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'Peking Opera Blues': An Ode to the Two Tones of Hong Kong


Peking Opera Blues, Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh, Cherie Chung looking at each other
Golden Princess Film Production

Editor's Note: The first Pride marches in Asia were held in Japan in 1994, more than 20 years after the ones held in the U.S.. Of course, “pride” is essentially a Western concept, so this isn’t to say that countries in the East were necessarily “slower” to celebrate queerness. On the contrary, as we hope to show with the films in The Asian Cut's Pride 2024 series, Asia has such rich, diverse, and complex queer histories, particularly when it comes to its many LGBTQ+ cinema industries. And while the handful of films in this collection could never adequately cover the vastness of Queer Asia, we are hopeful that they — and the insights our writers bring — will serve as a launchpad for your curiosity, your enthusiasm, and, at the very least, your love


 

To appreciate Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues (刀馬旦) is to appreciate the time period the film exists in (1913) and the time period the film was released (1986). Separated by nearly 75 years, Tsui finds harmony between two distinct points in history: the beginning of China’s existence as a republic; and the imminence of the handover of Hong Kong.


When Peking Opera Blues was developed, filmed, and released, there was a foreboding cloud of uncertainty over Hong Kong. By 1986, concerns as to how mainland China would change Hong Kong’s politics, economics, and culture became heightened. Emigration from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. increased exponentially. And for Hong Kong’s flourishing film industry, censorship and investment were top of mind. 


While Peking Opera Blues doesn’t enjoy the same classic status as other Hong Kong productions like Infernal Affairs, In The Mood for Love, and A Better Tomorrow, Tsui puts together a film that personifies Hong Kong filmmaking — and in many ways Hong Kong culture — unabashedly and entirely. But more poignantly, it exemplifies the murky waters the people of Hong Kong had to navigate at that time. The back and forth, and sometimes contradictory, thought process of a city unsure of its future.


Set against the fall of the Qing dynasty, Peking Opera Blues shows the city of Peking (more commonly romanized today as Beijing) in flux as fights for power and territory spread across the country. The film follows three disconnected women entangled in the political upheaval: Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), the daughter of General Tsao (Kenneth Tsang) and a member of the underground revolutionary movement for democracy; Pat Neil (Sally Yeh), the daughter of the owner of a Peking opera troupe; and Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a giggley musician whose initial desire in the film is to retrieve the jewellery she stole from a general’s wife.


Their stories become intertwined early on in the film when General Tsao and Tsao Wan visit Pat Neil’s father’s opera house. As Tsao Wan attempts to covertly meet with a fellow revolutionary to discuss a plan to take down President Yuan Shikai, Sheung Hung, looking for the jewellery she stashed with the troupe’s cargo accidentally, hides in the trunk of Tsao Wan’s car who leaves the opera house unaware. Eventually, Pat Neil and Sheung Hung will join Tsao Wan on her mission.


Peking Opera Blues, Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh, Cherie Chung standing together at Peking opera
Golden Princess Film Production

Although it doesn’t sound like an outright laugh riot, the first-half of Peking Opera Blues operates squarely as a comedy, with Tsui applying the broad stylings of Hong Kong humour to effectively satirize the politics of China and its corrupt officials. As the film continues on, a healthy dose of Hong Kong’s hallmark action prevails as the tone shifts to heavy dramatics where torture and threats of sexual assault are inflicted upon our heroines, particularly Tsao Wan.


The film’s tonal shift can be demarcated with a scene involving the three women hanging out in front of a roaring fire at Tsao Wan’s family mansion wearing flowing white nighties. As they giggle over wine, the three hover over a globe. Pat Neil and Sheung Hung’s unfamiliarity over this object leads them to be aghast with how small Peking is in comparison to the rest of the world — a literal dot amidst this massive sphere.


Sheung Hung: If Peking is just a dot, the world is huge. Where can I go? 

Tsao Wan: You want to go somewhere else?

Sheung Hung: Everyone says they’re leaving...

Pat Neil: I don’t understand people. Things are pretty good here, why would you leave?

