Just as movie-going has waned in importance as a family activity, so too the Lunar New Year comedy fever. The Year of the Dragon has seen a handful of productions that even peripherally qualify as holiday entertainment, a far cry from the years of the dragon past.
Four cycles ago, 1964 audiences had an astounding choice of seven Chinese-language pictures debuting on Lunar New Year's Eve, on February 12. Shot in Putonghua and a variety of dialects from Cantonese to Shaoxing, the septet of features was for the most part geared to the seasonal mood. Most typical was Prince's Lovers (whose original title translates as Soaring Dragons and Dancing Phoenixes Celebrate the New Spring), a costume opera farce that showcased the cr?me de la cr?me of a genre whose golden age was about to come to an end.
The regally ignoble shenanigans of a prince (Lam Kar-sing) aided by his trusty eunuch (Leung Sing-po) in pursuit of a beautiful maiden (Fung Wong Nui) is not unlike hundreds of filmed stage adaptations produced during the heyday of Cantonese opera from the late 1950s to mid-60s. Pros such as Prince's Lovers' stellar trio and prolific director Chan Pei helped define Hong Kong cinema after the second world war. But ticket-buyers' tastes were changing, and by decade's end Putonghua martial-arts adventures would supplant Cantonese comedy as festive fare.
The plot of Prince's Lovers is formulaic but also a reminder of why certain formulas were such favourites. Leung's performing genius has not dimmed with age, even for viewers not initiated into this form of musical storytelling. His drag shtick never fails to delight, and the eunuch's masquerade as a maid contains enough sparks of individuality to transcend the scene's familiar precepts.
Though nobody will mistake Prince's Lovers for a classic, from the vantage point of 48 years it remains a cheerful example of a time and type gone by.
Prince's Lovers, today, 5pm, Hong Kong Film Archive