Filmart Flashback: In 1977, Brigitte Lin Secured Her Gender-Fluid Legacy in 'Dream of the Red Chamber'

Courtesy of HKIFF
Brigitte Lin plays the immature Jia Baoyu, the male heir to the prosperous Jia clan, in 'The Dream of the Red Chamber' (1977).

Lin's collaboration with legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers was the first of many roles in which the Taiwanese screen icon challenged traditional notions of sexuality in Asian cinema.

Many actresses have taken on gender-bending roles in adaptations of classic Chinese literature, but none have done it with the grace, fluidity and respect of Taiwanese superstar Brigitte Lin. Whether as Invincible Asia in The Swordsman II, revolutionary Tsao Wan in Peking Opera Blues or twins Yin and Yang in Ashes of Time, Lin brought gravity, thoughtful ambiguity and a diffuse but distinct sexuality to her challenging performances, which have yet to be topped since her retirement in 1994.

Lin’s first foray into gender-bending came in her first collaboration with Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers on an opulent musical adaptation of Cao Xueqin’s 18th century Qing classic, The Dream of the Red Chamber. It may not have been obvious then, but it was the start of a career-defining motif for Lin: Tom Cruise runs, Harrison Ford points and Brigitte Lin challenges gender norms. Her turn in the hard-to-find film is compelling for its obvious status as a work in progress. Lin’s interpretation of how a young man walks, talks and privately broods may border on parody for some, but it’s nonetheless a compelling performance from a young actress who hadn’t come close to peaking yet.

Paring down the original book’s dozens of chapters and hundreds of characters to a core trio and a simple love story, The Love Eterne director Li Han-Hsiang’s 1977 spin on the tragic tale stars Lin as the immature Jia Baoyu, the male heir to the prosperous Jia clan. Much to the chagrin of Baoyu’s family, he’s in love with his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu (Sylvia Chang), which complicates his planned — some say predestined — marriage to the beautiful but vapid “ideal woman” Xue Baochai (Michelle Yim). Baoyu’s dilemma begins to mirror the family’s impending ruin and failing fortunes more and more, as the dynamic of the love triangle shifts and morphs ahead of the inevitably tragic ending.

Though Dream of the Red Chamber’s vibrant colors, rich production design (many of the film’s exteriors were shot on location, rare at the time), impeccable compositions and heaps of songs couldn’t help Shaw rustle up one last box-office success, it did put Lin on the road to superstardom in Asia and cult status around the world. She eventually left the saccharine melodramas behind in Taiwan and soon found herself working with Ann Hui (Starry Is the Night), Patrick Tam (Love Massacre), Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues) and Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express). Co-star Chang was also able to tap the burgeoning industry for contemporary films in Hong Kong and stepped behind the camera as a director for the first time in 1981. But even with Chang — and a young Kara Wai — along for the ride, The Dream of the Red Chamber is Lin’s film from minute one, and a perfect demonstration of a command of the screen she never relinquished.

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