Time for another Review, and this time out it’s a trip back to the 1960’s and the heyday of the Shaw Brothers with a look at the sumptuous 1965’s Huangmei opera film “The Mermaid” based on the 16th-century Chinese play “A Tale of Goddess of Mercy’s Fish Basket (觀音菩薩魚籃記)”. A virtuous scholar, a beautiful Carp Spirit Fairy, romance, comedy, mistaken identity gags, and oodles, and oodles of singing. Yep… they don’t make them like this anymore…
Our synopsis? Well it sorts goes like this: “A scholar named Zhang Zhen who finds himself taken in by the Prime Minister after the death of his beloved parents. Soon enough, Zhang Zhen falls in love with his benefactor’s pretty, but haughty daughter, Peony. But, there are two problems preventing a union between the two. For one, her father simply won’t approve of the match, and Peony herself has no interest in the lowly Zhang as a suitor to begin with!
Stuck inside with nothing to do but study for exams, Zhang tries to brighten his spirits by feeding fish in a nearby pond. On one fateful day, a carp fairy transforms itself into a beautiful woman who just so happens to look exactly like Peony! Plenty of misunderstandings and misadventures ensue when this lovely Carp Spirit tries to adapt to life on the surface while trying to woo the scholar to whom she has lost her heart! Who will Zhang choose – his first love, Peony or the vivacious mermaid?”
Yep… sweet, sweet romance and magical hi-jinx abound. But will I be able to sit through all the singing and dancing? Guess we’ll find out, won’t we? 😉
Technically I suppose, calling this one a “mermaid” movie is a bit of a stretch considering that at no time in the movie does our heroine ever appear with a fishy tail or do just about anything you’d expect that seems particularly “mermaid-y”. Still… that’s the actual title that the Shaw Brothers themselves marketed this one under when they translated it to English. In a more literal translation it’s more properly “Fish Beauty” or the more eloquent “The Beautiful Carp Spirit”, and in it our heroine is yet another of those mischievous animal spirit fairies that occasionally visit the mortal world to pass as humans for various reasons. In this particular case that reason is love and the bulk of the story involves the problems that happen when contact between humans and spirits occur in violation of the strict orders of the Heavenly Bureaucracy. Still… it’s plenty enough “mermaid” enough for lil’ ol’ me, so I think we’ll let it in. 🙂
This one is an odd bird for lil’ ol’ me… I mean it’s an honest-to-goodness Chinese Huangmei opera film… and that means plenty of singing and dancing and really stylized combat and fight sequences. Heck… and I’m sometimes fatigued by Hindi films with their insistence on spicing things up with musical interludes! But… I do love vintage Shaw Brothers films… and this one’s been kicking around in my DVD pile for a whole loooonnng while…. and it’s “Mermaid Month” here at the Litterbox…. So I guess it’s time for this wee lady to bite the bullet and give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?
Our story gets underway as we get introduced to our hero scholar Zhang Zhen (played by actress Ivy Ling Po. Yep… women playing men… I think it’s a Traditional Chinese opera thing…) who’s traveled a long way from home to honor a marriage contract set up by his parents years before. His parents have both died leaving him without wealth, and as soon as he turns up, Prime Minister Jin (played by Yang Chih-ching) starts squirming uncomfortably trying to figure out how he can avoid honoring this old family promise. Not only that, but Zhang’s prospective fiance, the beautiful Peony (played by Li Ching) seems more than a little dismissive of his very existence. Not exactly the welcome he was expecting.
To save face, The Prime Minister tells our hero that since he has yet to pass the Imperial Examinations to receive a post, he can stay in his old study while he prepares for the tests. Once he’s taken them and been awarded a position they can then revisit the idea of marriage to his daughter. He of course, hopes that either Zhang will become discouraged and leave first or simply fail to pass the exams making the marriage promise a moot point.
What nobody knows is that the lonely study overlooks a pretty pond in which the magical Carp Spirit lives (also played by Li Ching), spending her lonely days in meditation and longing for the life that pretty Peony leads. She’s taken to magically shape-shifting into her spitting image and practicing being a human girl with the help of the other water spirits of the pond. Once Zhang moves in and shows himself over then next few months, to be a diligent and honorable young man aching for love and romance she becomes totally smitten with him and decides to venture ashore to the human world to woo him in Peony’s form. Yep… you just know that’s gonna be trouble… 😉
Overcoming her shyness, she meets him for the first time in his lonely room one winter evening, coming ashore by walking across the water atop a trail of mist to waken him from his sleep with a flirtatious tickle of her hair on his cheek. Awwww!! So… darn… cute!! I just loved that absolutely adorable moment in the film and I swear I’m gonna steal that as a sweet way of waking my own lovely sweetie sometime. Seriously… it’s just that amazingly romantic.
Zhang is overjoyed to finally be visited by who he thinks is Peony, come at last to swear her love. The Carp Spirit plays along, just so happy to be able spend time with Zhang and experience love as a mortal girl. They sing… they chastely profess their tender feelings for one another, and “Peony” promises to visit Zhang every evening at 9 to walk the gardens together. Their next few months fly by as they grow closer and closer. Zhang falls completely for her shy sweetness and loving heart. What could possibly go wrong to spoil it all?
