Henry Higgins may have found no answer to his eternal question, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" but Tsui Hark has, and it seems his answer is, "Because she's already smarter, braver and more interesting than him anyway."
Peking Opera Blues, a six-hour epic compressed into 100 minutes, is one of the more glorious celebrations of feminine power cinema has given us. I hardly know what to say about it, however. There's just so MUCH stuffed into this film that it's hard to know where to start. Every five minutes I find myself thinking, "Oh yeah, this part! This part is great!"
But I have to try and control my enthusiasm in order to try and say something coherent about this picture. I guess.
But it's so hard. There's so much. So let's talk about that. About HOW MUCH there is in this wonderful, wonderful movie. There's romance (sort of). There's sinister evil. There's wild action sequences. There's suspense-filled tension. There's comedy of all descriptions. Heroic sacrifices, quick-witted ploys, bonehead mistakes, bonecrunching falls, touching heartfelt reunions, greed, love, duty, honour...
This movie epitomizes nearly everything I love about Hong Kong cinema of the pre-takeover days, most especially that stuffed-full-of-stuff-edness quality that these movies seem to have. Nobody seems able to stuff their movies so full of STUFF like this, not even the same Hong Kong filmmakers anymore. I don't know why that is.
They remind me of a quality Italo Calvino mentions in his Six Memos: lightness. Peking Opera Blues seems to dance along, a few feet above the ground, never getting dragged down into any of its many, many plot threads. Nothing ever gets completely resolved, it seems, none of the relationships get "sorted out", and by the time you get to the end, you're not exactly sure WHAT just happened. But it moves with such light-footed grace, and changes direction so effortlessly, that you're swept along and satisfied despite yourself.
It's as though the PLOT of the movie were in a kung-fu movie, and spends the show leaping and spinning and cartwheeling around every possible obstruction with consummate grace and skill. And I'm a sucker for grace and skill. It's why I prefer fight scenes featuring incredibly gifted performers doing incredibly difficult things over fight scenes featuring computer-generated images. And Peking Opera Blues delivers many of the same sort of thrills, only embodied in the narrative itself rather than any of the performers.
It's a masterful display of storytelling ingenuity, and it delights me beyond measure. And though it certainly celebrates the strength and cleverness of its heroines, through the effortless levitation of its plot it celebrates all that is clever and graceful in our world.
And ultimately, I think that's why we watch clever and graceful things: because lightness gives us joy. It elevates us.