Tsao Wan: We can all run around, but we’ll just end up going back.


It’s not difficult to see the contemporary meaning buried within the dialogue; and truly, Tsui and screenwriter Raymond To get to the heart of Hong Kong’s conflict that continues to this day. The decision to stay or go agonizes. Perhaps through Peking Opera Blues, with all its overt Hong Kong-ness, Tsui wanted to remind those in Hong Kong what makes the place a point of pride and comfort to so many. A reminder that this place is pretty good, so why leave?


This particular scene also includes the only moment in the film where Tsao Wan is depicted wearing what would be traditionally considered as female garments; throughout the film, Tsao Wan sports cropped hair, trousers, and sometimes even military garb. Early on, it’s implied that Tsao Wan’s gender-blurring wardrobe serves as a disguise for her revolutionary work, given her prominent standing as a general’s daughter. When asked by Pat Neil, though, why she dresses so “strangely,” Tsao Wan simply tells her that it’s a lot more convenient to get things done when people can’t tell if she’s a man or a woman. 


Peking Opera Blues, Brigitte Lin, Mark Cheng stare at each other
Golden Princess Film Production

Tsao Wan’s sartorial choices recall the most famous Chinese folk heroine: Hua Mulan. Made famous the world over by Disney, the legend of the warrior who disguised herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place during conscription has endured for nearly 2,000 years in Chinese culture. In Peking Opera Blues, though, Tsui signals a change in this dynamic. Tsao Wan’s dress is not a disguise, but a means for her to achieve her goals — goals which inherently require her to betray her father.


Cross-dressing prevails as commonplace across Peking Opera Blues wherein the members of Pat Neil’s father’s opera troupe follows the custom at the time and doesn’t allow women to perform on stage. In spite of all the far-fetched circumstances laid out in the film, Tsui imbues a lot of the mise-en-scène with historical facts and names, including the film’s title.


The Chinese title of the film (刀馬旦) — phonetically pronounced, dou ma dan — translates into sword horse actress. Importantly the final character used for “actress” specifically refers to the lead female role in Peking opera that were played by men, as per the order of the Qing dynasty who deemed women performing on stage as indecent. A sword horse actress was a particular type of dan in Peking opera, namely warriors typically on horseback who exhibit great physicality. 


In Peking Opera Blues, Tsui depicts the dans of the opera troupe as flamboyant men who dazzle on stage and act catty off. He also grants moments to these performers showing the harassment they encounter, especially from the powerful men who come to watch them on stage. As with his recall of Mulan, Tsui updates a tradition’s old concept, this time laying bare the reality of these performers. 


It’s almost as if Tsui makes a case for how the old and new can be embraced together as one. How a change in society isn’t necessarily for the worse, but potentially for the better, if an effort is made to adapt and improve upon the old. But for all of Tsui’s artistic arrows arguably pointing towards an amenable future, he offers a warning sign as well.


Tsao Wan fought to ensure that the monarchy of the Qing dynasty was extinguished for good — that China would enter into a republic without the draconian weight of the past contaminating the future. While the film doesn’t go beyond the singular mission, Hong Kong audiences in 1986 were aware of what awaited the country and its people after Tsao Wan’s victory: famine, persecution, totalitarianism, violence, censorship. The excitement of Pat Neil and Sheung Hung exploring the globe eventually becomes a bittersweet moment knowing that the governing Chinese Communist Party would close the country off to the world for decades. 


Things are pretty good here, why would you leave?


A film like Peking Opera Blues would be near impossible to make in Hong Kong today. Displays of corruption among Chinese government officials, stupidity and depravity of generals, overt same-sex desires from officials, torture against a revolutionary, a revolutionary — China’s Central Propaganda Department would have lost their minds. Which makes Tsui’s film all the more necessary when considering Hong Kong’s classic cinema. It’s a film that entertains regardless of time or place, but for a city that held their breath awaiting their fate, Peking Opera Blues offered a hilarious, action-filled, dramatic mirror to confront their feelings, no matter how mixed, conflicted, or messy they were. 

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