Well, as spring finally arrives, the real Peony chooses to spend an evening in the gardens alone to write poetry and Zhang arrives expecting to meet his loving fiance only to encounter the haughty young maiden who has forgotten all about the poor scholar she met over a year or so ago. She cries out for help, thinking him a thief and once her servants arrive, basically has her father throw him out for having the gall to say that they were lovers. She’s mean, petty, and cruel, and Zhang’s heart shatters at what he thinks is her betrayal. Hurt and angry at Peony’s change of heart and disgusted with the materialistic and sanctimonious unprincipled attitudes of both her and her family, he leaves to start his long journey home.
The Carp Spirit is upset, and magically flies away from her pond on a cloud in search of Zhang, still hoping to be able to salvage their relationship while keeping her secret. She finds Zhang on the road, and when he sees her, he is angry and hurt, believing she tricked him so her father would be justified in breaking his promise of the marriage. “Peony” is reduced to tears, begging Zhang to forgive her and telling him she only wants to run away and be his wife and the mother of his child, forsaking her father’s wealth and privilege to be with him forever. Naturally one look in her tearful eyes and Zhang can’t help but believe her sincerity despite the oddness of it all.
As they make their way, they end up at a local festival where they spend an enjoyable time together until Prime Minister Jin accidentally runs into them and flips out. He has them both seized and brought back to his mansion so he can punish Zhang as the scoundrel he thinks he is for luring “Peony” away into a marriage that will give him leverage against Jin. Back at the mansion, naturally we get to the mistaken identity hi-jinx of the film once the two “Peonys” are finally brought together.
Everybody immediately knows some kind of spirit is up to something, but the Carp Spirit’s imitation is so perfect, that not only Zhang is confounded, but Peony’s own parents find themselves at a loss to tell the two apart. That means it’s time to summon the famous Ghost Hunting Judge Bao (played by Ching Miao) and his deadly “Ghost Cutting Sword”. Uh-oh… 😦
The Carp Spirit knows she should flee, but loves Zhang too much to give up. With the help of her other water spirit friends, she conspires to duplicate Judge Bao and his entourage hoping to confuse things so much that the famous magistrate will find himself unable to separate her from Zhang. There’s a great “trial” sequence where the two Judge Baos interrogate the two Peonys only to end in a stalemate.
But Prime Minister Jin isn’t ready to give up. He hires an Exorcist to unleash the fury of the Celestial Generals and 4 Gods of the Heavens to subdue the imposter. Using her magic, the Carp Spirit frees Zhang and tries to make a getaway with him, to no avail. Nearly defeated by them, she’s forced to tell Zhang her true identity. Zhang realizes that the Peony he has come to love, the shy virtuous maiden with the heart of gold is really her and he swears that her deception means nothing, that he still loves her. Awwww!!! Like we didn’t know that’s how it was going to go. With the help of Peony’s Thousand Year Pearl, they escape beneath the pond to the Carp Spirit’s realm where her water spirit friends try to help them resist the unstoppable forces arrayed against them.
Naturally they lose… and just when it looks like the Generals are ready to destroy the Carp Spirit, the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin (played by Chen Yun-hua) arrives from Heaven on a cloud to intervene. The Carp Spirit is given two choices, either to return with the Goddess to the Southern Sea continue her training towards Enlightenment and become an Immortal or to forsake all her magical powers and become merely a mortal human woman and be together with Zhang. Oh yeah… wouldn’t be much of a movie if she picked the former now would it?
Yep, we get our happy ending as our two lovers set out on the long journey home, hand in hand, each happily lost the love the see in each others eyes. Roll those credits!!
Ahhhhh… now this was actually a delightful lil’ film. It’s most definitely an Opera all right, and more dialog is delivered in song than ever done without. There’s a “old-timey” feel to this one, giving it an almost fairy-tale feel throughout, perfect given the source material. The effects are hugely dated, but somehow all the more appropriate, and surprisingly effective, my particular favorite being the one used to make the Carp Spirit glide across her pond, trailing a delicate mist that seems to support her atop the water, done I think with some underwater rig and the clever use of dry ice. Nicely done….
The battle beneath the pond? Overblown and theatrical, it definitely captures the look of Chinese “operatic” combat, looking less real than staged, but still perfect for the film itself. Overall the entire film makes you feel like you are witnessing an Opera performance rather than watching a film. I found it both easy to watch and not at all boring. The love story? Priceless, with real chemistry between the leads… even in cross dress. 🙂
I give the film an easily awarded 4 “Meows” out of 5. It’s definitely a classic, and is Shaw Brothers at it’s most classy. If you haven’t seen it, or if you’ve never even seen a Huangmei opera film, then this one is a definite one to try.
It’s available, as I saw it on the Celestial Pictures Region 3 Widescreen restored disc for right around 15-20$ US. with great separate English subtitles and gloriously vibrant Technicolor. Well worth a look.
Here’s the original vintage Trailer in all it’s gloriously faded Technicolor glory. Enjoy!