Performances of excerpts from the kunqu classic The peony pavilion (牡丹亭, Mudan ting) marked the respective beginning and end of the film career of Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳). While fortuity and the canonical status of the play might be enough to explain this coincidence, Mei’s interests in both the venerable kunqu and the new medium of cinema suggest a productive line of inquiry into their expressive potentiality.
In his 1959 film of Dream in the garden (游园惊梦, Youyuan jingmeng), the precisely choreographed “meeting of the eyes” (dui yanguang) during the dream scene is translated into refreshingly rare exchanges of cinematic point-of-view. The original play’s motif of transcendence as represented by the romantic dream encounter at once opens up a self-referential space for Mei’s performance and frees the film medium here from the sole function of photographical preservation.
In this sense, Mei’s own interpretation of the transformative fairy quality (xian qi) of the play and the film medium could be seen as a footnote to his own art of impersonation. The film thus also complemented his stage performance in the masculine and patriotic General Mu Guiying (Mu Guiying guashuai) of the same year, which added a paradoxical last touch to his career as a female impersonator.
This according to “Meeting of the eyes: Invented gesture, cinematic choreography, and Mei Lanfang’s Kun opera film” by Dong Xinyu (The opera quarterly XXVI/2–3 [spring–summer 2010] pp. 200–219).
Today is Mei Lanfang’s 120th birthday! Above and below, he portrays the star-crossed Du Liniang in Dream in the garden.