Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix
Taiwan, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 109 mins.
Director: Wang Yulin 王育麟.
Engaging, loose-limbed comedy-drama set in a Taiwan Opera troupe.
Gaoxiong city, southern Taiwan, the present day. After being hit by a heavy storm during a performance, the Tian Long opera troupe returns to home base but is then hit by the sudden death of its veteran leader Lin (Lv Fulu). Later, after being knocked down by a scooter in the street, star performer Lin Chunmei (Guo Chunmei), Lin’s daughter, collapses on-stage one night. Lin Chunmei’s husband, Zhihong (Zhu Hongzhang), takes over the running of the troupe and Lin Chunmei is forced to recuperate in hospital. Lin Chunmei persuades her wastrel elder brother, Lin Chengyi (Wu Pengfeng) – a onetime talented performer who’s turned to drink and broken up with his wife Xiaoqing (Li Luoqing), also in the troupe – to return and train the younger members. Lin Chunmei leaves hospital but is still unable to walk properly, despite the fact that there’s nothing medically wrong with her leg. Afraid of losing their booking slot if Lin Chunmei can’t perform, Zhihong proposes to scooter driver Zhuang Jimi (Guo Chunmei), who has the same facial structure as Lin Chunmei, to take her place on-stage. After a tryout in the suburb of Fengshan, the secret substitution just about works, though the nervous Zhuang Jimi still needs a lot of intensive coaching. Meanwhile, Lin Chengyi starts a romance with Shiying (Zhang Shiying), an ambitious actress in the troupe, which causes more tension. And to prevent Zhuang Jimi losing his day job as a street-cleaner, Lin Chunmei has to impersonate him in disguise.
Veteran Taiwan TV director Wang Yulin 王育麟, who co-directed surprise local hit Seven Days in Heaven 父后七日 (2010), a black comedy set around a small-town funeral in Taiwan, ups his game considerably with the much slicker Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix 龙飞凤舞 2012. Using the same kind of ensemble structure – here a Taiwan Opera troupe, riven with tensions and petty feuds – Wang weaves an engaging comedy-drama that’s a kind of offbeat Chinese New Year movie, finally celebrating the values of togetherness but in a much more low-key way than its money-oriented Hong Kong equivalents. Shot in widescreen and much glossier than Heaven, it’s a very likeable but more conventional movie, despite having a similarly loose approach to structure.
With their extended-family resonances, theatrical troupes are a favourite setting for Chinese ensemble movies, from the Mainland Two Stage Sisters 舞台姐妹 (1964) through the Hong Kong The Spooky Bunch 撞到正 (1980) to the Taiwan Send in the Clowns (aka Cabaret Tears) 台上台下 (1983), and this one has added authenticity from starring real-life Taiwan Opera star Guo Chunmei 郭春美. In a development that fits neatly into the fabric, and is also typical of the film’s underplayed goofy humour, the actress plays the double role of the troupe’s star xiaosheng 小生 (young male lead, in travesto) as well as a male street-cleaner who is forced to double for her on stage after inadvertently injuring her in the street one day. In fact, Guo plays a triple role if one takes into account her on-stage xiaosheng characters, and in her first movie the handsome 47-year-old actress (who, as in the film, also hails from Gaoxiong, southern Taiwan) shows a commanding screen presence throughout.
Wang’s script doesn’t quite get to grips with the emotional complexities of Guo’s off-stage mother, whose leg injury is more psychological than physical and requires the distracting side-plot of a trip to India (and a friendship with a young Cantonese tourist) to mend. In fact, the script is busy with so many characters that none of them develop any individual emotional clout as the focus constantly shifts from one to another, though a surprise revelation regarding the street-cleaner does provide a kind of finale. Another problem, largely for non-Chinese audiences, is sorting out all the various relatonships between the characters – which, as in Heaven, is encoded in the Chinese dialogue but not immediately clear othwerwise (and further complicated by opera make-up).
Among several actors from Wang’s previous film, Wu Pengfeng 吴朋奉 (the Daoist priest in Heaven) brings a raggedy charm to the role of a derailed performer that slightly recalls Singapore comedian Li Guohuang 李国煌 [Mark Lee], while Wang Liwen 王莉雯 (so good as the central daughter in Heaven) can be seen in a smaller role as a make-up girl. Veteran Hong Kong stuntman Tai Bao 太保, the father in Heaven‘s flashbacks, contributes an equally sympathetic support as an opera fixer. Playing is strong down the line, especially from actresses in the cast like Zhang Shiying 张诗盈 and Li Luoqing 李珞晴.
Dialogue, fitting the setting, is 95% in Hokkien dialect rather than Mandarin. The film has the same Chinese title as the 1969 Hong Kong musical comedy Dragon Flies While Phoenix Dances 龙飞凤舞, starring Lv Qi 吕奇 and Xiao Fangfang 萧芳芳 [Josephine Siao], but is unrelated in plot. The four Chinese characters form a phrase that can mean both a flamboyant style of calligraphy as well as writing devoid of content.
Presented by Magnifique Creative Media Production (TW), Ko-Hiong-Lang (TW). Produced by Magnifique Creative Media Production (TW).
Script: Wang Yulin, Lin Meiru. Photography: Feng Xinhua. Editing: uncredited. Production design: Wang Yifei, Xu Guoxian. Art direction: Li Chenxi, Huang Weisheng. Styling: Yan Ningzhi, Lu Zhengyu. Sound: Xu Zhengyi, Du Duzhi. Action: Wang Yao. Special effects: Li Yulin, Qiu Yixun. Animation: Liu Gengming. Opera direction: Guo Chunmei, Liu Guanliang.
Cast: Guo Chunmei (Lin Chunmei; Zhuang Jimi/Jimmy), Zhu Hongzhang (Zhihong, Lin Chunmei’s husband), Wu Pengfeng (Lin Chengyi, Lin Chunmei’s elder brother), Zhang Shiying (Shiying), Chen Shufang (Mrs. Lin, Lin Chunmei’s mother), Lv Fulu (Mr. Lin, Lin Chunmei’s father, old troupe head), Tai Bao [Zhang Jianian] (Lin Sang, opera booker), Zhu Jiayi (Jiayi), Cai Baizhang (Xiaoyue, the Cantonese), Li Luoqing (Xiaoqing, Lin Chengyi’s wife), Wang Bairen (Bairen), Wang Wanru (Anqi), Lin Hengjun (Yijun), Guo Zirong (Kaili, Lin Chunmei’s child), Sun Kailin (Kailing, Lin Chunmei’s child), Wang Juan (Meifeng, old troupe leader’s sister), Wang Liwen (Xiaoli, make-up girl), Chen Jiaxiang (Chen Wenxiang), Chen Taihua (Tai), Hong Mingxue (emperor), Mao Yuhan (Jianhua, Lin Chengyi’s son), Chen Mingyuan (Fengshan boss), Zhou Cenyi (Xiaofenglian, Zhuang Jimi’s mother), An Weiling (Fengshan boss’ woman; opera actress from Taibei).
Release: Taiwan, 13 Jan 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 7 Jan 2012.)