I bought PAINTED FACES (1988) on VHS at a Chinatown video store in 1999 and only just got to see it a week ago. It’s a drama about a Peking Opera troupe in Hong Kong in the 1960s and the efforts of its stern instructor, Master Yu, to train a group of boys, all sent there by their hard-pressed parents, in the dying arts of Peking Opera performance. Three of the boys just happen to be Jackie Chan (called “Big Nose” by the other characters), Sammo Hung (called “Sammo” by the others although he didn’t get that name in real life until he was an adult), and Yuen Biao, three performers who would revolutionize Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and ’80s with their stunt-filled action and martial arts comedies. The three starred together in a number of 1980s films themselves, including PROJECT A, PROJECT A II, DRAGONS FOREVER, WINNERS AND SINNERS and WHEELS ON MEALS. Chan and Hung became important directors of their films as well.
In PAINTED FACES, Sammo Hung plays Master Yu. Life at Master Yu’s school was hard for the boys, who were often whipped and beaten by the master and forced to sleep in barracks-style arrangements. The film shows the boys as children for the first 45 minutes and then dissolves, in the middle of a “Monkey King” performance, to them as teenagers in the late 1960s, as they remain for the rest of the film. It’s a collection of scenes, not all of which flow together well. The parts are greater than the whole, since individual scenes are often quite brilliant and moving, but don’t develop into any kind of cohesive narrative. The film touches down lightly on a number of different aspects of life for the opera troupe in the mid-to-late 1960s, but doesn’t go into depth in any of them. Ultimately, it’s about the decline of the Peking Opera as a popular art form in Chinese life and the film chronicles the last years of Master Yu’s school. It also has elements of a coming-of-age tale for the boys, but this is only seen in spurts. We see glimpses of the boys as teens when they get their foothold at the Shaw Bros. studio on the way to much more successful film careers down the road, but they are just glimpses. We see the sad fate of Master Yu’s brother, Uncle Wah, played by Lam Ching Ying, who does stunt work at Shaw Bros., but eventually gets too old for it. I would have liked more scenes of training and performance and fewer of the tangents that the film goes off on.
For instance, there’s a long sequence where the boys, still in childhood, go off on their own for an adventure in the city to demonstrate their youthful spirit and camaraderie, featuring a bit where they escape from a double-decker bus after the conductor threatens to call the police because they haven’t paid, and culminating in a fight with private school boys who taunt the opera kids with the phrase, “Bald-headed pigs.” It’s fun watching the boys cavort, but it’s a long side trip away from everything else. And they all get punished afterwards. The tension with the more affluent kids hints at an element of class conflict that might have been developed more, but it isn’t. In fact, the one private school boy we meet is the son of the tailor who lives next door to the opera school, so you’d think he and his son would be more tolerant and begrudgingly accepting of their neighbors. The confrontation between Master Yu and the tailor seems forced and their eventual rapprochement seems equally forced.
There’s a long sequence involving the group’s interaction with a female dance troupe, led by Mistress Ching (Cheng Pei Pei), opening with a scene where Master Yu and four of his teenaged students walk through the staging and rehearsal area occupied by Mistress Ching and her girls as they’re preparing for a performance. It’s quite a beautiful and graceful scene and it shows the reactions of the boys and girls as they eye each other and are clearly entranced and the immediate reaction of a lovestruck Master Yu as he spots Mistress Ching. The boys are needed for a performance with the girls and are assigned to rehearse with them. We see the rehearsal, but it would have been nice to see the actual performance. Instead we get a long birthday party sequence where Master Yu, informed by one of the girls that instead of a gift he should bring a birthday cake, spends hours trudging around Hong Kong trying to find a “foreign”-style cake to bring to Mistress Ching, almost missing the party, and then showing up with a cake made for “Grand Uncle” on his 70th birthday, an order that was canceled when the grand uncle died. It’s a cute scene with an amusing punchline, but it takes too long to make its point, about Master Yu’s lack of social skills, and takes time away from elements I would rather have seen, e.g. the joint performance by the girls and boys.
