A Little Life-Opera

Former H.K. New Waver Allen Fong's belated return to the international stage is a touching, well-observed portrait of a small opera troupe in mainland China that's slight but rewarding. In its humanity and generosity, "A Little Life-Opera" recalls his early '80s classics "Father and Son" and "Ah Ying," and though not quite at their level, it should travel the festival circuit before putting down its stumps on cable and Eurowebs. Main flaw is the soundtrack, which has been saddled with up-front commercial mainland dubbing that lacks subtlety and robs the two leads (Taiwanese actors Winston Chao, Yang Kuei-mei) of their own voices. This may trouble non-Chinese speakers less, but redoing the dialogue track would immensely improve pic's overall atmosphere and range of emotions.

With:
Li Sanpeng ..... Winston Chao Xueyan ..... Yang Kuei-mei Liliang ..... Zeng Jingping Baotian ..... You Chuncheng Xiaoxue ..... Liu Shaoxia Lanying ..... Ke Shuping Tang ..... Ni Wanling Li's Wife ..... Wu Xiaoting

Xueyan (Yang) is the 30-ish head of a part-time troupe in the relatively underdeveloped coastal province of Fujian. Getting a booking to perform in the nearby village of Xitang, she rounds up her players; only when they arrive there does Xueyan learn she’s expected to include a striptease number in the show, demanded by the sponsor, a nouveau-riche businessman.

The situation is smoothed over by fellow businessman Sanpeng (Chao), an old friend of Xueyan and a former puppet-theater owner, who takes her side. The two revive their friendship, and Xueyan confesses she’s been in love with him since childhood, when she sheltered him from Red Guards.

Watching the opera stirs a long-held desire in Sanpeng to return to his theatrical roots; he’s also getting into deep water at work, thanks to some shady dealings by his wife (Wu Xiaoting). Meanwhile, Xueyan has problems of her own: Her daughter wants to study performing arts in Beijing, but Xueyan would prefer that she get a solid education and learn English.

Like its English title, the movie is a light drama of small truths and character-driven situations. Though the businessmen are all drawn as flashy vulgarians, other roles are well sketched, with most members of the troupe — from the clown, Baotian, to the cellist, Pan — emerging as characters in their own right. Moments showing them practicing their skills communicate the importance that opera holds for them in otherwise unremarkable lives. A fair number of opera extracts parallel Xueyan’s ripening attraction to Sanpeng without holding up the action.

Though the plot contains some formulaic elements, they’re played down by Fong’s direction, which shows sympathy for the subject and milieu. Mai Quan’s lensing of the unfamiliar Fujian locations is attractive and pointed, without being touristy.

Yang (a familiar face in ’90s Taiwan movies) looks a tad young for her role but is affecting as the simple, illiterate Fujianese woman — when the dubbing gives her a chance. Chao’s Sanpeng is less fully drawn and often looks awkward. The movie’s charm derives more from the ensemble playing than from the leads alone. For the record, the project was kickstarted by Fong’s fellow New Waver Ann Hui, after the local success of her drama “Summer Snow.”

A Little Life-Opera

Hong Kong - Chinese

Production: A Great Root (Hong Kong)/Fujian Film Studio (China) production. (International sales: Great Root, Hong Kong.) Produced by Zhang Chaotong. Executive producers, Ann Hui, Yao Wentai. Directed by Allen Fong. Screenplay, Chen Shizhe, Chen Jianzhong.

Crew: Camera (color), Mai Quan; editors, Guo Qiang, Li Yuhuai; music, Violet Lam; art direction, Liu Nanyang; costume design, Lu Yueying; sound, Li Kaimei. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 21, 1997. Running time: 103 MIN. (Mandarin dialogue)

With: Li Sanpeng ..... Winston Chao Xueyan ..... Yang Kuei-mei Liliang ..... Zeng Jingping Baotian ..... You Chuncheng Xiaoxue ..... Liu Shaoxia Lanying ..... Ke Shuping Tang ..... Ni Wanling Li's Wife ..... Wu Xiaoting

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