The seismic change in the nature of commercial Hong Kong cinema and mainstream audience tastes during the past half-century is perhaps best illustrated by comparing any recent blockbuster with The Love Eterne (1963).
A box-office hit from Taipei to Singapore during both its original release and subsequent revivals, the widescreen “Shawscope” production could never be made today, with its female-centric cast, Chinese operatic score and a pace too leisurely for viewers accustomed to action-packed montages. That is why it is best viewed on a big screen without outside distractions, for director Li Han-hsiang weaves a web of almost surreal artifice that in the 21st century still retains the power to put even non-opera fans under its spell.
The ancient tale of bookish teenage maiden Zhu Yingtai, who masquerades as a boy in order to go to school, and the growing affection she shares with male classmate Liang Shanbo, unaware of Zhu’s true gender, has been filmed numerous times. The Love Eterne ranks among the most lavish versions, making optimal use of Shaw Brothers’ extensive indoor and outdoor sets magically transformed by the design savvy of the studio’s technical and creative teams, all under Li’s legendarily meticulous eye.
Not that the ear is neglected; Zhou Lanping’s musical score takes the huangmei (“yellow plum”) operatic tunes and subtly modernises them in a way that enhances rather than detracts from their traditional appeal.
Part of the fun is the director’s revelling in the obviousness of its studio-based sense of fantasy, with no attempt to ground the proceedings in conventional reality. Film buffs will also enjoy the inclusion of cameos by a dozen Shaw contract players and the presence of such former Shanghai celluloid celebrities as Chen Yanyan and Ouyang Shafei as the mothers of, respectively, Zhu and Liang.
Fundamental to the movie’s appeal are the two women at the centre. Betty Loh Ti, then an established star and nicknamed the “classic beauty” of Putonghua pictures, lives up to the sobriquet even in “masculine” garb that only serves to highlight her ethereal stellar presence. But the movie’s breakout personality was Ivy Ling Po, who, after many years in Xiamen dialect films, hit the big time with her portrayal of Liang and impressive vocalisation of the songs (Loh’s singing voice was dubbed).
By objective standards, neither is a convincing gender bender, but such is the production’s overall enchantment that it’s not difficult to get swept up in the pageantry and surrender one’s sense of disbelief.
The Love Eterne will be screened on September 16 and 30 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the Beauty in Myriad Shades: A Tribute to Betty Loh Ti on Her 80th Birth Anniversary programme.