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‘Peking Opera Blues’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1988

Watching "Peking Opera Blues" is like flipping through the most explosive, most exhilarating comic book ever made. Directed by Hong Kong-based filmmaker Tsui Hark, it's an action adventure picture that plays like a Marx Brothers comedy.

There's a daredevil audacity in this mix of flamboyant pageantry and kung fu acrobatics. "Peking Opera Blues" makes you feel as if you're seated on the nose of a bullet. The whole film is like the opening dance-hall sequence of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Except that it out-Spielbergs Spielberg.

The action moves almost incomprehensibly fast, and the editing rhythms crackle like machine-gun fire. Not in a long time has a filmmaker made the screen jump with energy and wit and invention the way Hark does here. But though directed for speed, it doesn't have the sort of heedless acceleration that closes out beauty or coherence. The movie has a remarkable elegance, a love for figures in motion, for athleticism and grace. What Hark configures here is a poetics of velocity.

Set in Beijing in 1913, after the first democratic revolution, the film follows the adventures of three women: Tao Wan (Lin Ch'ing-hsia), who dresses like an Edwardian fop and is a revolutionary who opposes her military warlord father in his effort to conspire against democracy; Sheung Hung (Cherrie Chung Chor-hung), a mercenary singer who longs to make enough money to leave Beijing for stardom in America; and Pak Neil (Sally Yeh), the daughter of the proprietor of a local opera house, who is stifled in her dream of performing in the theater by its all-male traditions.

All three women are swept up in an atmosphere of adventure and intrigue that includes the evil officer in charge of antiguerrilla activity and his secret policemen (who wear snap-brim fedoras and topcoats, like G-men from old "Untouchables" reruns). The plot is mind-bogglingly complex; your eyes cross just trying to figure it out. But even if you can't keep up, the visual exuberance is so entrancing that you don't mind feeling lost.

It doesn't hurt, either, that the three stars -- who are the top box-office attractions in China -- are scrumptious camera subjects and deft comedians. The characters aren't anything more than sketches, but they're irresistibly charming cutups. And it's remarkable how skillfully Hark defines his characters in the midst of this mad torrent of gender-switching, secret plots, shootouts and cliffhangers.

There's a lot of role-playing in "Peking Opera Blues," and a good deal of it takes place either onstage or backstage at the theater. In fact, theatricality and artifice are Hark's prime motifs. The story he tells is little more than a pastiche of stock melodramatic situations, but he infuses them with such outrageousness and verve that they're transformed. During one performance, the stylized fighting onstage evolves into widespread brawling offstage that's equally stylized. And in addition to the glory and humor in the staging and the choreography, the pleasure in it comes from the filmmakers' joy in splicing together divergent traditions and styles.

"Peking Opera Blues" is transcendent escapist entertainment. You can't contain your giggles. And it puts you in such a receptive mood that the howlingly inappropriate subtitling ("There's a girl. Knock her up") merely adds to the fun. Hark has an astounding mastery of his medium; his blood must run with celluloid. The shootout on the rooftops that serves as the film's climax is an explosion of talent. Your mouth drops open at the sight of it.

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