DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER Brigitte Lin and Sylvia Chang at their absolute best
For this lavish 1977 Shaw Bros. adaptation of the classic Chinese novel, "The Dream of the Red Chamber," director Li Han-hsiang (LOVE ETERNE) cast two young Taiwanese actresses in the central roles of young lovers Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. Brigitte Lin, then a star of contemporary Taiwanese melodramas and romantic comedies and eight years away from the success she would have in Hong Kong films like PEKING OPERA BLUES, plays the male role of Baoyu, the young scion of the Jia household, while Sylvia Chang (a future star presence in Hong Kong cinema in her own right) plays the frail Daiyu, a cousin who has been sent to live in the house after the death of her mother. The two teen-age cousins are drawn to each other at first sight and, over the years, despite the family's concerns, grow up and seek to marry. The female heads of the Jia household, led by Baoyu's grandmother (Wang Lai), mother (Ouyang Shafei), and manipulative aunt (Hu Chin), prefer that Baoyu marry another, healthier cousin and set in motion a plot to deceive him into doing so. The almost arbitrary decision to thwart the two lovers results in tragedy and great upheaval for all.
I don't believe I've ever seen two star performances quite like those delivered by Lin and Chang in this film. Some might consider such work overly melodramatic, but I would argue that the entire film is driven by the psychological states of the two lead characters. They exist on an entirely different emotional plane from the other characters and everything is experienced through their perceptions. No one else in the film can see or feel what passes between them. They move differently from the other characters in a genre (Huangmei Opera) that normally relies a great deal on characters' stylized movements. They look out at the world differently. There are unforgettable closeups that convey multiple layers of psychic pain and loss. There is one chilling moment where the two gaze at each other across the chasms of madness, despair and grief and smile and slowly begin to laugh together while oblivious to anything or anyone else around them.
Both characters are completely at odds with the strictures of the setting and the customary behavior expected of them. Every move they make, every gesture, every expression is one of dissatisfaction and even defiance, although they act out these feelings in different ways. Baoyu is an impulsive free spirit who does what he wants (and gets brutally punished for it by his father in one scene). Daiyu withdraws into herself, crying frequently and adopting a private ritual of burying fallen flower petals, a practice mocked by the other maidens. The two quickly understand how completely in tune they are with each other. Almost the entire second half of the film is devoted to the grief, melancholy, and outrage fueled by the family's ill-fated attempt to impose their will on Baoyu, with sad songs and dying laments on the soundtrack, creating a cinematic treatment of heartbreak as wrenching as any such treatment can be.
There are so many other breathtaking achievements to single out in this movie, from the production design to the costumes to the music and song score to the powerful acting by the supporting cast. Ultimately, though, it's all about the two lead performances and their singular capacity to create a uniquely soul-piercing emotional experience that frees itself from the stylization of the Huangmei Opera school of film-making to create a one-of-a-kind Hong Kong film. (One need only compare this to the 1961 version, also produced by Shaw Bros. and relying on pretty much the same condensed adaptation, to see just how big a difference these two actresses make.) In the book, "The Last Star of the East: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia and Her Films," by Akiko Tetsuya, Brigitte indicates in an interview that this film is the favorite of hers among the 100 films she's made. And now everyone can see why thanks to the recent release on DVD by Celestial Pictures of a beautifully restored edition.
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