Honoring the Heroine: Tsao Wan, Sheung Hung and Bai Niu

Or the Heroines of Peking Opera Blues. I guess if you are well versed in Hong Kong film, than you most likely know this movie, which is one of the earlier works of Tsui Hark. If not, you most likely missed this little gem so far.

I admit, I am not necessarily a fan of Hong Kong films, mostly, because I am not a fan of movies which pay more attention to the fight scenes than the actual plot. A lot Chinese movies are very heavy on martial arts, and verge towards B-movie quality. But, like in every genre, there are a few which are certainly worth watching, and one of them is Peking Opera Blues.

Nominally, this is a martial arts film. At least, that’s the category you will normally find on the DVD. But in reality, it is more a mix between historical drama, comedy and spy thriller with some fight scenes thrown in, most of them very gun-heavy. Yes, I know, this sounds like a mess, and to be honest, I am always surprised that the mix works every time I watch it. But it does, even though people who expect a good old martial arts movie might be disappointed with it. The fight scenes itself are perfectly choreographed, but they are less the focus than usual. In fact, there is just as much “fake fighting” on the stage of the opera house than real fighting.

But let’s talk about our heroines. This movie centres around the fate of not one, but three totally different female characters, whose path cross in 1913, a time of political unrest in China. Tsao Wan is the daughter of a corrupt general and warlord. Growing up with money, she had the opportunity to study medicine abroad, and returns to her homeland on the behest of “the rebels”, an organisation who fights for democracy. Sheung Hung is a street artist, whose main desire is to flee the country and leave her poverty behind. And Bai Niu is the daughter of a Peking Opera artist, who now leads the troop in the local opera house. Her dream to be herself on the stage one day seems to be unreachable, because traditionally, all roles are sung by men.


And they are all pretty awesome characters

In the structure of the movie, Tsao Wan basically provides the political aspect. She is the one who has strong convictions considering how a country should be lead. In her desire for a better future for China, she is ready to do everything necessary. Even betraying her own father by stealing an important document from him, which will prove the corrupt dealings of the current president of China.

Sheung Hung provides the comedy, at least in theory. Her hunt for a box full of jewels is framed in the way a Chinese comedy would work, with the typical gestures, but from the Western point of view, the result is rarely funny and sometimes borders an annoying, when she starts to whine and generally proves to be a klutz. As a character, she should be utterly unlikable, because she is unashamedly greedy and not really strong on morals, basically the opposite of Tsao Wan. Her character works for me nevertheless, mainly for two reasons: One, her desire for riches is understandable, considering that she lives in poverty. Two, it is pretty rare that you get a character like this as heroine, without any redemption story attached to it. She does mellow up a little when she learns the true meaning of friendship, but not so much that he basic character suddenly changes. Towards the end of the movie she might be ready to risk her life for her friends – but don’t expect her to be less greedy or less focussed on her own interests otherwise.

With Bai Niu, the martial arts aspect is added to the story, since most of the fights happens on stage, but she and the whole Peking Opera setting is mostly a commentary on gender roles. As a character, she is mostly what you can call a simple girl from the folk. Neither particularly poor nor rich, not really interested in politics unless it is tangible for her own life, not stupid but lacking the education someone like Tsao Wan has, not really one for heroics, but lead by a strong moral principle.

Now, it is hard to talk about the movie without spoiling it. It is a little bit slow paced at the start, but once it gets going, you can barely catch a breath. But there are some aspects which I consider remarkable. For one, despite the fact that there are two male actors added to the group eventually, the focus still stays with the woman, and they don’t suddenly loose their abilities in order to allow the men to shine (and isn’t it sad that this has to be even mentioned?). Second, there is romance, but it is less predictable than one might think at first. There is even one subplot, in which one of the three falls in love just to discover that said man is interested in another woman of the group. Her reaction? She is sad. That’s it. It doesn’t destroy their friendship, she doesn’t conveniently fall into the arms of another man, she just steps away. Third, despite having a high entertainment factor, the movie has a sense of realism to it. This is not portrayed as some sort of magical experience which will change the live of the three woman involved for the better. It is more one episode in their life, which will certainly have an impact on the decisions they will make in the future, but the only thing which is waiting for them at the end of their “adventure” is reality. Everyone who knows a little bit about history also knows that during their lifetime, there won’t be democracy in China, or gender equality, and how hard the life of emigrants truly is.

Quote: “Sometimes we run around but finally come back to the same place.”

I am actually not sure to whom I should recommend this movie. I guess a martial arts fan will be disappointed by the lack of focus on it, for someone, who wants something fun and light-hearted, it might be too dark and bloody, and for someone who wants something serious, it might not be serious enough. Let’s just say if you want to see something a little bit different, give it a shot. If nothing else, it is beautiful to look at, since the costumes are very well made, the setting is colourful, and it is well acted. A word of warning though: There seem to be multiple subtitles for this movie, and some of them are apparently not that well done. If you have the option, the German dubbing is aceptable, but also has a couple of hick-ups.

6 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Tsao Wan, Sheung Hung and Bai Niu

  1. Swanpride. I do not know if you are on Fanpop, but I just checked the wall and there is an account named Jayden_G, and it is NOT ME. Someone is impersonating me, and my account is STILL deleted. I need you to report them, and tell others to report them as well.

  2. I just want to say that I love the basis of your blog- fabulous stuff. Thanks for commenting on mine, so that I could read yours, haha! I’m also studying abroad in Hong Kong atm, so I was pleased to see the heroines from this film mentioned. You make some great points, and I love that you’ve given these badass ladies credit. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for commenting! I actually didn’t expect that anyone who has actually seen this movie would stumble over this post.
      Studying in Hong Kong? That sounds interesting. Do you actually speak the language?

      • Yes, well, I speak Mandarin. That’s my degree at University, so I’m studying abroad in HK for the academic year… I know it’s silly to try and speak Mandarin in a Cantonese area, but it’s a good way to pick up two languages at once!

      • Well, if you know any good movies with female protagonists (from this area or otherwise), don’t be shy to point them out to me. There is certainly one or two gems I missed so far, since Chinese Cinema is not really my forte.
        And if you happen you know which English subtitle is the best, a recommendation would be nice, too.

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