Classic Chinese operetta based on "The Butterfly Lovers"
THE LOVE ETERNE (aka LIANG SHAN-PO AND CHU YING-TAI) is a 1963 Hong Kong operetta based on the oft-filmed classic story, "Liang Shan-Po And Chu Ying-Tai," aka "The Butterfly Lovers." It offers sumptuous color filming on lavish Shaw Bros. studio sets and tells its love story in a combination of dialogue and song, focusing on a pair of students at a university in Hangchow, one, Chu Ying-Tai, a female disguised as a man in order to gain entry into the school and the other an older fellow student, Liang Shan-Po.
Ying-Tai falls in love with Shan-Po and, when she has to leave school after three years, tries to drop hints in song that she's really a female as the clueless boy accompanies her part of the way on her memorable trip home. Eventually, he gets the picture but by then her family has already promised her to someone else, setting the stage for a tear-jerking finale. This is the film that Ang Lee, director of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, chose to watch with reporter Rick Lyman when he was the subject of an installment of the "Watching Movies" series in The New York Times (March 9, 2001).
The stars of the 127-minute film are Le Di (touted in the DVD cast notes as Hong Kong cinema's "one and only 'Classical Beauty'") in the role of Chu Ying-Tai and Ivy Ling Po (aka Ling Bo), one of Shaw Brothers' top female stars of the time, in the male role of Shan-Po. They're both quite captivating, whether in the straight dramatic and comic interactions of the spoken dialogue or the operetta-style singing to each other in the more intimate scenes. The camera is usually focused on the two lead performers so the success of the film depends greatly on their expertise in conveying believably the strong emotions of the intense love story, particularly in the latter stage of the film where Ying-Tai's family has effectively blocked the young pair's budding romance. Ling Po's turn as a heartbroken young man in the throes of an emotional breakdown is quite wrenching and most convincing.
Ivy Ling Po often played young men in Chinese Opera-based Shaw Bros. films of the era, most notably THE GRAND SUBSTITUTION (1965), a tale of court politics and family loyalty in Old China. The actress can also be seen as a female swordswoman in TWIN SWORDS (1965), starring Jimmy Wang Yu. Both films are also reviewed on this site.
The songs in LOVE ETERNE are quite pleasing and the orchestrations, making use of traditional instruments, quite evocative of Chinese Opera. The score does not use the famed "Butterfly Lovers" violin concerto, which figures prominently in a later film version of the same story, THE LOVERS (1994), directed by Tsui Hark and starring Nicky Wu (a male actor) as Liang Shan Po and Charlie Young (an actress) as Chu Ying-Tai. The characters don't sing in Hark's film, leaving the scriptwriters more time to pack the film with plot and incident and make it much more intense. They tell the same story but they're two different kinds of films, with the older one drawing more explicitly on Chinese theatrical traditions while the newer film is a little punchier and designed to spruce up the tale for modern youth appeal.
The Taiwanese DVD available for review was made from a print with very good color values but transferred with too much cropping--on all four sides. The cropping at the bottom of the frame is designed to cover up the original burned-in Chinese subtitles and provide a space to put the new, removable subtitles. That said, it should be pointed out that much of the camera-work consists of closeups of the two leads rather than the widescreen action compositions featured in so many Shaw Bros. films that suffer from cropping when transferred to tape. Also, unlike those tape transfers, the subtitles in LOVE ETERNE are all clear and wholly visible. As a result, this DVD offers one of the better transfers of an early HK film available in the U.S., although a new subtitled widescreen transfer would be most desirable.
The English title given on the DVD case is THE SHAN-PO AND CHU YING-TAI.
ADDENDUM (April 6, 2010): Since doing this review, the film has come out, under the title LOVE ETERNE, in a restored, remastered Region 3 DVD from Celestial Pictures as part of its massive Shaw Bros. restoration campaign. Watching the new DVD was like seeing it for the first time. It's a beautiful film and Ivy Ling Po's performance is breathtaking. Also since the original review, a Taiwanese animated version of the tale has come out on DVD, under the title THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS (2003). It has its good points, but is too Disney-influenced and kiddie-oriented to satisfy me.
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