|There's a movie, but don't watch it. You still have so much to live for.|
|Fun fact: Albarn and Hewlett were both born in the Year of the Monkey.|
I've only seen it once in my life, but certain scenes remain vivid and arresting in my imagination: a mother cutting off her little boy's finger in a snowy alley; two aging actors burning their costumes in a public square while the Red Guard of Chairman Mao jeer at them; a young man in a silk gown throwing a pair of slippers at the feet of a prostitute.
I couldn't possibly have understood this movie as a child, considering it's subject matter. For a long time it was one of those movies whose name and plot I couldn't remember, and sometimes I wondered if I made it up. It was this mysterious childhood artifact that I carried around in my mind, like a one of those ancient tables covered in writing that historians can't decipher.
And then came the Internet. All I had to do was Google "Chinese movie little boy finger cut off" and boom! "Farewell My Concubine."
I'm not a technophobe and I don't long for a time when I couldn't spend six hours on my couch watching cartoons on my laptop while I cruise my tumblr feed on my tablet. But sometimes I am nostalgic for a time when there were still mysteries that couldn't be solved in nanoseconds by our boxes of light that hold all the information in the universe.
Anyway, I discovered that "Farewell My Concubine" was adapted from a novel of the same name by Lilian Lee. I read it for the first time in the summer of 2007 during my first trip to New York. I bought a copy of "Farewell" during my touristy visit to the famous Strand bookstore, along with a novel by Maxine Hong Kingston called "Tripmaster Monkey," which was about a theater troupe in 1960s San Francisco putting on a performance of--wait for it--"Journey to the West."
BUT--watching "Monkey: Journey to the West" reminded me very strongly of all these works and clarified a lot that was unclear or confusing about them, especially the opera scenes in "Farewell My Concubine." There's only so much words can do to convey the feeling of watching a stage show, and the movie focused more on the lives of the performers than the performances, so I was always a little fuzzy on what Peking opera was like and how it differed from Western styles of musical theater. As soon as Monkey stepped out onto the stage, stamped his feet and sang "I am Monkey!", I got it. There's so much meaning and character development conveyed in how the performers move and speak, and you can tell what type of character they are--trickster, drunken lout, aging general, goddess, demon--by these rather minimalist markers. I suppose the word to use is "stylized," because the characters are archetypes that are revealed through their styles of speech and movement.
|Guess which one is the trickster Monkey King who stole the peaches of Heaven and pissed on the Buddha's palm.|
And that's fine. It's a valid opinion to have. I don't like hula 'auana. I think it's haolified and lacks the underlying power and majesty of hula kahiko, so I understand traditionalist objections to a work like "Monkey: Journey to the West." I wouldn't agree with them in this case, because I enjoyed myself immensely at "Monkey", but on the other hand, I know nothing about Peking opera except that I think they allow women on the stage these days.
I bring this up because both "Farewell My Concubine" and "Tripmaster Monkey" dealt with the preservation of traditional performance styles, and traditional values, in the face of sweeping societal upheavals. Do you change the show when your audience changes in order to remain relevant in a modern world? Or do you preserve the show as it was in the past, even at the risk of losing your audience, so the audience doesn't lose or forget something about themselves?
Of course there's no right answer. Or rather, the right answer is somewhere in between. The tricky part is that you can't tell whether the answer was right nor not until several generations down the road, when your descendants look at your decisions and either praise or curse you for the history you made for them.
You just have to leap, and hope for the best.