. . . Peking Opera Blues

. . .

Three Women The 100 Super Movies au maximum: Peking Opera Blues

For a not-very-observant observer like myself, there was King Hu, and Jackie Chan, and any amount of reasonably distracting nonsense, but it took Peking Opera Blues to show that the Hong Kong studio system worked, and that it was working to an extent that hadn't been seen since 1930s Hollywood. A pool of talent placed under immense pressure to produce had somehow been broken down into a primordial soup where genres, techniques, and formulas spontaneously recombined in new (and sometimes even viable) forms.

Unused to genuine movement in movies, first-time Peking Opera Blues viewers often feel at a loss; the opening sequence plunges them into a whitewater of Nashville-style protagonist relay, precision slapstick, satire, and suspense with absolutely no exposition to cling onto. If you can't make sense of it, rest assured it's just because there's so much sense condensed into the can -- albeit well befuddled by English subtitles that have been hacked out in the manner one might expect when English subtitling is dictated by colonial law. [Hint: Distrust pronouns and verb tenses.]

(The VHS tape fuddles all the more by being neither letterboxed nor exactly pan-and-scanned: instead it's kind of squoze up skinny so's you have to lie on your back under the TV to watch it. If you can't get to a theater showing, get to the DVD.

And then and only then get to the next paragraph, because I'm about to, quite literally, give away the ending....)

Similarly, many first-time viewers are mystified by an apparent lack of closure. There is, in fact, an ending to the film. It's just that the ending is positioned entirely outside the story proper and seems so incongruously dismal that it's easy to overlook. But given the violent shifts in mood and technique that have already been established, the ending, once noticed, is deeply satisfying: The movie gains its power from alternating current, and this is where the plug's pulled out.

The ending's even easier to overlook on the DVD release, because it's been removed, probably for political reasons.

Many 1980s HK productions -- Tsui Hark's especially -- display a cynical pessimism entirely understandable in colonial subjects who are about to be handed over to a dogmacracy. (Compare James Joyce on Ireland....) "The People" are Busby-Berekley-choreographed sheep, and anyone with the hubris to try to save an entire country will soon become a betrayer, a victim, or a tyrant.

Two of the five heroes of Peking Opera Blues are revolutionaries, but they're hopelessly naive and their strategy is pure MacGuffin. When the movie's autocratic General justifies his acceptance of a usurious foreign loan, he's corrupt and villainous but he's also right: "What'll the world be 47 years later [when China's repayment is due]? Who knows?" And when his daughter betrays him to bring democracy to China, she's patriotic and heroic -- but also mistaken. The only sacrifices the film can wholeheartedly endorse are those made for communities small enough to fit in a room: the accidental friendship of the five protagonists, for example; or a theater troupe; or one's family.

The story proper ends with the five friends reluctantly, individually, deciding to split up. They exchange some final reassurances: "After the revolution, meet you in Peking." "See you then." "Take care." "OK!" And the DVD then rests on this very long freeze frame, bare even of the expected "Coming Soon: Peking Opera Blues II - The Charge of the Ticketmaster!":


But the original release, as shown in theaters and on VHS, goes on to explain...

Five months later,
Five months later,
Yuan's conspiracy was exposed
Yuan's conspiracy was exposed
Parliament was dissolved
Parliament was dissolved
Yuan proclaimed himself Emperor
Yuan proclaimed himself Emperor
The country split in two, war broke out
The country split in two, war broke out
Thus the Chinese democratic revolution began all over again
Thus the Chinese democratic revolution began all over again

... before decidedly terminating for good and all in a theatrically demonic laugh:

Kleio, HK style

. . .

Fear more the heat o'the sun

For thirty years I've shelved William Congreve's comedies near the center of my personal canon, and it shames me that I can't contort myself to enter what contemporaries considered his most serious work: monotonic blank verse tragedy, heroically coupleted epistles and translations, sheepish elegies, and authentically bootlicking Pindaric odes. I gaze and glaze and it's as if Preston Sturges spent the 1950s filming CinemaScope epics about Mamie Eisenhower.

