A mature and provocatively enigmatic work from ambitious helmer Guan Hu, "Eyes of a Beauty" won the Netpac award for cross-cultural value in Hawaii. With overlapping time frames, pic delivers a subtly devastating critique of sex roles in today's China. Distribs willing to prepare foreign auds for pic's unique qualities could eye offshore markets.

A mature and provocatively enigmatic work from ambitious helmer Guan Hu, “Eyes of a Beauty” won the Netpac award for cross-cultural value in Hawaii, where it world-preemed. With overlapping time frames, pic delivers a subtly devastating critique of sex roles in today’s China. Distribs willing to prepare foreign auds for pic’s unique qualities could eye offshore markets.

Roughly tripartite structure centers on three women in southern China region of Zhuji. The place gave rise to the antique legend of Xi Shi, a beauty who, for the good of her people, helped her general b.f. defeat an enemy king. The legend became a famous and oft-performed highlight of the Beijing Opera, encapsulating the dilemma of contempo femmes.

Connecting tissue is provided by saga of Lianwen (Huang Yiqun), a soprano pushing 40, and best known over the years for playing Xi Shi. Having sacrificed a marriage and all outside interests for the stage — pic peaks with a beautifully acted and quietly reluctant divorce ceremony — Lianwen finds her role usurped by a younger rival. When the rival is snatched up by another outfit, the company begs her to return to her usual part, although the role by now has taken on a different meaning for Lianwen.

Performances of the opera, and Lianwen’s solo, riverside rehearsals are some of the few cues to sleepy viewers that pic is operating in parallel time frames, with events early on actually inhabiting a later chronology. But Guan Hu’s subtle helming doesn’t draw attention to formal conceits, which are more concerned with supplying resonance to tales of the women who are the subjects of the opera.

First up is harsh mountain setting that finds spunky teenager Axi (Yang Qianqian) feeling like a servant to her large, hungry family of rural bumpkins. She sells tea to tourists on the side, hoping to raise enough money so she and a local b.f. can hightail it to the big city. But the boy is a bit cowardly and, left in charge of his mentally handicapped brother, he proves worse than unreliable.

Before things fall apart there, however, the struggling couple witnesses an odd scene, only explained much later, with a beautiful, black-clad woman (Ma Yili) helping police haul a reluctant lad into a riverboat. The woman is Shiyu, a thirtyish teacher quietly balking at the expected life before her. She is due to marry a nice but spineless party functionary and attend odious drinking bouts with him. Instead, she becomes obsessed with the brightest, best-looking and most sullen student at her school. Soon, her perfect world starts to unravel in ways she can’t understand — and her nagging mother and self-absorbed co-workers are even less comprehending.

Cumulative picture, justifying two-hour journey, is one of a culture in transition, with women particularly confused as to potential new roles. (Title refers to pistachio-type nut constantly eaten by the characters, who are somehow trying to shuck their own shells.)

Wu Di’s delicate lensing and thoughtful thesping clear away any sense of agitprop, and production echoes its premise by carefully balancing traditional storytelling with innovative ideas. In his fifth feature, the 35-year-old helmer proves himself a talent to watch.

Eyes of a Beauty

China

Production

A Beijing Jiatong Century Movie and TV Cultural Communication Co. (Beijing) production, funded by Beijing Link & Chain Advertising Co. Produced by Jin Zhongqiang, Zhang Zhenhua, Jianhong Liu. Executive producers, Tong Gang, Wang Guowei. Directed by Guan Hu. Screenplay, Guan, Guangrong Zhou.

Crew

Camera (color), Wu Di; editor, Hongyu Yang; music, Lin Huo; production designer, Dong Ly; costume designer, Chen Hongli; sound (Dolby), Kang Fu. Reviewed at Hawaii Film Festival, Nov. 8, 2002. Running time: 125 MIN.

With

Ma Yili, Huang Yiqun, Yang Qianqian, Liu Juyong, Lei Junshen, Hu Xiaoguang, Wang Chuanju, Qian Zhi, He Qing.
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