Hong Kong, 2001
director: Johnnie To & Wai Kai-fai
screenplay: Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ben Wong King-fai
cinematography: Cheng Siu-keung
editor: Lau Wing-cheong, Wong Wing-ming
design: Bruce Yu Ka-on
music: Raymond Wong Ying-wah
producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai
production co.: Milkyway Image ; One Hundred Years of Film
Official website (English & Chinese)
Anita Mui Yim-fong ... Emperor Qi / Ancestor Huan
Sammi Cheng Sau-man ... Wu Yen
Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi ... Fairy Enchantress / Yinchun
with Raymond Wong Ho-yin, Lam Suet, Bonnie Wong Man-wai, Wong Tin-lam, Hui Siu-hung, Joe Cheng Cho, Ai Wai
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer, January 31, 2001.
Wu Yen is the latest collaboration by director/producers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, who set the standard for quality in the post-1997 HK film industry with their Milkyway Image film company productions. Their comedy Needing You was the surprise local hit of 2000. Wu Yen is their first Chinese New Year film, a period comedy that looks like it should be one of the hits of 2001.
The plot is based on an old Chinese folk legend that has been depicted in several earlier Hong Kong films and featured in Cantonese opera. As portrayed in the current film, the story concerns a complicated love triangle set in the distant past. A female outlaw warrior Zheng Wuyan (aka Chung Mo-yim, aka Wu Yen, played by Sammi Cheng) and a Fairy Enchantress who moves between male and female personas (Cecilia Cheung) vie for the affections of the Emperor Qi (Anita Mui). The Fairy Enchantress in her male incarnation loves Wu Yen. Jealous that Wu Yen and the Emperor are fated to be married, she attempts to woo the latter in order to win the former. Wu Yen's face is "flawed" by a red birthmark, which repulses the thoroughly superficial and irresponsible Emperor Qi. But Wu Yen, apprised of their predestined marriage, struggles to win his love. Farcical palace intrigues (involving much disguise switching and imprisoning) are interrupted when the Qi Kingdom is attacked, twice. The situation can be saved only if Wu Yen can be prevailed upon to lead the Emperor's army each time. The Emperor, who repeatedly relies on Wu Yen's heroism, must decide which of her two lovers to marry.
The film is set over 2000 years ago in the Warring States era, before China was united under the Qin Emperor. The viewer, then, can enjoy a setting distinct from the usual Ming/Qing period film, one featuring the distinctive concave upswept hats affixed with large pins that decorate the men, and a much more "archaic" look to women's gorgeous, elaborately layered costumes.
At first glance, Wu Yen appears to be a Stephen Chiau-style movie that situates Anita Mui in the typical Chiau role (Chiau was the king of "moleitau" or verbal nonsense comedy in Hong Kong in the '90s). This is an ultra-high speed verbal comedy that relies on the quality of the writing, as well as the performances by the three principles. Verbal delivery is Stephen Chiau speed, hurtling along from line to line with barely a gap for breath. Anita Mui can handle the challenge brilliantly. She's hilarious, furiously energetic, and loose, all at once. She plays two male roles (the Emperor and the ghost of his ancestor), and manages a nice evocation of male swagger, authority, and goofy irresponsibility without lapsing into tiresome caricature. Mui's formidable technique frees her, even in non-verbal scenes, to express a broad range of expressions just with her face and body alone. Who else could manage this kind of sustained, bravura comic performance that in addition creates a character with real depth? Mui even manages to pull off a double-drag scene, in which the Emperor must disguise himself as a concubine: it's as much fun as can be imagined to watch Mui playing a man playing (badly) a woman ... (the joys of mise-en-abîme, if you tend to French deconstruction). A glorious performance that (although it's very early to say this) should put her in the running for best actress of 2001.
