Delightful Musical-Fantasy-Romance from Shaw Bros.
In the early-to-mid 1960s, Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio made a number of Huangmei Opera films, where characters sang much of the dialogue, set in Old China and focusing on Imperial court intrigue and variations on the star-crossed lovers theme. THE MERMAID (1965) stands out among these films for its fantasy and comic elements and its expert special effects depicting Li Ching as a spoiled maiden and her supernatural twin sharing the screen together in double exposure. Ivy Ling Po stars as Zhang Zhen, an orphaned male scholar who shows up to claim the bride, the daughter of the Prime Minister, to whom he was betrothed at birth. The Prime Minister (Yang Chih-Ching) shunts him off to an abandoned study, ostensibly to study for the Imperial Exam and attain an official position before he can marry the daughter, Peony Jin (Li Ching), although neither father nor daughter have any intention of honoring the betrothal. Poor Zhang sings about his troubles to the carp in the pond outside his room and the carp spirit, responding to Zhang's emotional despair, appears to Zhang in the exact form of Peony Jin and the two begin an idyllic love affair under the noses of the Prime Minister's household. At one point, Zhang runs into the real Peony and behaves as if she's his lover, getting himself into real trouble. In trying to save the dispirited Zhang, the carp spirit is confronted by the real Peony, causing a great deal of confusion and requiring the services of an "anti-evil" judge. When the carp's undersea friends intervene by duplicating the judge and his staff, even greater and more comical confusion results. It all culminates in a battle between the spirits of the pond and an array of powerful gods before the Goddess of Mercy intervenes.
The film has a lighter, more playful touch than the other Huangmei opera films I've seen while not stinting on the emotional depth of Zhang Zhen's existential dilemma. It helps that Ivy Ling Po is a great actress and a great singer as well, pouring the character's heart out in some expressive songs as the four seasons pass during the scholar's first year of semi-exile, enmeshed in seemingly fruitless study. Li Ching plays the carp spirit version of Peony with a great deal of concern and affection for Zhang while her portrayal of the real Peony is marked with haughtiness and entitlement. The actress moves in slightly different ways for each character. There's a great scene midway through the film after Zhang has been banished from the Prime Minister's residence and he and the carp spirit, having decided to elope together, stop in town to enjoy an elaborate festival. The festival is recreated in the studio in great detail and Zhang and the carp spirit sing a duet explaining everything in the festival parade to the viewer and we are treated to a number of performances within the festival. Later, when the two versions of Peony are forced to make their cases in court before the stern Judge Bao (Ching Miao), the actress has subtle ways of conveying to the viewer which version is the real, self-centered Peony and which is the loving carp spirit, whose efforts to persuade the parents that she's the real Peony are not at all unconvincing. It gets quite funny at times.
The whole production is staged in a highly stylized, theatrical manner and exquisitely shot on Shaw Bros. soundstages with beautiful set design, lighting, costumes, and music, making for one of the loveliest Shaw Bros. films I've ever seen. There is some fantasy undersea action (that pond is awfully deep!) involving water creatures who take on human form as well. The cast of Shaw Bros. regulars is uniformly superb. Li Ching is making her eighth film appearance here and I believe it's her first starring role. (She won Best Actress at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for this performance.) Peony's parents are played by Yang Chih Ching, who does his own singing, and Ouyang Sha-Fei, a beautiful veteran star who played matriarchs in many of the studio's historical dramas. Ching Miao does an excellent dual portrayal of the outraged judge and his mystical double, who takes great joy in his disruption of the court. The two judges are also seen in flawless double exposure. One of Peony's maids is played by teenaged Lily Li, who would go on to excel in several of the studio's martial arts films in the 1970s, including EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and SHAOLIN MANTIS. The screenplay is by Chang Cheh, who would, of course, go on to become Shaw Bros.' most prolific director of "heroic bloodshed" martial arts spectacles, all completely unlike this film. Director Kao Li made many other Huangmei Operas for the studio, none of which I've yet seen. I must correct that as soon as possible. The only other film I've seen by him is THE SILENT SWORDSMAN (1967), also reviewed on this site, a swordplay adventure with some singing and musical performance in it.
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