Empty"Forever Enthralled" is a traditional but elegantly mounted biopic of exalted Beijing opera star Mei Lanfang. Helmer Chen Kaige exhibits a firm grasp of subject, sympathetic characterization and a connoisseur's eye for the cultural milieu of 1930s-'40s China.
The hourlong first act is the most riveting part. Rising star Mei (Yu Shaoqun) is challenged by his mentor, Swallow 13 (Wang Xueqi), to a popularity contest. Chen captures the mind of an artist on the threshold of transformation — jittery about his own genius yet intoxicated by the prospect of revolutionizing culture.
The film's magic wanes a little when Leon Lai enters as the middle-aged Mei. The script also shifts into more conventional territory, dramatizing pivotal experiences in Mei's life that imply that art could not coexist with love, financial security or patriotism in those days.
Art direction is superb, from splendidly lit interiors to authentic costumes, evoking the theater culture and literati scene of 1930s Beijing.