.....all were wonderful and I was really star struck when she walked down the aisle to the stage.

YTSL said...

Hi sarah sbk --

I call it sharing, not bragging! And in the spirit of sharing, here's linking to your blog post about that very event! ;b

http://pictures-thoughts-comments.blogspot.hk/2008/10/ashes-of-time-redux-plus-part-2-of-2.html