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Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix (龍飛鳳舞)

After scrutinizing Taiwanese funeral customs in the 2010 comedy “Seven Days in Heaven” (父後七日), director Wang Yu-lin (王育麟) now offers “Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix” (龍飛鳳舞), a colorful ball of yarn about the adventures of a touring Taiwanese Hoklo opera troupe, blending family drama, the artistry of Hoklo opera, and the social context beyond the opera stage.

With a cosmic, action-packed opening sequence evoking the traditional beliefs that drive the ceremonial performances of Hoklo opera, we are introduced to the Tianlong Hoklo Opera Troupe (天龍歌劇團).

Upon the death of its patriarch, the troupe faces an uncertain future. Then Chun-Mei, the troupe's headlining xiaosheng (young male character, 小生) and new leader, sprains her leg while crossing the street, trying to avoid a motorcyclist. Chun-Mei (春梅) is forced to take a break, yet the troupe cannot simply cancel upcoming performances for fear of losing business with its patron.

Coincidentally, the motorcyclist who almost hit Chun-Mei, Jimmy Zhuang Qi-Mi (莊奇米), looks just like Chun-mei. Pressed by the circumstances, Chun-Mei's husband Zhi-hong (志宏) comes up with the idea of having Jimmy pass as Chun-Mei until she recovers. Jimmy, who is a street sweeper, takes the stage after a crash course and at times does surprisingly well.

Adding sophistication and giving an exotic counterpoint to the story, Chun-mei takes an excursion to India to find quiet empowerment.

Another narrative thread concerns Yi (阿義), Chun-Mei's brother. Yi is the divorced, rebellious son of the family. He used to be an accomplished wusheng (martial male character, 武生) but is left in a rut after a failed marriage. Now as Yi and his ex-wife both return to the troupe and as Yi falls in love with another member, jealousy escalates.

Moreover, the film fondly portrays the teens and twentysomethings in the troupe. One young idealistic man loves the itinerant life. Another, fresh out of compulsory military service, is there for his girlfriend. Others are simply expected to carry on the family trade.

Director Wang Yu-lin ingeniously uses the “story within a story” scheme afforded by his subject matter. As we move toward the climax – if something so mild can be called that – the play on stage melds with the troupe's backstage drama to entertaining effect. Yet ultimately, though full of pretty flourishes, the film lacks dramatic tension. At times it feels like an elegant dress hanging on the balcony, fluttering but going nowhere.

If you love traditional theater and are curious about the touring life, “Flying Dragon, Dancing Phoenix” cordially invites you backstage. Hoklo opera fans will be delighted by strong performances from familiar thespians Li Luo-qing (李珞晴), Lui Fu-lu(呂福祿) and Kuo Chun-mei (郭春美). Kuo, in particular, adeptly shifts between her two roles while displaying operatic chops. Chu Hung-chang (朱宏章), Wu Pong-fong (吳朋奉), Zhang Shi-ying (張詩盈), Essay Liu Zi-jie (劉梓潔) and “Taibao” Chang Chia-nien (“太保” 張嘉年) also give nuanced, unaffected performances.

Comedy, Drama / 2012 / Taiwan / 110 min

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