Forever Enthralled (2008)

Director:  Chen Kaige 
Cast:   Leon Lai, Zhang Ziyi, Sun Honglei 
Plot:  A biographical account of Mei Lanfang, China's greatest opera star. 

Genre:  Biography / Drama / History 
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin Film Festival) 
Runtime:  147min
Rating:  PG 

Mention director Chen Kaige, and observers of Eastern cinema will remember him as the man who made Farewell, My Concubine (1993), one of the great works of Chinese cinema.  

Deciding to switch to more commercial fare ala disposable entertainment by making flops like The Promise (2005) and Killing Me Softly (2002) have tarnished his image as one of China’s leading filmmakers.  His newest film which competed for the Golden Berlin Bear, Forever Enthralled, marks his return to art-house filmmaking.  But in a less triumphant manner than expected. 

Forever Enthralled is a 150-minute biopic of China’s greatest opera artiste, Mei Lanfang. It depicts his rise to fame and his commitment to a craft that has over the decades lost its austere and tradition.  

Chinese opera is a very elegant and beautiful art form.  Kaige recognizes this and nails its artistic aspects just right; the striking costumes and makeup are rendered with realism, the movements elegiac and composed, and the sense of location and music all contribute to making the first third of this opera drama a joy to watch.  Until Leon Lai steps in… 

…and spills his wine.  But it’s not completely his fault.  Lai is miscast; he does not even remotely resemble Mei Lanfang.  And to add insult to injury, Lai’s performance is woeful at best.  He plays his character only superficially, and is unable to slip comfortably into a role that demands a lot more than a high-pitched voice and graceful, feminine movements. 

Forever Enthralled could have slid into obscurity because of a singular casting mistake but is fortunately redeemed by a fabulous supporting cast that reads Zhang Ziyi (whose scenes with Lai are shockingly awkward), Chen Hong, and Sun Honglei.  The latter gives the most resonant performance of the trio which indirectly and essentially becomes the fulcrum of the whole picture. 

Forever Enthralled is enchanting for most parts of the first hour.  The presence of Leon Lai thereafter serves as a reminder that rich, cultural cinema can fall flat on its knees despite a lavish, epic-scale production.  Kaige has taken a risk with Lai and it backfires. 

Viewers are nothing more than just slightly aroused by the remarkable yet turbulent life of a legendary artiste, portrayed by an actor whose ability is suspect, and directed by a filmmaker who finds it an uphill task to recapture the glory of his past.  Don’t be deceived by its title, Forever Enthralled is anything but. 

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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