Things have been awfully quiet here on Queerious, partly because our editor-in-chief Quentin is too busy directing a great project. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you should.
As an independent filmmaker myself, I of course aspire to be as accomplished a director as Quentin is one day. I am actually working on a (much smaller) project of my own, a short film with a lesbian love story and a Chinese Opera theme.
There will never be enough space on this blog to discuss the arts and (over 200 years) history of Chinese Opera. The Illuminated Lantern has done a great job at providing a short history.
My history with Chinese Opera began as child when I attended a lot of performances with my aunt in Hong Kong. My aunt has always been a Chinese Opera enthusiast and still performs opera plays as a hobby today. Like most children, I dismissed the ancient art as monotonous plays and ghastly noise. It was not until years later when I attended a performance put on by my aunt and her amateur Cantonese Opera group did I begin to appreciate the aesthetics and subtleties of Chinese Opera, and the discipline it requires. Subtleties, the ability to illicit the grandest emotions and convey the deepest message by the smallest gestures or images, have always been what I strive for in my films. Combining the medium of film and the ancient art of Chinese Opera seems to me is a perfect union.
When one talks about Chinese Opera in cinema, the more celebrated films like Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine and his recent Forever Enthralled, or even the more commercial, lighthearted Peking Opera Blues by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark will come to mind.
But one of the greatest inspirations on this project for me is the under-appreciated (at least at the time of its release) and obscure 1987 film Woman Demon Human by director Huang Shuqin, one of the very few prominent female filmmakers in mainland China.
I first caught this film in my Chinese Cinema class in film school at SF State. It was also part of a film series presented by SFMOMA back in 2008, which gave the film a highly accurate introduction:
“Considered China’s “only genuine feminist film”, Woman Demon Human stages an unorthodox biopic of famed Beijing Opera star Pei Yanling whose career was noted for her portrayal of male roles, especially the male underworld god, Zhong Kui. Through Shuqin’s unique female point of view, she creates a world that traverses fantasy, gender roles, subjectivity and psychological mystery.”
Indeed the issue of gender identity has rarely been explored so explicitly in films coming out of mainland China, with the notable exception of Farewell, My Concubine. And Woman Demon Human presents the question of identity right off the bet. In the opening sequence, the protagonist, Qiu Yun, is seen applying makeup to transform into the character of Zhong Kui in front of an array of mirrors. She is then seen, with the use of multiple mirrors, seemingly sitting side by side as herself and as her alter ego Zhong Kui.
The exploration of gender identity and the story of a woman defying traditions and struggling both privately and publicly to become a successful Chinese opera performer in male roles at a time when women were generally forbidden to perform on stage have provided the film a unique feminist voice.
Needless to say, what fascinates me the most about Chinese Opera is how deliciously
queer gender-bending it is. In a conservative society like China, there is no place where cross-dressing/gender role reversal have been more accepted and even celebrated than on an opera stage. Pei Yanling (a woman), who specializes in male roles, and Mei Lanfang (a man), who excelled in female roles, are both internationally renowned.
If you have yet to watch Woman Demon Human, I highly recommend you to Netflix it now.
P.S. In a bit of shameless self-promotion, I’d like to announce that I am currently casting the two female leads for my project. Find out more about it if you are interested!