Congreve's shorter lyrics, many meant for singing, go down more easily, like vodka punch at a dull party. They push a glossy, genial cynicism or, since most of the singers are male, genial misogyny unencumbered by Herrick's manic invention or Rochester's Black Jack medical calling.

Tell me no more I am deceiv’d;
That Cloe’s false and common:
I always knew (at least believ’d)
She was a very Woman;
As such, I lik’d, as such, caress’d,
She still was constant when possess’d,
She could do more for no Man.
But oh! her Thoughts on others ran,
And, that, you think a hard thing;
Perhaps, she fancy’d you the Man,
And what care I one Farthing?
You think she’s false, I'm sure she’s kind;
I take her Body, you her Mind,
Who has the better Bargain?

Indicating how little in this thin-blooded vein sparks Congreve's interest, three of the better poems share a closing (and maybe a germinal) image: the sun, lost without regret.

Doris, a Nymph of riper Age,
Has ev’ry Grace and Art;
A wise Observer to engage,
Or wound, a heedless Heart.
Of Native Blush, and Rosie Dye,
Time has her Cheek bereft;
Which makes the prudent Nymph supply,
With Paint, th’injurious Theft.
Her sparkling Eyes she still retains,
And Teeth in good Repair;
And her well-furnish’d Front disdains
To grace with borrow’d Hair.
Of Size, she is nor short, nor tall,
And does to Fat incline
No more, than what the French wou’d call,
Aimable Embonpoint.
Farther, her Person to disclose
I leave let it suffice,
She has few Faults, but what she knows,
And can with Skill disguise.
She many Lovers has refus’d,
With many more comply’d;
Which, like her Cloaths, when little us’d,
She always lays aside.
She’s one, who looks with great Contempt
On each affected Creature,
Whose Nicety would seem exempt,
From Appetites of Nature.
She thinks they want or Health or Sense,
Who want an Inclination;
And therefore never takes Offence
At him who pleads his Passion.
Whom she refuses, she treats still
With so much sweet Behaviour,
That her Refusal, through her Skill,
Looks almost like a Favour.
Since she this Softness can express
To those whom she rejects,
She must be very fond, you’ll guess,
Of such whom she affects.
But here our Doris far outgoes,
All that her Sex have done;
She no Regard for Custom knows,
Which Reason bids her shun.
By Reason, her own Reason’s meant,
Or if you please, her Will:
For when this last is Discontent,
The first is serv’d but ill.
Peculiar therefore is her Way;
Whether by Nature taught,
I shall not undertake to say,
Or by Experience bought.
But who o’er-night obtain’d her Grace,
She can next Day disown,
And stare upon the Strange-Man’s Face,
As one she ne’er had known.
So well she can the Truth disguise,
Such artful Wonder frame,
The Lover or distrusts his Eyes,
Or thinks ’twas all a Dream.
Some, Censure this as Lewd and Low,
Who are to Bounty blind;
For to forget what we bestow,
Bespeaks a noble Mind.
Doris, our Thanks nor asks, nor needs,
For all her Favours done
From her Love flows, as Light proceeds
Spontaneous from the Sun.
On one or other, still her Fires
Display their Genial Force;
And she, like Sol, alone retires,
To shine elsewhere of Course.
To a Candle. Elegy.
Thou watchful Taper, by whose silent Light,
I lonely pass the melancholly Night;
Thou faithful Witness of my secret Pain,
To whom alone I venture to complain;
O learn with me, my hopeless Love to moan;
Commiserate a Life so like thy own.
Like thine, my Flames to my Destruction turn,
Wasting that Heart, by which supply’d they burn.
Like thine, my Joy and Suffering they display,
At once, are Signs of Life, and Symptoms of Decay,
And as thy fearful Flames the Day decline,
And only during Night presume to shine;
Their humble Rays not daring to aspire
Before the Sun, the Fountain of their Fire:
So mine, with conscious Shame, and equal Awe,
To Shades obscure and Solitude withdraw;
Nor dare their Light before her Eyes disclose,
From whose bright Beams their Being first arose.
The Decay. A Song.
Say not, Olinda, I despise
The faded Glories of your Face,
The languish’d Vigour, of your Eyes,
And that once, only lov’d Embrace.
In vain, in vain, my constant Heart,
On aged Wings, attempts to meet
With wonted speed, those Flames you dart,
It faints and flutters at your Feet.
I blame not your decay of Pow’r,
You may have pointed Beauties still,
Though me alas, they wound no more,
You cannot hurt what cannot feel.
On youthful Climes your Beams display,
There, you may cherish with your Heat,
And rise the Sun to gild their Day,
To me benighted, when you set.

