“We two have chosen ourselves. Others don’t recognise it.” “Even though others don’t recognise it, I still want to live and die with you.” This exchange occurs fairly late into Li Han-Hsiang’s retelling of the classic legend of the butterfly lovers, The Love Eterne (梁山伯與祝英台, Liáng Shānbóyǔ Zhù Yīngtái). One of several Huangmei opera films Li made at Shaw Brothers, where he was regarded as a pioneer and master of the genre, the film is despite its seeming traditionalism defiantly progressive not just in the undeniably queer undertones of its central love story but in its all but total rejection of patriarchal Confucianist thinking.
Nowhere does Li make this more clear than in a brief cutaway in which birdcage hangs on a wall next to a tattered orange poster bearing the “double happiness” Chinese character synonymous with marriage. Marriage is the cage the heroine cannot escape. Her father tells her that she must marry and the choice not to do so does not belong to her, but neither does she have the right to choose a husband for herself for to do so would be to contravene the codes of filiality. Finally she is unable to go against her father’s wishes and agrees to sacrifice her pure love for a poor scholar to save her father’s reputation by marrying the son of a wealthy and influential family who is otherwise known to be a “playboy” unlikely to treat her well.
The forces that separate noblewomen Ying-tai (Betty Loh Ti) and lowly student Shan-bo (Ivy Ling Po) are those of class and patriarchy, but the film invites another reading in their yearning to have their impossible love accepted by the world around them. In contrast to other tellings of the tragedy of the butterfly lovers, Li casts actresses in each of the leading roles one playing a woman who dresses as a man to acquire knowledge otherwise denied her because of her gender, and the other simply a woman playing a man. The romance between them is played with ironic coyness and good humour that deepens the tragedy that is to come in the incredible denseness of Shan-bo who takes none of the hints Ying-tai attempts to give him that she is really a woman but otherwise develops what occurs to him to be a deep yet platonic and brotherly love he only later comes to recognise as romantic on learning the truth.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to read their doomed romance as an attack on social conservatism and an advocation for romantic freedom. Though the final symbolism of flowers blossoming under a rainbow bridge is not one which would have occurred to a contemporary audience, the love between Ying-tai and Shan-bo is most transgressive because they have dared to choose it for themselves in the face of social hostility and if they cannot have it they will have death because to live without it is all but the same. Ying-tai’s response is to turn her wedding into a funeral and to marry in death, but the film does not present this as an inevitable tragedy of a love that cannot be but its reverse. The Heavens open and take pity on the lovers, condemning the world that would not allow them happiness in life by granting it in eternity.
Rather than “women” as he would have it, the film places the blame firmly and directly on Confucianist thinking with the disguised Ying-tai directly challenging the teachings of the university where she is asked to recite the tenets that women are “insolent and ungrateful” while “charming girls make good companions”. It is Ying-tai’s father (Ching Miao) who is the true villain in caring little for his daughter’s feelings, firstly nearly letting her die in a hunger strike over not being allowed to go to school, and then refusing to listen to her rejection of his chosen suitor preferring to trade her for the social kudos of having married his daughter off to the most eligible of bachelors content to use her as a tool for his own advancement while indifferent to her prospects for future happiness. Li begins with his heroine “worried and confused” and captures something of the sense of constraint even within the sumptuous environment of her gilded cage before granting her freedom in the expanse of the natural world which thinks nothing of the “absurd rules of man”.
The Love Eterne screens at the Barbican 25th April as part of this year’s Queer East in collaboration with Hong Kong Film Festival UK.
Trailer (no subtitles)