Forever Enthralled -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- "Forever Enthralled" is a traditional but elegantly mounted biopic of exalted Beijing opera star Mei Lanfang. Less exotic than his masterpiece "Farewell My Concubine," Chen Kaige nonetheless exhibits a firm grasp of subject, sympathetic characterization and a connoisseur's eye for the cultural milieu of 1930s-'40s China.

For bona fide Chinese opera buffs, the film only lightly touches on Mei's pioneering style, but clearly he is Chen's own projection of an artist's plight in a mercenary, socially bigoted and often politically treacherous world.

The director's marquee name and Mei's iconic status in China earned boxoffice takings of nearly $16.5 million in one month. Selection for competition at Berlinale will help generate critical notice as an art house item outside Chinese circles.

The hourlong first act features not a single celebrity, yet it 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 episode is breathlessly paced and directed with theatrical aplomb. Competing performing styles are showcased in beautifully choreographed opera excerpts. Behind the scenes, the two players' intense dialogue reflects the pros and cons of tradition and innovation as well as a clash of egos. Wang portrays a haughty old guard with the aura of a Shakespearean tragic hero. Yu is a magnetic actor, maintaining a delicate equilibrium between Mei's female personas onstage and his straight-male image offstage.

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 (his affair, his historic Broadway show and his defiance of the Japanese occupation) that imply that art cannot coexist with love, financial security or patriotism in those days. But his impresario Qiu Rubai's implication that Mei's art is inspired by loneliness is groundless and rather cliched.

Zhang Ziyi appears only for 35 minutes as Mei's lover Meng Xiaodong, but she gives the romance its sparkle. Her confidence and passion compensate for Lai's acting, which alternates between bland and morose.

Art direction is superb, from splendidly lit interiors to authentic costumes and accessories, evoking the theater culture and literati scene of 1930s Beijing.

Opened: Thursday, Jan. 1 (Hong Kong)
Production: China Film Group, Emperor Motion Pictures, CMC Entertainment
Cast: Leon Lai, Zhang Zhiyi, Sun Honglei, Chen Hong, Yu Shaoqun, Wang Xueqi
Director: Chen Kaige
Screenwriters: Yan Geling, Chen Kuofu, Zhang Jialu
Producer: Zhao Haicheng
Executive producer: Han Sanping, Du Jiayi
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoshi
Art drector: Liu Qing
Music: Zhao Jiping
Costume designer: Chen Tongxun
Editor: Zhou Ying
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
No rating, 147 minutes