This July 1st, filming began at the Beijing Film Studio on a movie based on the life and career of Mei Lanfang, the greatest performer of Peking (now Beijing) opera, a classic Chinese art form. Mei's dominance of his art cannot be overstated. It was Chaplin, it was Sinatra, it was The Beatles – but more: Chaplin had Lloyd and Arbuckle, Sinatra had Crosby, The Beatles had the Stones; but Mei Lanfang was unequaled.
As China's early filmmakers probed the new media's unique ways of narrating stories, they also looked at ways of combining film with traditional opera. In 1920, 15 years after the first Chinese film was shot in Beijing, the Commercial Press's Motion Picture Department made two films which featured the leading performer of classical Chinese opera at that time, the legendary Mei Lanfang.
He began studying the art at age 8, and made his stage debut at 11. After years of study and hard work, he became a star, specializing in playing female roles. His contributions to his art went far beyond just performing, as he was a constant source of new and innovative ideas in vocal music, spoken parts, dancing, music and costume. Before long, those who incorporated his ideas into operatic performances became known as the "Mei school" of Chinese opera.
As noted in an earlier post, the first Chinese-made film was a selection from Peking [now Beijing] opera, and while this was probably coincidental, it provides some understanding of why film had so immediate an impact on Chinese society. This traditional art form may be regarded today as something "quaint," but at that time was the most popular form of mass entertainment, and operatic performers of that era were the superstars of their day. Mei Lanfang's career paralleled the development of Chinese motion pictures: he made his stage debut the year after the country's first film was produced, and his art and cinema matured together. So it was only natural that the Commercial Press Motion Picture Department would invite him to make his screen debut.
But making a film version of a Peking opera was by then no longer the simple affair that the 1905 production had been. Although it was still the silent era, a variety of foreign feature films and domestically-produced shorts had permeated China, and audiences were beginning to acquire a degree of sophistication. So "Mei the boss" with his considerable stage experience, was readily pursued as "Mei the movie director."
Like stage and screen in the West, Beijing opera and movies at first glance appear to be closely related, but there are actually some significant differences. The pattern for a Beijing opera performance usually relies on fictitious scenes and settings, but early motion picture settings tended to be more realistic. In Beijing opera, much is done by symbolic representations: a stage backdrop may stand for a landscape extending over several hundred miles; a single flag held to one's side may represent a battle carriage; a flag extending from a costume may indicate a general in battle mode, etc. In his first attempt at making a film version of an opera film, Mei Lanfang went beyond the usual opera director's instincts and achieved a level of innovation and foresight that demonstrated his instinctive, artistic sense of what movie audiences would expect. In his first film, "Chunxiang Disturbs the Studies," he discarded the sets which represented the garden and decorative pool of the scenes, and instead created actual garden and pool settings for his performance. This may seem pretty routine today, but Chinese movies at that time were still being filmed in actual settings, not creations. Mei Lanfang's were the first settings to be created especially for a movie.
[Mei Lanfang as Chunxiang]