There are a lot of ways to approach something like Diau Charn (1958). You can watch it as a historical epic or as an early huangmei success for the Shaw studios.
And, of course, you can watch it with the knowledge of Lin Dai's short life weighing down on you. But, much like I do when I watch a film with my beloved Jean Harlow, I find myself forgetting all that baggage about the lead actress' life and, instead, just so thoroughly enjoy the work of the actress that I almost forget all that tragic stuff outside the film.
duriandave at Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema has a lot of great posts on Lin Dai, like this one, and they help explain her appeal to a modern viewer.
And it's worth noting that this is the first period piece I've seen her in.
And I'm certainly not an expert on huangmei diao. Or Chinese literature, legend, and history.
So the only way I can watch this is as a studio production intended for a mainstream Chinese audience in 1958 (some sources say 1956, but most others say 1958 so that's what I'm going with).
Okay, on to Diau Charn.
(I'm using the name Diau Charn, even though it's most likely supposed to Diao Chan, since Diau Charn is the title of the film. And it's what's in the subtitles.)
In 190, during the Han Dynasty, the wicked warlord Dong Zhuo burns the capital, and the residents, including Diau Charn (Linda Lin Dai), flee in terror with their families. It is here that the story opens.
As Diau Charn mourns her parents in song -- throwing herself over their bodies -- I was struck by how modern the scene felt. Yes, this is a 1950s film but even a novice viewer like me can see modern acting techniques at work.
The presentation may be familiar and stagey -- that's probably what audiences expected with this classic story on film -- but Lin Dai doesn't move like those actresses in other huangmei films; she's decidedly modern. I was a bit surprised with the subtlety of her acting in that scene, though I'm sure some viewers will see it as typically "old fashioned" and of the 1950s.
Diau Charn makes her way to Zhang An city with the rest of the refugees. She soon joins a singing troupe of the reportedly kind Minister Wang (Yeung Chi Hing).
It's nice to see Yeung Chi Hing playing a good character; less than 10 years after this and he'd be typecast as a villainous sort in scores of films.
Diau Charn senses the good Minister Wang's distress and sings a solo song that basically asks what she can do for her country -- how can she help the Han Dynasty return to glory?
Minister Wang overhears and soon has a plan for the lovely Diau Charn to sow dissension in the court of Dong Zhuo.
(I'm hoping duriandave knows the name of the actress who dances an amazingly revealing -- for 1958 or now! -- kind of fan-dance in the court in the subsequent scene!)
Minister Wang helps General Lu Bu (Zhao Lei) repair a headdress and thus gains the man's trust and also admittance into the court as Lin Dai's Diau Charn waits behind a screen.
Director Li Han-Hsiang's camera zooms in on the actress behind the screen in what is probably one of the best moments of Lin Dai's onscreen life.
The actress goes from girlish, to confident, to shy, to seductive, to coy in seconds; she even adjusts her hair in a nice modern movement before playing submissive when Lu Bu finally catches sight of her behind the partition.
An amazing little bit of film that explains wordlessly every charm of the late actress; she does more in a few seconds than most actresses could do with pages and pages of dialogue.
It's similar in some weird way to what happens when watching a James Dean film. As a viewer, you bring this baggage with you about the performer's tragic and all-too-short life, so you look at the performer on screen in a certain way.
But then, that backstory fades from your mind, and you are looking because the performer is quite simply the most exciting thing in the film and you wait for him or her to come back in front of the camera.
Director Li knew what he was doing; the camera is not zooming in because the story requires it, or because the character is saying something special; he's zooming in because Lin Dai is a star and she's bringing to life a character and historical figure that probably everyone in the audience in 1958 knew.
Add to this a modern feel as the camera moves about in many of these scenes -- another touch I didn't expect to find in a 1958 film like this.
So Diau Charn accomplishes her mission: creating tension between Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu. She effectively has the warlord trying to protect her from Lu Bu after provoking him into an emotional moment, and she's clearly won the heart of the general already.
Warlord Dong Zhuo takes the maiden to Meiwu, away from General Lu Bu. Diau Charn sings her solo song amid the golden columns and longs for Lu Bu, thinking of her time with him at the Phoenix Pavilion. Meanwhile, Lu Bu, at the Phoenix Pavilion, is alone and singing a similar song of his real affection for Diau Charn.
Minister Wang confronts Lu Bu and tries to persuade him to think of how history will remember him, how he owes his service to the Han Dynasty. And how, after all, Warlord Dong Zhuo did throw a spear at him the last time they were together!
Now, Lu Bu gathers his troops and plans to fight the traitorous warlord.
After Dong Zhuo is killed by the spear of Lu Bu, Diau Charn faces her greatest challenge.
Minister Wang grimly informs the happy girl that she now must "uproot everything" -- meaning kill Lu Bu since he was once partners with the traitorous warlord -- Dong Zhuo had gone so far as to treat Lu Bu as his son.
I'll not ruin the film with any more of the plot in case there are other Lin Dai fans out there who don't already know this story.
Speaking as a modern film viewer in the year 2010, Diau Charn was much more enjoyable than any number of Ivy Ling-Po huangmei films.
I know that the subject matter is different and all that; I'm just talking in very, very general terms at the moment as someone who sat down to watch this because he liked Lin Dai's modern roles and came away thoroughly enjoying her work in a period piece.
A period piece with singing no less.
The DVD has a 5-minute segment on remastering and restoring the Shaw Brothers library and Diau Charn figures prominently as more than 70% of the negatives were damaged. I know there is some dispute as to the techniques employed in the restoration of these Shaw titles so I'll leave it at that.
The DVD also comes with 4 postcards of Lin Dai.
The bonus VCD is more than an hour long and features some amazing black-and-white newsreel footage of the late star's Jardine's Lookout home taken shortly after her death.
The newsreel footage has English subtitles but the remaining 2007 segments do not.
Still, one doesn't need subtitles to be moved by the sight of Lin Dai's home, preserved as it was at the time of her death.
The lengthy interviews with Cheng Pei-Pei and Petrina "Bobo" Fung do not have English subtitles either.
The black-and-white, Shaw Brothers-produced (?) "Tribute to Lin Dai" from 1964 does have English subtitles, luckily.
There are some wonderful newsreel scenes from the premiere of The Last Woman of Shang (1964), and there are a good two dozen Shaw stars in the arrival scenes, only some of them announced on the narration from the newsreel.
And there's also footage of Shaw starlets arriving for the photo exhibition on Lin Dai, proving that these actresses were not just angels on the screen -- they were/are human after all!
For a goofy movie fan like me, it's like seeing Rita Hayworth in a newsreel greeting soldiers or something.
(I was so excited with this footage on the bonus VCD that I took a picture using my computer's webcam since I don't have my DVD player hooked up to my computer!)
Li Ching arrives at the exhibit, there in the front...
You can buy Diau Charn -- presumably still shipped with the postcards and special bonus VCD? -- here.