Monday, December 6, 2010

Linda Lin Dai Week: Beyond The Great Wall (1959)

For more on Linda Lin Dai, check out duriandave's Soft Film blog. For a short biography of Linda Lin Dai, check out this site.

Linda Lin Dai plays concubine Wang Zhaojun who arrives at the palace of the emperor in Beyond The Great Wall (1959). Sparing not much expense, director Li Han-Hsiang shows us the palace in a fair amount of splendour for 1959. In another decade, the same director would be tackling far more erotic movies about concubines for the Shaw Brothers studio.

Zhaojun offends painter Mao (Hung Por). It seems that the guy was painting portraits of the girls for the emperor to select from and the better the portrait, the more chances of the emperor picking that girl.

It's sort of a tawdry subject when you get right down to it.

And to see the lovely Lin Dai singing a sad song because she didn't get picked with the other concubines is a bit weird.

The painter is taking bribes to paint beautiful portraits of the gals and Zhaojun doesn't have the money. When a court official tells the emperor of her, and that she looks ordinary, you have to laugh.

The film is so clearly designed around Lin Dai that you half expect a spotlight to be shining on her the whole time.

I don't mean that in a negative way; it's just the way things were in Hong Kong -- and Hollywood, for that matter -- in the 1950s. Every other actor in Beyond The Great Wall seems ordinary next to Lin Dai.

How could they not?

So the emperor (Chao Lei) is so smitten with Lin Dai's concubine that he wants the painter arrested for not having painted this girl's portrait earlier.

Suddenly, the emperor is a one-woman man.

The best scenes in Beyond The Great Wall (1959) involve Lin Dai bonding with the emperor. As director Li Han-Hsiang starts to move his camera around the spacious sets, the film feels less like you're watching a filmed play.

It's a facile observation but an important one. From what I understand, huangmeixi doesn't seem to necessarily lend itself to a film presentation so how to make it interesting for viewers sitting in a darkened movie theater for 90 minutes?

Location shots, spacious sets, and big stars.

So, the painter who the emperor was after goes into exile and ends up starting a war with a neighboring kingdom.

Somehow the warlord Khan (Lee Ying) thinks that Zhaojun is the princess he's betrothed to.

Brave Zhaojun tearfully agrees to go to the warlord to prevent a war between the two kingdoms.

And then Khan's attendant suggests that this straightforward plan is a trap. And so on.

You know, I'll be honest and say that watching Lin Dai in these huangmeixi films is work. The films are more accessible than those starring Ivy Ling-Po but that's because of the Hollywood touches in these titles.

And Linda Lin Dai's considerable starpower. Yes, she could do period pieces but she seemed more suited to modern settings.

That said, most of these titles have little moments that make them watchable and there are enough of those little moments in the otherwise routine Beyond The Great Wall to make the film watchable.

The one unique pleasure of Beyond The Great Wall (1959) is the scene where Lin Dai, in the garb of Khan's kingdom, finally gets an audience with the painter whose actions caused this whole drama in the first place.

Lin Dai seems too apple-cheeked to be entirely believably vindictive here. Still, it's fun for a Shaw Brothers fan to see an angry Lin Dai for a change.

Add 10 years and Lily Ho to this same plot device, and a viewer would be rewarded with some real haughtiness. Still, Lin Dai wants the viewer's affection and, to her credit, we don't fear her in this scene as much as we admire her.

It's a moment where a plot is bending before our eyes to the charms of the film's leading lady.

Still, when the ending of this thing rolled around I was back to thinking how unsuited Lin Dai was for period pictures.

I don't say that as some ignorant viewer in 2010 who just can't get his head around something "old"; I say that because I don't think Hollywood audiences would have believed Doris Day in a period piece either.

So, watch Beyond The Great Wall for some simple, artificial pleasures and a typically good performance from Linda Lin Dai.

The DVD features a 14-minute documentary on the huangmeixi romances of the Shaw Brothers studios which does have English subtitles but none on the names of the experts speaking on camera -- who are these people?

Additionally, there is a 15-minute documentary on director Li Han-Hsiang featuring English subtitles and a few recognizable actors and actresses -- even without English subtitles on them.

More importantly, the documentary features a contemporary bit of interview footage with singer Ching Ting whose singing voice was dubbed in for Lin Dai's in many of these features.

You can order Beyond The Great Wall (1964) on DVD here.