the peony pavilion

2001

Written and Directed by: Yon Fan

OK, I'll admit it. I love Chinese cinema but Kunqu opera jangles all my insides and makes me wish I was dead. Seriously. I'm not trying to attack the merit of it, it is obviously a very old, very difficult art form. I'm just saying that either you like it or you don't. I don't much like slide guitar either - it has the same irritating effect on my nervous system.

You have to love Kunqu-opera to love Peony Pavilion. If you don't, then sitting through this film could be your cinematic equivalent of a root canal. Unless of course you can close your ears and simply admire the film for its superior cinematography which is at all times breathtaking and flawless. The best Asian directors all seem to have an eye for the frail beauty of the world and have an exquisite touch for visual metaphor.

Acclaimed director Yonfan premiered this film to outstanding reviews at the opening of the Hong Kong Film Festival. Since then it has travelled around the world, amassing critical acclaim everywhere. The feedback votes after this film was screened at the Sydney gay and lesbian festival were interesting - viewers either praised it enthusiastically or panned it horribly. I find it difficult to do either.

Like that other gorgeous film Farewell my Concubine, this film deals with the turbulent relationship between two women. In this film, their connection begins through their mutual connections with a Noble House. One can't help but admire the beauty and grace of these women as they sing their passions. It is their outlet, a way of pouring out their soul into the universe. After watching them at the height of success exhibiting such passion it makes their fall from grace and subsequent decline that much more wrenching.

Unfortunately, once the two women left the Noble House I think I must have missed something when the story took a detour to the left. I was left flailing, wondering about the mix of flashback and modern day, wondering what it is about this woman that fuels such passion in the people around her. Personally, I couldn't see it, but other women I went to the cinema with were mesmerised by her. Each to their own I guess. But it is upon the charisma of the lead characters that this film succeeds or fails.

I find it difficult to even write a plot synopsis for fear that I've drastically misunderstood something. It goes something like this: a woman, the fifth wife of the head of a Noble House, lives with her daughter in relative opulence. When life in the Noble House doesn't turn out to be as fulfilling as she planned, she looks for other amusements. She finds opium, and the love of a female cousin.

Despite social pressures to the contrary the two women leave and begin to live together, but the relationship is threatened when one of the women falls in love and begins a relationship with a man. A rather pathetic and tragic conclusion follows, with only one of the women emerging from the film alive.

Peony Pavilion is nothing if not aesthetically pleasing. The sets are scrumptious, the leads all gorgeous, the colours bright and the culture fascinating. Opera fans will be swept away, but if you're like me and have no taste for it, guaranteed you'll just leave the cinema feeling a bit lost at sea.

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