Sammi Cheng, a reigning Cantopop diva of the most glitteringly elegant persuasion, confirms that she is also a real actress (if more proof were needed after Needing You and Killing Me Tenderly). She trades in her stylish songstress persona for something much more varied and expressive: she can play romantic, daffy, furious, petulant (fortunately there's less of this), comic-noble, frenzied-energetic, swaggeringly heroic... just about anything that the script calls for. Not as polished a performance as Mui's, perhaps, but in some ways more challenging, calling for greater range. It stakes out new ground for Cheng, showing off aspects of her talent that we haven't yet had occasion to admire.
The third lead, Cecilia Cheung, is somewhat disappointing. She's an actress who can exhibit real depth and surprising power with the right collaborators (especially in her work in director Aubrey Lam's Twelve Nights). But To and Wai seem to not know what to do with her here, and, left to her own devices, Cheung seems out of place, too one-dimensional. There's no consistent heft or presence to her character, which should provide many opportunities (with its triple or quadruple roles, much gender-switching, and moments of moral confusion) for an actress to shine.
In the technical departments: Raymond Wong Ying-wah provides another superb musical score. The art direction and cinematography, though, let the film down, which is extremely unusual for a Milkyway Image production. Sets looked rather cheap, colours seemed subdued, and the whole production had a rather "shot for television" look about it: too many routine medium close-ups and shot-reverse shot patterns. There were rare moments of beauty, such as Cheng's return to her forest hide-out, as she walks through a field of shimmering moonlit grass. Most striking, though, were the delicately realized shadow puppet scenes. Set to a woman's chorus, these superb interludes narrated plot background and enacted the magical and battle sequences that demonstrated Wu Yen's heroism. What a wonderful way to save money and do something artful, at the same time. I can't think of anything in a Chinese film quite like it.
[caution: the next paragraphs discuss the film's ending: readers who have yet to see the film might want to check out here]
Despite Wu Yen's obvious nods to the Chinese New Year film -- a comedy of high spirits, laced with Rabelasian "lowbrow" humour, suitable for the whole family (i.e. designed for maximum box office success), culminating in a romantic "happy ending" -- the screenplay is far from complacent about its participation in that genre. A complex structural underpnning reveals itself most clearly in the radically anarchic-gender mixing at play in the story. Mui portrays a man who momentarily takes on a female disguise; Cheng is a sword-wielding woman hero (a nuxia) who, in a comic episode, finds herself with beard, mustache, low voice, and rather more primary male sexual characteristics. Cheung is situated between them: she plays a female fox fairy whose screen time is equally divided between male and female personas. Borders are dissolved, gender rules stretched beyond the breaking point. Much of this might be comfortably contained in a routinely well-designed Chinese New Year film.
So might the rather pointed political satire that Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To use to spice up the film. So, hapless HKSAR Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's lame slogan "Hong Kong will win for sure" is mocked in the Emperor's Seven Kingdoms Games slogan "Qi will win for sure". Just as the HK government's push to host the Asian Games (and, by not too difficult extension,the PRC leaders' campaign to secure the 2008 Olympic Games) is parodied by the Qi Kingdom's own ridiculous athletic event.
But lines like Wu Yen's eloquent denunciation of romance ("Love is destruction and sabotage, motivated by self interest and greed, so that it leads to hatred, revenge, and war") point towards a more troubling, less playful conclusion. Wu Yen's ultimate rebellion against the strictures of closure mark her journey -- from acceptance of fate to the edge of renunciation -- as the film's core. "But I want to leave!" is her final line, just as she and the Enchantress, both pregnant, are about to be accepted as equal wives of the now reformed Emperor. Although opening the ending of a traditional New Year comedy might seem to twist the genre too far for comfort, it is not surprising to see the darker critical vision of To and Wai's earlier Milkyway Image films reasserting itself here. But this time, with an anti-cynical twist: the female hero Wu Yen has, for perhaps the first time in a film by this company, the vision and power to triumph over complacency and cynicism. A "happy Milkyway ending", after all?
with thanks to Sebastian Tse for his contributions
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