Once Upon a Time (三生三世十里桃花, Zhao Xiaoding & Anthony LaMolinara, 2017)

once upon a time posterTang Qi’s popular online novel Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles Peach Blossoms (三生三世十里桃花, Sān Shēng Sānshì Shílǐ Táohuā) has already been adapted into a phenomenally popular TV drama spanning 58 episodes but the big budget, blockbuster adaptation by Zhang Yimou’s regular cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding making his directorial debut in a co-production with Anthony LaMolinara, thinks it can make do with just 110 minutes. Retitled Once Upon a Time in an obvious nod to the film’s attempt to blend classic Western fairytales by way of Disney with traditional Chinese mythology, Zhao’s approach is a (mostly) family friendly one complete with superfluous CGI characters and a kind of essential innocence in its emotional landscape. Yet it also falls into the traps of many a Chinese fantasy blockbuster in its convoluted, confusing narrative, over reliance on CGI visuals, and host of pretty but bland leading players.

A blindfolded woman bids her lover goodbye as she falls through a storm before landing softly in a beautiful orchard covered in peach blossom to be woken by a friend who tells her she had just been asleep. The woman says she remembers nothing but feels as if she’s been inside a dream. He tells her to let it go, in her dream world she lived a very sad life and it’s better not to remember.

As it turns out the woman is the queen of this realm, Bai Qian (Liu Yifei). She spends her days alternating between frolicking with mystical forest creatures like your average Disney princess (only with less singing) and drinking so heavily she passes out. In fact, drinking is pretty much her only hobby and her general demeanour is moodiness born of being sad over something she does not remember. Technically speaking, she’s been engaged to a mysterious prince from an undersea kingdom for quite sometime but has no desire to marry, firstly out of the aforementioned sadness, but also out of a preference for independence, and the fact that the prince is apparently 70,000 years younger than she is and she thinks it’s inappropriate. Nevertheless, she goes (blindfolded due to a problem with her oversensitive eyes) and meets Ye Hua (Yang Yang) and his son Ah Li (Peng Zisu) who immediately recognise her as “Su Su” – the boy’s mother who died 300 years ago.

Though Once Upon a Time is based on a fairly recent novel and draws much of its inspiration from Western fairytales, some familiarity with Chinese mythology will undoubtedly help. Bai Qian is apt to suddenly morph into a white nine tailed fox while her friend Zhe Yan (Luo Jin) is a glowing, fiery phoenix of the battlefield and though the gods possess a number of surprising powers from the ability to spontaneously generate fire or chop vegetables in mid-air, they fight the way any mortal would only with much more destructive effects.

At heart, apt phrase as that is, Once Upon a Time is an epic love story in which two souls wait and search for each other through eons, pushing and probing for recognition all while failing to grasp that which seems to exist between them. The title of the novel is almost a spoiler in itself as it details the passage through three worlds and three lives which has brought Bai Qian and Ye Hua to this particular impasse of awkward, screwball romance. A repeated phrase between the lovers, the Ten Miles of Peach Blossom is a byword for excess – what is the point of ten miles of peach blossoms, when a single petal is enough? Ye Hua affirms he’s found his petal already, though she refuses to come down from her tree. Bai Qian is the obstinate one, pining for a lost love and, perhaps, one she doesn’t remember but there are things Ye Hua has hidden from himself too.

As much about identities in flux eventually settling in love, Once Upon a Time also has its standard fairytale tropes from the “ugly” sisters at the beginning to the wicked step-mother stand in Su Jin (Li Chun) and her machinations to get rid of Su Su/Bai Qian by means of her wicked white tiger. Bai Qian and Ye Hua must come to know all of themselves before recognising their opposing number, seeing straight through the fog of love to its shining core. Despite the depth of its ideas, Once Upon a Time fails to move beyond its fairytale setting, caught between the bright and colorful world of a peach blossom orchard filled with adorable woodland creatures, and the darkness of the woman who lives inside it, slowly killing herself with drink to blot out the inability to remember long buried pain. Intermittently charming, Once Upon a Time is among the better fantasy films emerging from mainland China in recent times but unlike its forgetful lovers never quite manages to recover its heart.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Chen Kaige, 1993)

farewell-my-concubine-1993
French DVD cover

Review of Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Bàwáng Bié Jī) first published by UK Anime Network.