The halting attempt at romance by Master Yu turns out quite awkward as is Big Nose’s attempt to court one of the girls in the troupe. Both men are unable to follow through, which made these scenes very unsatisfying. What’s the point? To show how isolated these men are from the ebb and flow of ordinary life? To show how their way of life makes them unsuited for normal relationships? Certainly Master Yu and Mistress Ching had a lot in common and it would have made sense for them to get together. And Cheng Pei Pei (former Shaw Bros. star of such swordplay films as COME DRINK WITH ME and GOLDEN SWALLOW) is absolutely radiant in her short scenes with Sammo. Her character clearly reaches out to him and shows great patience and understanding. It’s too bad that it’s not rewarded. One of the highlights is her scene with Master Yu in the wax museum adjoining the theater where they talk about their plans after the theater closes. It’s quite a touching scene and she clearly invites him to join her in another venture, combining their Peking and Cantonese operas. But Master Yu kind of brushes it off. “Don’t wait for me. If you see me you see me.” That’s his style of dealing with people, but it makes hard to feel sympathy for him and the film suffers from the lack of any significant emotional hook.
Big Nose botches his budding romance with Siu Sin, the pretty girl from Mistress Ching’s troupe, because he can’t play a musical instrument and refuses to even try, resulting in taunts by the girl’s little brother who says, “No one wants to see your Peking Opera anymore.” This leaves the girl open to attentions by a more adventurous boy who plays the guitar–and it turns out to be the tailor’s son, whom the opera boys had derided as “short-sighted mouse” as a child. Certainly, Big Nose and the girl would have had a lot in common from performing in troupes together. Granted, Big Nose’s hesitation and insecurity are realistically portrayed and emotionally honest, but it would have been nice to see the romance developed a little more happily.
I found it disconcerting to watch Sammo Hung using a switch to whip the rear end of the boy playing Sammo as a child. He’s beating himself! I wish an older, leaner, more gruff actor had played Master Yu. (Lau Kar Leung maybe?) As good as Sammo is, I have a hard time accepting him in the role. On a similar note, the actor who plays Jackie Chan as a nine-year-old is way too old and tall for the role. He doesn’t look much younger than the actor who plays him as a teenager. However, the actor who plays Sammo as a teenager looks remarkably like him. And Master Yu beats him, too, after he allowed Jackie to go on a date and not get back in time for the next show. This prompts Sammo to run away from the school. Yuen Biao’s character is somewhat overshadowed by the others, kind of reflecting his fate in real life, despite being just as good as his partners. If the other famous members of the troupe, e.g. Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah and Yuen Tak, are represented in the film, they were never identified in the subtitles, as far as I could tell. The actors who play Jackie and Yuen Biao as teens don’t look enough like them, although the one who plays Jackie moves well and has good screen presence.
It’s a claustrophobic film and the image is very dark on the VHS tape. Perhaps due to a low budget we don’t get a lot of period detail, nor do we see much of the spaces where the film takes place, with a lot of time spent in the cramped school where the boys live and train and backstage at the theater. When we see the wax museum late in the film, it’s a surprise because we didn’t know that the theater was part of a larger arcade and entertainment center. In all fairness, Master Yu admits to Mistress Ching that he had never visited the museum and was unfamiliar with the rest of the place, so one can argue that the film’s tunnel vision reflects that of its protagonist.
It’s fun watching the recreation of a period historical drama on the Shaw Bros. backlot as Sammo, Jackie and Yuen play prisoners being executed. The director, played by Wu Ma but channeling the great Shaw Bros. director, Chang Cheh, declares about them after watching their death scene, “Those on the right died well.” An auspicious debut, no doubt. Later, the boys eat box lunches together outside a castle set and marvel at sets they recognize from ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN and 14 AMAZONS (which was made after this film took place).
There’s a sequence where Uncle Wah messes up a stunt on a film—twice–and is fired, causing him to go berserk. He climbs the rafters and begins an old Peking Opera routine. Master Yu is there, visiting, and climbs up to join Uncle Wah and complete the performance, calming his brother down, before the white-coated attendants come to take Uncle Wah away. It is, I suppose, a metaphor for the end of Peking Opera in Hong Kong and it is a good scene, but it would have had more emotional power if we’d gotten to know a little more about the two men and their history and been given some emotional stake in it all. Their history was indeed touched on, but only lightly.
Still, PAINTED FACES is a rare attempt by the Hong Kong film industry to tell a story about some of its most famous proponents and for that alone the film should be seen by aficionados. The director is Alex Law, who did only two subsequent films, neither of which I’ve seen, and was more active as a screenwriter (MOON WARRIORS, THE SOONG SISTERS). As far as I can tell, the film is out-of-print in any format. It was once sold as a VCD, with English subtitles, by YesAsia, but that edition is now out-of-print. My VHS copy was a dub from something else and the image is full-frame and way too dark throughout. The VCD offered a better image—widescreen, so the subtitles aren’t cut off on the side–and can be seen on YouTube: