Monday, 1 October 2007

Peony Pavilion (2001)

English title: Peony Pavilion.
Chinese title: Strolling in a Garden/Interrupting a Dream (游园惊梦 "You Yuan Jing Meng").

Peony Pavilion (2001). Chinese LGBT period dramaThe Chinese title is based on the names of 2 acts in Peony Pavilion, which is the most popular play performed in the Kunqu Opera.

Having said that, the movie isn't at all based on the story of this Chinese classic. Part of this play however is performed by the 2 female lead characters (Lan & Jade) in Kunqu Opera tradition in this film.

I suspect the inclusion of Kunqu Opera into the UNESCO's intangible heritage list in 2001, and the release of this film in the same year may not be a coincidence. Especially given the fact that Yonfan's passion for the Chinese opera could be seen by the fact that he made a documentary film about Kunqu Opera.

The Kunqu Opera performances in this film were done in the classical gardens of Suzhou. Anyone who travels to Suzhou to see the UNESCO classical gardens would inevitably has exposure to Kunqu Opera as this art form is originated in the Wu culture, and Suzhou is the capital city of the ancient Wu Kingdom (the area that's known as Jiangnan - considered the most beautiful area in China - today is in fact that of the Wu Kingdom).

This Yonfan movie focuses on the letters 'B' an 'L' in Yonfan's list of LGBT films.

I mentioned the 3 Chinese gender bending/ambiguity/fluidity in Chinese culture in Bishonen above, I'd like to add a 4th.

If you see women in China holding hands while walking in the streets, don't jump the gun and say they're lesbians. Such public display of same sex affection (both males and females) are common in China. As I travelled, I also saw a lot of public displays of male bonding like hand holding, and many other physical intimacies in such places as diverse as ME, African, S. America and many parts of Asia. In the eyes of the the people of Anglo Saxon cultural origin this is immediately equated with homosexuality (I think the expression is "this is so gay"). This kind of same-sex closeness probably has to do with, or at least, reinforced by small personal space. In China, personal space is close to zero (at least between the same gender).

This public display of same-sex bonding is by definition normal because they represent the majority of the world's cultures. However, since cultural dominance isn't a democracy, it's the influence - even if it's the minority - not majority, that counts. The major popular influence of Anglo Saxon culture is of course through Hollywood.

The public expression of affection for the opposite sex was NOT acceptable in the days while same sex public display of bonding was. These days, the public display of female affection for each other is diminishing (although still could be readily seen) in China, and the public displays of the male male bonding are less so, thanks to Hollywood.

Peony Pavilion (2001)

Back to this movie. Any Chinese female audience who watches the early part of this movie would never be entirely sure if the gestures of intimacies between Lan and Jade are normal displays of sisterly love, or something more. I suspect the Western audience would have less trouble concluding that Lan (Joey Wang) is a lesbian until Xing (Daniel Wu) turns up, then they will conclude that she's a bisexual. Or is it really so clear cut? Could we be totally certain that what Lan has for Jade isn't purely sisterly love? As Lan says to Xing that the love she has for him is different for Jade. 1 is physical love, the other emotional bond (in other words, lust vs love). This is deliberately vague. Here's another event that Yonfan likes to play with the idea of the ambiguous relationship of the 2 women. Lan asks Jade why she cries. Is it because she saw her and Xing together, or heard the news about the death of 2nd housekeeper? Jade is silent, and Lan says "never mind". The answer could be both.

Apart from her physical intimacies with Jade, Lan also likes to dress up as men in both Western and Chinese traditional attires. Nobody in the household raises any eyebrows when Lan and Jade holding hands, lay together in bed, dance together, and even kisses because such displays of sisterly affection was common in China, especially in the olden days. Sure they may have crossed the line a little more than usual. It's a quantitative, and not a qualitative difference. Where's the line? Who draws the line?

Isn't the whole film permeates with a slow pace, a sense of languor. And isn't the languor a metaphor for the ambiguity as it drags, it's coalescent. It doesn't snap out of it.

For those who has to see things in black and white, the many ambivalence/ambiguity in this film drive them up the wall. That's the 4th Chinese gender fluidity/ambiguity I'm talking talking about earlier.

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