Probably I only noticed this reuse because the image was presented so plainly, and always with the same associations. They could easily have been varied, by, for example, cautioning against flights too near the sun. (In Congreve's two myth-based libretti, Apollo appears only to lead the audience in a drinking song after a heroine's tragic death.) Or by referencing the use of pinhole projection to view sun-spots.

The era's new-found sense of propriety likely snuffed any such impulse. 1 Congreve wouldn't want to risk The Double Dealer's workshop scene:

For as the sun shines every day,
So, of our coachman I may say

BRISK. I’m afraid that simile won’t do in wet weather; because you say the sun shines every day.

LADY FROTH. No, for the sun it won’t, but it will do for the coachman: for you know there’s most occasion for a coach in wet weather.

BRISK. Right, right, that saves all.

LADY FROTH. Then, I don’t say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day too, you know, though we don’t see him.

BRISK. Right, but the vulgar will never comprehend that.

His casts included no author's mouthpiece; each part's in its place and he in his, the untouched retoucher. His gifts were observational and structural, not egocentric the impulses of a novelist, just a few years too early for novels. His teenage romance 2, Incognita, thrills to the sound of its own voice 3 and the sight of its own Tinkertoy mechanics, but must respect generic proprieties with traditional characters of wood.

Which confined Congreve-the-observer to the wicked stage, Puritan bait. Congreve's sense of the proper was dear to him, and he seems to have felt genuinely wounded when an increasingly stringent hypocrisy turned against his plays. His damning response was a defense of his craft, not his faith. And by the end of the century, Fanny Burney's Evelina would feel properly scandalized by Love for Love, despite novel-deep submersion in a wickeder plot.

Out of the light, Congreve can see rather than be seen. In lyric first person, he displays a cabinet of withdrawal; he has nothing to show except what he's found. The only verse in which a Romantically-schooled reader might recognize human feeling is an exsanguinated Keatsian swoon:

On Mrs. Arabella Hunt, Singing.
Let all be husht, each softest Motion cease,
Be ev’ry loud tumultuous Thought at Peace,
And ev’ry ruder Gasp of Breath
Be calm, as in the Arms of Death.
And thou most fickle, most uneasie Part,
Thou restless Wanderer, my Heart,
Be still; gently, ah gently, leave,
Thou busie, idle thing, to heave.
Stir not a Pulse; and let my Blood,
That turbulent, unruly Flood,
Be softly staid:
Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.
Go, rest, unnecessary Springs of Life,
Leave your officious Toil and Strife;
For I would hear her Voice, and try
If it be possible to die.

Suicide by appreciation: the liebestod of the critic.

1   Donald McKenzie helpfully cites James Boaden's later praise for "To a Candle": "Here we have none of the perverse ingenuity of the metaphysical poets. The points of contact seem obvious, and not to be missed; but such a parallel, so continued and so exact, was never made out before."

2   By which I mean a romance written by a teenager.

3   This aside seems made to footnote:

Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed.



Tsui Hark? Well, I haven't myself read his lyric poetry, but I doubt it's as interesting as Peking Opera Blues.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.