Love blossoms between a woman playing a man and a woman playing a woman playing a man, in Li Han Hsiang’s opera classic.
“Bro, pick the flowers while they are in bloom.”
Adapted from the folk tale The Butterfly Lovers, The Love Eterne tells the relatively simple story of Zhu Ying-tai (Betty Loh Ti), a girl who wants to attend school, but whose gender prevents it. She is able to convince her parents (if not the audience) that she can dress as a man and get in. She and her servant Yin Hsin (Ren Jie) don their best male disguises and head off – encountering Liang Shan-bo (Ivy Ling Po) another student and his valet (Li Kun) along the way. The two of them form a strong bond over the years, and Ying-tai falls in love with her friend.
Seen through the lens of the Queer East festival where I saw it, the story takes on more than a few homosexual undertones that one might have missed in any other context. While nothing romantic happens between the two leads (and their retainers as well) until Zhu is revealed to be a woman, Liang is more than happy to learn that he can marry the man he’s known the past three years now that it’s socially acceptable to do so. It’s easy to see how, were things different, he would have fallen for his sworn brother.
The queer coding is easy to lose sight of in what quickly becomes a story about class. When Ying-tai returns home and is immediately married off to someone wealthy and influential, the detail of one man falling in love with another man is somewhat lost – but it’s the casting that helps keep that angle in play. The choice to have two women play the leads (somewhat confusingly to anyone not familiar with the Huangmei opera tradition – it took me more than a few minutes to fully understand that Shan-bo wasn’t also a woman pretending to be a man) allows the film to keep hold of its potentially queer themes.
Being such an old legend (even as a film it’s pushing 60), and such a basic one at that, it’s hard to really gauge what The Love Eterne is actually about, thematically, whether the discussion of class and gender is warranted or if it’s just a side effect of watching it in the 21st century. It’s just as plausible to call it another tale of forbidden love – one we would see told a million times once Romeo and Juliet would come along – as it is to call it a musing on homosexual love between boys in boarding school.
What it is, however, is an infectiously cheerful (well, more on that in a second) and colourful musical loaded with gorgeous sets and charming cheeseball sentiments. This is largely thanks to its two leads, who are both absolutely delightful and carry the entire viewing experience. Po is working especially hard, as she plays her character authentically, never resorting to too much pantomime shenanigans, and her conflicting, confused emotions towards Ying-tai are among the film’s finer moments.
And then things take a wild turn for the dramatic. Between the halfway and two-thirds mark, Ying-tai is married off and so the rest of the film starts: one where everyone is bemoaning their broken hearts, the unjust system, and whatever else is bothering them. The hard turn into melodrama isn’t entirely unexpected for these sorts of tragedy, but the whiplash is so strong you’d think you were in another film altogether. Thankfully it at least keeps its cheesy aesthetic right through to its final, eye-rollingly lame (but endearingly sincere) final moments.
Verdict: For all its faults, The Love Eterne is a classic of Chinese opera filmmaking and while its fairy-tale sensibilities might not always gel with modern audiences, it has charm aplenty – enough to have been beloved by many for so long.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Sex: Very chaste/10
Handkerchief: Don’t rub that all over your face, it looks diseased
Isn’t it ironic: Just like a tornado on your wedding day
The Love Eterne (1963)
Also known as: 梁山伯与祝英台Mandarin
Director: Li Han Hsiang
Writer: Li Han Hsiang
Betty Loh Ti – Zhu Ying-tai
Ivy Ling Po – Liang Shan-bo
Ren Jie – Ying Hsin
Li Kun – Si Jiu
Ching Miao – Zhu
Chen Yen-yen – Madame Zhu
Yang Chih-ching – Headmaster
Kao Pao-shu – Matron