UCLA Film and Television Archive’s ongoing Festival of Preservation screened Li Hanxiang’s charming Love Eterne (1963) last night, one of the most popular Hong Kong films of all time. It’s a romantic musical of the accessible huangmei opera genre derived from folk songs, consisting of short stanzas and choruses that are often sung by non-professionals. The movie is a colorful, widescreen Shaw Brothers production; the famed King Hu (1966’s Dragon Inn) is credited as having directed the “action scenes,” but what those might be are anyone’s guess–everything but the final scenes is a placid and cheerful costume drama. Nevertheless, Ang Lee cites it as one of his favorite movies in a lengthy and revealing 2001 interview in the New York Times:
“It was a big hit in China, but particularly in Taiwan,” Mr. Lee said. “This is because of the Mandarin culture in the movie. We had escaped from the mainland in the civil war, and we missed that culture. For those of us too young to remember the mainland, we did not really know the old culture. So when we would see it in this movie, we would think, `Oh, that is China.’ When I went back to China to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I knew nothing about the real China. I had this image in my mind, from movies like this. So I projected these images as my China, the China in my head.”
Love Eterne was so successful that Hanxiang left the Shaw Brothers (at the time, the largest independent film studios in the world), emigrated to Taiwan, and helped revitalized the film industry in that country throughout the ’60s. (When Hong Kong martial arts films began to dominate the market in the ’70s, however, Hanxiang returned to the Shaws.)
The story, based on a classic folk tale, is decidedly straightforward. In the 4th century, a young heiress named Zhu Yingtai (Betty Le Di) disguises herself as a boy in order to enroll in a school and befriends Liang Shanbo (Ivy Ling Bo), a poor young student. After three years of study, the two become inseparable friends, but Zhu Yingtai secretly plans to reveal herself as the woman she is in order to marry Liang Shanbo. But upon returning home, she discovers she has already been promised to a local ruffian, and operatic tragedy ensues.
Both lead characters are played by women, in keeping with the genre and Chinese screen performances in general (“To have seen a real man expressing romantic feelings for a woman on the screen would have been too strong for the audiences then; China was a very repressed society,” Ang Lee explains), and Ivy Ling Bo was so prized in her role that she continues to play it onstage today at 66. (Sadly, Betty Le Di committed suicide in the ’60s.) The film propels itself forward with bright costumes and elaborate period sets (drawing rooms, living quarters, ornamental bridges over koy ponds) and easily flows from dialogue scenes to songs laced with irony as Zhu Yingtai playfully deceives and teases the unsuspecting Liang Shanbo.
It’s an undeniably charming film–even if its style is conservative, its feminist subtext is not, and one can easily imagine Chinese audiences adoring it in the same way American audiences flocked to Gone With the Wind or The Sound of Music in their day. It’s a playful, sentimental, “Shaw Scope” extravaganza (and it has also been released as a a special edition DVD in Hong Kong).