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When soldiers are billeted throughout a remote Southwest China town, events and liaisons spark a dramatic shake-up for one lady. Madam Tung (Lisa Lu) is a well-respected member of the community, upholding the Tung family name and status following the death of her husband. A teacher at the school and town doctor, she is asked to give cavalry captain Yang-Kwan (Roy Chiao) board at her classroom, located in the compound she lives in with her mother, daughter Wei-Ling and brother-in-law Chang.
While not spoken outright, Madam Tung is attracted to her guest. And so is he to her, slipping poetry into a schoolbook to speak admiration of her majestic grace and dignity. But her affections cannot be revealed, let alone acted on. Wei-Ling, meanwhile, is growing up and has eyes for the guest too, taking him on excursions that spark rumours of relations to spread. Madam Tung is mindful that such talk will discredit her late-husband and family name, ultimately deciding that the daughter shall marry the man. At their wedding she stands in a corner, her voice repeating an excerpt from Yang-Kwan's poetry: "Alas! Cold is the vault of her memory. Unable to feel the flame of his feeling." Yang-Kwan must later leave the town, and the mother orders her daughter to follow to his home. Madam Tung's mother dies and subsequently Chang is also to depart, distressed by seeing the lady's loneliness. He'll leave after an arch is completed -- a monument to stand testament to her dedication.
The Arch takes a subtle approach to covering Madam Tung's situation, and by default the values that shape the woman's life in this Ming Dynasty setting. By the film's end, viewers see Madam Tung holding dignity and adhering to community expectation. But for all that she preserves, Madam Tung loses far more on a personal level. The influence of cultural force is not just on Madam Tung but on her daughter too, who at one point announces that she too cannot be expected to live as a widow all her life should her affections be disallowed.
The scenario is sparing with dialogue, instead using minimal discussion, placing Yang Kwan's poem in a central role and presenting key sequences with startling impact. At simplest, the black-and-white images are reinforced with brief stills or layers. Later, turning points in a temple and in the family home quickly mount more layers, speed changes and images shown in repeat from multiple angles. With the exception of Yang-Kwan's poem being read against a combined still frame and moving image, these sequences are presented without dialogue. At times stunning to watch, the film-making techniques displayed are sometimes so unexpected that they render possible underlying meanings unclear and open to interpretation post-viewing. More accessible storytelling works in between, seen when the lady of the house removes her make-up after a close call with Yang-Kwan, and moves from Chang's household help.
The sound of a string instrument runs throughout, much like similar music in Lau Shing-hon's House of the Lute (1980) with the accompaniment constantly following scenarios. One outstanding sequence, when Mei Ling and Yang-Kwan ride horseback in a stream, sees the image move to the churning water with vigorous strumming to match. As the camera follows down a cascade, the lute's sound descends too, finally calming with the still water that it reaches. Combined with the script, its images and superb acting, the music binds well to help carry the protagonist's turmoil up to a concluding landscape shot. The final image and music are much like those that open the film; a bookend suggesting continuation.
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