“Why does the concubine have to die?” Spanning 53 years of turbulent, mid twentieth century history, Farewell My Concubine is often regarded as the masterpiece of fifth generation director Chen Kaige and one of the films which finally brought Chinese cinema to global attention in the early 1990s. Neatly framing the famous Peking Opera as a symbol of its nation’s soul, the film centres on two young actors who find themselves at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

Beginning in 1924, Douzi (later Cheng Dieyi) is sold to an acting troupe by his prostitute mother who can no longer care for him. The life in the theatre company is hard – the boys are taught the difficult skills necessary for performing the traditional art form through “physical reinforcement” where beatings and torturous treatment are the norm. Douzi is shunned by the other boys because of his haughty attitude and place of birth but eventually finds a friend in Shitou (later Duan Xiaolou) who would finally become the king to his concubine and a lifelong companion, for good or ill.

Time moves on and the pair become two of the foremost performers of their roles in their generation much in demand by fans of the Opera. However, personal and political events eventually intervene as Xiaolou decides to take a wife, Juxian – formerly a prostitute, and shortly after the Japanese reach the city. Coerced by various forces, Dieyi makes the decision to perform for the Japanese but Xiaolou refuses. After the Japanese have been defeated Dieyi is tried as a traitor though both Xiaolou and Juxian come to his rescue. The pair run in to trouble again during the civil war, but worse is to come during the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ancient art of Peking Opera itself is denounced as a bourgeois distraction and its practitioners forced into a very public self criticism conducted in full costume with their precious props burned in front of them. It’s not just artifice which goes up in smoke either as the two are browbeaten into betraying each other’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Farewell My Concubine is a story of tragic betrayal. Dieyi, placed in the role of the concubine without very much say in the matter, is betrayed by everyone at every turn. Abandoned by his mother, more or less prostituted by the theatre company who knowingly send him to an important man who molests him after a performance and then expect him to undergo the same thing again as a grown man when an important patron of the arts comes to visit, rejected by Xiaolou when he decides to marry a prostitute and periodically retires from the opera, and finally betrayed by having his “scandalous” secret revealed in the middle of a public square. He’s a diva and a narcissist, selfish in the extreme, but he lives only for his art, naively ignorant of all political concerns.

Dieyi doesn’t just perform Peking Opera, he lives it. His world is one of grand emotions and an unreal romanticism. Xiaolou by contrast is much more pragmatic, he just wants to do his job and live quietly. On the other hand, Xiaolou refuses to perform for the Japanese (the correct decision in the long run), and has a fierce temper and ironic personality which often get him into just as much trouble as Dieyi’s affected persona. The two are as bound and as powerless as the King and the Concubine, each doomed and unable to save each other from the inevitable suffering dealt them by the historical circumstances of their era.

The climax of the opera Farewell My Concubine comes as the once powerful king is finally defeated and forced to flee with only his noble steed left beside him. He begs his beloved concubine to run to sanctuary but such is her love for him that she refuses and eventually commits suicide so that the king can escape unburdened by worry for her safety. Dieyi’s tragedy is that he lives the role of the concubine in real life. Unlike Xiaolou, his romanticism (and a not insignificant amount of opium) cloud his view of the world as it really is.

It’s not difficult to read Dieyi as a cipher for his nation which has also placed an ideal above the practical demands of real living people with individual emotions of their own. Farewell My Concubine ran into several problems with the Chinese censors who objected not only to the (actually quite subtle) homosexual themes, but also to the way China’s recent history was depicted. Later scenes including one involving a suicide in 1977, not to mention the sheer absurd horror of the Cultural Revolution are all things the censors would rather not acknowledge as events which took place after the birth of the glorious communist utopia but Farewell My Concubine is one of the first attempts to examine such a traumatic history with a detached eye.

Casting Peking Opera as the soul of China, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a nation betraying itself. Close to the end when Dieyi is asked about the new communist operas he says he finds them unconvincing and hollow in comparison to the opulence and grand emotions of the classical works. Something has been shed in this abnegation of self that sees the modern state attempting to erase its true nature by corrupting its very heart. Full of tragic inevitability and residual anger over the unacknowledged past, Farewell My Concubine is both a romantic melodrama of unrequited love and also a lament for an ancient culture seemingly intent on destroying itself from the ground up.


Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray in the UK by BFI on 21st March 2016.

Original US trailer (with annoying voice over):