Sunday, February 10, 2013

Painted Faces (1988) - Celebrating Chinese New Year!

Director: Alex Law
Stars: Sammo Hung, Lam Ching Ying, Cheng Pei Pei
Produced: Shaw Brother Studios & Golden Harvest
Genre: Drama - based on true story of a Peking opera school in HK

The Chinese Drama Academy based in Hong Kong in the 1950’s & 60’s was a performance school that taught acrobatics, kung fu, & peking opera to children as young as 7 years old. The academy was run by Master Yu - Jimmy Yuen. It was more of a boarding school where the students would train for about 10 years on contract from their parents as the teacher provided room, board, food, & training. The students would give back by participating in Peking Opera performances at Theaters. What is significant about the Chinese Drama/Peking Opera Academy is that Master Yu churned out some talented students like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, & Cory Yuen who all became successful actors, stuntmen, fight choreographers, & film directors in Hong Kong. Painted Faces is a dramatized version of the legend of this school and its founder told by the experiences of Sammo Hung - he himself a senior student of the Master. Sammo Hung incidentally plays Master Yu in Painted Faces!

Painted Faces depicts Master Yu (Sammo Hung) as a very harsh disciplinarian often using face slappings, bamboo canings, verbal abuse, and handstands as forms of punishment. Some of the scenes with the extreme stretching exercises had me cringing with pain. When Yu was away or had to step out - the senior most student of his class, Sammo would be his muscle to lead the class. Unknowbenownst to Yu though, Sammo would lookout for his classmates in a more lenient and caring way.  When another young student who enters the academy named ‘ah lung’ or some of his classmates called ‘big nose’ which we all later know as Jackie Chan - would receive much discipline in forms of black and blues. Though the troupe would be highly disciplined, kids will be kids as adventures such as sneaking out for food, western dance, and fighting would be inevitable but they will have there consequences.

This film is partly about the brotherhood that is congealed through enduring the same pain, training, and the cliche but true - age old adage of blood, sweat, and tears earned at the Chinese Drama Academy but make no mistake about it - the main dish served at Painted Faces is the coming of age story in Master Yu - Jimmy Yuen. He truly cares for his students like children of his own, but just as some fathers have funny ways of expressing their love, Yu likes to express his through discipline and training in the form of what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. The film is often charming, cruel, touching, and manages to be very sad at the same time. Sammo Hung puts on a great performance playing the role of his real life teacher! Hell, I think it might be his best acting performance in a non-martial art role to be honest!  The beautiful Cheng Pei Pei is also cast in the movie as the head master in an all lady Peking Opera school. Ironically, the legendary Hopping Vampire master in films such as Mr. Vampire, Lam Ching Ying plays the Kung Fu brother (Uncle Wah) of Master Yu in Painted Faces. Lam Ching Ying in real life attended a rival Peking Opera School in Hong Kong to the Chinese Drama Academy called the Spring and Autumn Drama School. Their students included well known HK film actors Chin Kar Lok, Hsia Hou, Mars, Meng Hoi, Lee Hoi San, & Austin Wai.
Master Yu seemed to have a soft spot for ‘A Wah’ and Cheng Pei Pei’s role as they seem to press a more sensitive button in his soul. There is a very touching scene of A-Wah and Yu performing a Peking Opera set perched above the rafters of a film set as onlookers looked in astonishment. This one ‘act’ might have served as the ultimate reality check to Master Yu’s Peking Opera students as to the hardships in the film business. Thoughts of retirement and the murky outlook in regards to the footprint of his school is causing his mind to race. A turtle that was used as an extension to hold up Master Yu’s bed is finally set free to crawl as it pleases. The turtle was a very symbolic piece in the movie. Perhaps the meaning referred to being suspended in time or running in place of sorts or perhaps the turtle was the extension of his students & the school and with that on the brink of the unknown, the stability of that fourth leg is in the state of flux. I prefer to think of it as the turtle crawling away with a new beginning, a new chapter to be told.

Symbolic meaning or not, I recommend that you grab a hold of this rare/out of print movie and digest the hell out of Sammo Hung’s dramatic performance! Jackie Chan, Sammo, Yuen Biao, Cory Yuen, & Yuen Wah fans or not, this movie stands by itself even without the seven little fortunes of the Chinese Drama/Peking Opera Academy!

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this movie. I was not aware that the characters would turn out to be people that I respect so much in the Chinese culture. I was surprised at the hardship that these young men endured to become who they are today. I cringed at the discipline that Master Yu employed but delighted to the results.