English Title: Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land
Original Title: An lian tao hua yuan 暗恋桃花源
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Stan Lai 赖声川
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Brigitte Lin 林青霞
Jin Shijie 金士杰
Li Liqun 李力群
Gu Baoming 顾宝明
Ismene Ting 丁乃筝
Lin Liqing 林丽卿
Chen Limei 陈立美
Ding Zhong 丁仲
Li Weihui 李伟惠
Liu Liangzuo 刘亮佐
Taiwanese celebrated theatre director and playwright Stan Lai’s first foray into filmmaking, a bare-bones stage-play piece exclusively takes place inside a theater, where due to a schedule misapprehension, two plays, SECRET LOVE and PEACH BLOSSOM LAND, which form the amalgam as the title, both book the stage to rehearse at the same day, sets up an awkward co-existent situation, meanwhile, a wandering woman (Weihui Li), is aimlessly looking for a man whom nobody seems to know.
SECRET LOVE is a contemporary romantic drama, a pair of star-crossed lovers: Bingliu (Jin), from Eastern-northern area and Zhifan (Lin, the mega-star of Taiwan-and-Hong Kong cinema who would enter a full retirement within 2 years), from Easter-southern region meet in Shanghai during the turbulent times, subsequently their fate is bluntly sundered by the liberation of PRC in 1949, they lose contact of each other. Only several decades later, when a bed-ridden Bingliu finally realizes that both him and Zhifan are in the same city all these years because they both escape from mainland to Taiwan after the liberation, he advertises a missing person notice on the newspaper, in hope of seeing her once again. A belated tête-à-tête will wind up striking a poignant chord with audience when they exchange common pleasantries, a pungent scent of dolor and time-lost transcends the mawkish context channeling through Jin and Lin’s terrific elderly presences.
In a diametrically different note PEACH BLOSSOM LAND is a period comedy, loosely based on the story written by East Jin Dynasty man-of-letters Yunming Tao, where a fisherman Tao (Liqun Li) is prompted by the cuckold of his wife Spring Flower (Ting) with their landlord Master Yuan (Gu), attempts a dangerous adventure against the turbulent waters and finds himself in the off-the-map Peach Blossom Land, a Shangri-La where people live in peace and harmony, completely cut off with the world outside. But he cannot forget about his old life, so when he returns home years after, presumably dead, the life of Spring Flower and Master Yuan is not exactly what he imagines. All three actors are theater old-hands, their performances are overtly stagy but divertingly engaging and funny with antics.
Lai conspicuously alternates between the two rehearsals with interruptions and squabbles but apportions even weight to both, cherry-picks key acts to give both stories a consistent narrative arc and leaves out all the flotsam and jetsam in between. And a humorous segment comes when they have to share the same auditorium, space is encroached, lines are wrongly-delivered, but in a master stroke, Lai manifest that those two tonally polarizing plays in fact have one thing in common – a universally felt longing of one’s home, like the wandering woman, there is a sense of lost beyond any retrieving.
This unique film is a low-budget gem in Asian cinema, whenever the rehearsal is suspended, Christopher Doyle’s camera prowls in the dim-light theatre like an ungainly intruder, replete with curiosity but cannot see through all the murkiness. To this day, Lai’s Manichean avant-garde piece has preserved its renown as an eccentric hybrid between film and stage play, an interplay between theatricality and cinematic artifice.