Saturday, February 20, 2010

Vermilion Door with Li Li-Hua

Li Li-Hua, from The Goddess of Mercy, stars in this drama set against the backdrop of Peking Opera. Following on from YTSL's very informative review, here are my thoughts on 1965's Vermilion Door.

Li Li-Hua plays Mu Guiyang, a Peking Opera star who entrances a warlord, Ruan Shaowen (Cheng Miu).

Mu Guiyang is already in a relationship with her costar Wu Yuqi (Kwan Shan - Rosamund's Kwan's father!).

Mu Guiyang is spirited away -- dragged, rather -- by the warlord and forced to dine with the man.

After she leaves during an all-too-ominous thunderstorm (bad stock footage), she reunites with her fiance, Wu Yuqi, who is arrested by armed troops the next day.

General Ruan's assistant, Ji Xiaoxiong (Yeung Chi Hing), arrives with a bribe just as Mu Guiyang learns of her fiance's kidnapping. Li Li-Hua's acting in this scene is quite nice. A bit dated perhaps, but her range of emotion is so clearly conveyed by her changing expressions that it feels like a fresh moment.

Mu Guiyang goes with the assistant in the hope of freeing her fiance. Escorted through a jail like something out of a Universal film of the 1930s, she finally sees her fiance being tortured as she peers through a door.



It's worth noting that the sets in this film are magnificent. General Ruan's mansion looks amazing and you get a small sense of it in the picture above. I'm sure that the Shaw Studios probably reused these sets -- or they were being reused from an earlier film.

So, the general agrees to free Wu Yuqi and then proceeds to attack Mu Guiyang in a scene straight out of silent film. As the music swells, Cheng Miu actually approaches the cowering Li Li-Hua with arms outstretched like the Frankenstein monster!

Now, I'm the first guy to like stuff from the 1960s that seems a bit dated, or over-the-top, but this was still too obvious for me.

But, given the era, and the wide audience who would see this film, the broad strokes are probably necessary. After all, opera, Chinese or Western, has the same kind of broad emotional moments so it's only fitting that a film set against that opera backdrop have the same kind of moments.

In a mix of subtle moments and histrionics, the couple reunite, a tearful Li Li-Hua simply nodding to signal to her fiance that she was indeed raped by the general.

Still, the lover is supportive and the couple marry in a quick montage of happy moments.

Mu Guiyang confronts General Ruan with the news that she is pregnant in an impressive sequence from director Law Chun. In a series of very wide shots -- that set is amazing! -- the couple discuss things in what almost looks like a filmed play.

Then, there are alternating shots of Li Li-Hua and Cheng Miu, each pushed to the edge of the screen, Li Li-Hua to the left and Cheng Miu to the right, with the rest of the frame in those shots more or less empty.

As the discussion progresses, those shots get tighter and then we pull back far away for a crane shot where the couple appear almost specks on the floor of the general's mansion.

It's almost as if the director is trying to rob General Ruan of the joy he's expressing at having a baby. There's no music as the scene slowly fades out, the silly general shouting his joy at impending fatherhood to no one in particular.



A family friend (Cheung Kwong Chiu) switches the babies in the hospital so that the real baby is taken home to Wu Yuqi and a fake baby -- where did this spare kid come from!?! -- is presented to the General.

Or is the other baby her baby with the general? I was not quite sure.

General Ruan disfigures the face of Wu Yuqi. Wu Yuqi goes to hide in the country while a newspaper headline recounts how General Ruan died in the war with the Communists.

Now, flash-forward some 17 years and Ivy Ling-Po is playing the daughter, Mei Bao.

Funnyman Lee Kwan makes an appearance as Mu Guiyang goes to the countryside to find her daughter and husband.

Having only seen Ivy Ling-Po in huangmei films, or in The 14 Amazons, it was interesting to see her in a relatively naturalistic drama, for lack of a better term. Her wig in these scenes is not very realistic and that was distracting.

As these bits of drama unfold, the news reaches Wu Yuqi that the Japanese are going to invade. I did like the fact this in this scene, and in the earlier one with the news of General Ruan's death, it seemed like an effort was made to place the larger drama within a historical context.

As Ivy Ling-Po sings a Peking Opera song about the enemy approaching, it has a further meaning as we now know about the Japanese troops marching through China.

So while the films feels a bit soap opera-ish in moments, the Peking Opera references, and historical notices, are the bits that elevate it into something more.

I shouldn't discuss the plot any more -- I've probably given away too much as it is -- but while the film sometimes seems overwrought, and dated, and full of highstrung emotions, that's not to say that the film is not well-made.

Given the era, and the intended audience, I can say that I'm sure the ending was tremendously moving.

It would be unfair of me to nitpick too much from a 2010 perspective.

Fans of Li Li-Hua will be richly rewarded with this film.



You can order Vermilion Door on DVD here.

[Photos: YesAsia.com/Celestial Pictures]