Chen Kaige's "Forever Enthralled" is an occasionally engaging but largely workmanlike biopic of in travesto Peking Opera performer Mei Lanfang.

Saddled at the last minute with an awkward English title, Chen Kaige’s “Forever Enthralled” is an occasionally engaging but largely workmanlike biopic of in travesto Peking Opera performer Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) that rarely achieves the artistic elevation it strives for and needs to succeed. Film largely gets by on its strong supporting perfs, rather than those of its two star leads — a wooden, badly miscast Leon Lai and a perky but too modern Zhang Ziyi (as Mei’s lover). Unfamiliarity of the subject matter and a segmented script that’s light on real dramatic development make this a tough sell outside Asia.

Made under the official eye of the Mei family, pic opened well but not gangbusters in China Dec. 5, reportedly crossing the 100 million yuan ($15 million) mark after three weeks, but was eclipsed as a popular year-end attraction by Feng Xiaogang’s “If You Are the One.” In Hong Kong, where it opened Jan. 1, it’s been a specialty item, as it’s likely to be elsewhere.

With its good-looking production values and evidently serious intent, the film goes some way toward reinstating Chen’s international rep after a string of wobbly movies (“Killing Me Softly,” “Together” and the rather unfairly derided manga-like fantasy “The Promise”). But despite much talk about artistry, commitment and personal-vs.-professional life, the lumpily developed script never gets to the heart of Mei’s amazing talent, which bewitched audiences of the time and has since made him one of China’s national treasures.

Subject begs comparisons with Chen’s 1993 Palme d’Or winner “Farewell My Concubine,” but it’s a very different movie, with a much less sensuous flavor and without the earlier film’s ambitions to be a potted political history of China as well. Unfortunately, the 2½-hour movie is an equally bumpy ride dramatically, falling into sections (rather than connected acts) that don’t have much of an overall arc.

Best seg by far is the first, 70-minute one, which opens with Mei (newcomer Yu Shaoqun, a Yue Opera student) reading a letter from his uncle advising him to quit the profession or prepare himself for a tough struggle. Though we learn little of Mei’s background and childhood, pic neatly conveys the fragile social position of opera performers at the time before jumping forward 10 years, when Mei has already established himself as a hot new name.

Aside from a superb perf by newcomer Yu, whose demeanor and body language convincingly meld the on- and offstage Meis, the all-male seg also has two mainland actors, Wang Xueqi and Sun Honglei, at the top of their game. Wang (whose involvement with helmer Chen goes all the way back to 1984’s “Yellow Earth”) is electric as vet opera performer Swallow 13, an invented character representing established talents of the time, whose standing Mei finally undermines with his innovative style. Their public “duel” is the pic’s dramatic highlight, with Wang savoring every poisoned syllable of his stagy dialogue.

As the story jumps ahead to the grown Mei (Lai) now married to his second wife, Fu Zhifang (Chen Hong), Sun’s perf as his manager-cum-confidant, Qiu Rubai (another script invention, standing in for the real Qi Rushan), provides the sole connecting thread. Though his character is later left to wither dramatically, Sun convincingly draws a man whose love for Mei’s art (and maybe the man himself) brooks no compromises when it comes to protecting him from distractions.

Chief among these distractions is Meng Xiaodong (Zhang), a young female opera performer who falls for the older Mei. Following the hard, all-male opening seg, pic takes on a lighter, more feminine tone as the upfront Meng challenges Mei’s graceful courtesy, but is progressively seen as a threat to Mei’s career by his manager and his wife.

Though over-modern and lacking in nuance, Zhang’s perf is solid enough in biopic terms, though there’s little chemistry with Lai to suggest their brief but passionate real-life relationship and the threat to the status quo it represented.

After an OK reconstruction of Mei’s 1930 perf on Broadway, pic moves ahead to its most confused seg, encompassing the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and Mei’s famous refusal to perform for the invaders.

Viewers with any knowledge of Mei’s life could justifiably carp about the number of invented characters, the script’s fast and loose playing with the facts and the almost total lack of resemblance between most of the thesps and their real-life counterparts. Lai, in particular, has a tall, gaunt, northern demeanor totally at odds with the real Mei’s chubby-faced but delicate features. None of this would matter if the pic were dramatically or emotionally engaging on its own terms, but it isn’t.

Aside from Wang and Sun, acting kudos are also due Chen Hong as Mei’s protective wife, and it’s a shame the script never goes into their family life (Mei had four kids). Scenes featuring Hong Kong actress-singer Gillian Chung as the younger Fu have been completely cut from the movie, following the actress’ involvement in a sex-photo scandal last year.

Production design and costuming are particularly strong in the first seg, with duds and makeup more biopic-stagy thereon. Zhao Jiping’s score injects some feeling and neatly segues in and out of the early opera sequences — which are often too long (and will feel especially so for foreign auds) and don’t explain the secrets of Mei’s virtuosity and innovation.

Forever Enthralled

China-Taiwan-Hong Kong-Malaysia

Production

A China Film Group (in China) release of a China Film Group Beijing Film Studio (China)/Fat Penguin Pictures Corp. (Malaysia)/Emperor Motion Pictures Intl. (Hong Kong) presentation of a China Film Group (China)/CMC Entertainment (Taiwan)/Emperor Motion Pictures (Hong Kong) production. (International sales: China Film Group, Beijing.) Produced by Han Sanping, Du Jiayi. Executive producers, Han, Dennis Wu, Albert Yeung. Directed by Chen Kaige. Screenplay, Yan Geling, Chen Kuo-fu, Zhang Jialu, based on writings by Mei Shaowu.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Zhao Xiaoshi; music, Zhao Jiping; production designer, Liu Qing; costume designer, Chen Tongxun; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Danrong; artistic consultant, Mei Baojiu. Reviewed at Golden Harvest Shenzhen Cinemas 3, Shenzhen, China, Dec. 23, 2008. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 146 MIN. (Mandarin, Japanese, English dialogue)

With

Mei Lanfang - Leon Lai Meng Xiaodong - Zhang Ziyi Qiu Rubai - Sun Honglei Fu Zhifang - Chen Hong Swallow 13 - Wang Xueqi Feng Ziguang - Ying Da Mei Lanfang (younger) - Yu Shaoqun Zhi Huifang - Pan Yueming Yan Huizhu - Li Shengsu Tanaka - Masanobu Ando

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