Movie review: Michael Chow exhibit screens film with family ties to artist
March 9, 2016 12:00 AM
Zhou Xinfang as Wu Han in "Murder in the Oratory," 1937, collection of Eva and Michael Chow.
By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are so many busy artistic intersections in the Zhou family, the members would need a traffic cop to avoid collisions — except that the collisions are intentional and desirable. For Zhou Xinfang père, it was the crossroads of opera and film. For Zhou Yinghua fils, it’s the unlikely junction of painting and cooking — where no egg stays sunny-side up for long.
The Andy Warhol Museum’s ongoing exhibition “Michael Chow aka Zhou Yinghua: Voice for My Father” is primarily a visual art affair (more on that later), but it’s augmented by a fascinating film component: daily screenings of “Murder in the Oratory” (1937), a recently resurrected feature first released on the eve of China’s Battle of Shanghai against the Japanese. It stars Mr. Chow’s illustrious father, Zhou Xinfang (1895-1975), one of the greatest Chinese opera performers of the 20th century.
Not your cup of chai? Stay with me, now. Although the tonal/atonal aesthetics of Asian and European music are entirely different, Chinese and Western opera are strikingly similar in theory, structure and subject matter. “Murder in the Oratory” (aka “Wu Han Kills His Wife”) is an epic example: a tale of deceit, murder and royal revenge to rival Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or “Macbeth” — but set 1,500 years earlier, circa A.D. 9, during the demise of the great Western Han dynasty. It goes like this:
Gen. Wu Han (Zhou Xinfang) captures Liu Xiu, leader of a rebellion against Emperor Wang Mang. But Wu’s imperious mother orders her son to release him and join the revolt. Why? Because Emperor Wang murdered Wu’s father and usurped the throne. She further commands him to kill Emperor Wang’s daughter, Lanying — Wu’s own beloved and blameless wife! It’s only fair. Her father killed his father, after all.
Talk about dilemmas — caught between love of his spouse and love of that vengeful dragon-lady mama. The action takes place in an oratory, which is not a lab or a speech, but a small chapel where royals pray — for all the good praying will do Lanying. How virtuous is that poor girl? In her final tragic aria (akin to Madame Butterfly’s “Un bel di vedremo”) she asks only “that the war would end, and I wish my mother-in-law good health.” Hubby Wu’s attitude — as disingenuously regretful as Pinkerton’s — is basically “this hurts me more than it does you.”
Renowned director Fei Mu provides cinematic, as well as operatic, flair to the tale, telegraphed through a stylized vocabulary of gestures, musical cues and maquillage. His indoor theatrical staging is spelled with outdoor battle combat — the equivalent of Robin Hood’s and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s sword fight duels that have evolved into the martial arts choreography of films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” today.
The hypnotic music, percussive punctuation and sliding vocalizations of Mandarin song-and-speech tones take a while to adjust to. So does Wu Han’s floor-length beard and the fantastic plumed porcupinish spikes emanating from his regalia, which make all movement problematic. I’d like to see him find a seat on the 71 Negley at rush hour in that outfit.
Zhou Xinfang — performer, director, screenwriter, Renaissance man — produced some 600 works over a 60-year career in which he was persecuted by both sides of China’s civil war. The Nationalist government registered all “decadent entertainers” — grouping opera stars like Zhou together with dancing girls and prostitutes. He pledged allegiance to the Communists in 1949 and worked earnestly thereafter to give a socialist heart to the old bourgeois repertory (including the stunning “Red Detachment of Women” opera-ballet for Richard Nixon’s visit), but he was imprisoned during the 1968 Cultural Revolution and kept under house arrest until his death.
His son Chow’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. features new paintings completed expressly for the Warhol show, vintage photographs of his father and portraits of Chow by such contemporary pals as Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He switched from artist to entrepreneur in the ‘60s, opening the first of his internationally successful Mr. Chow restaurants, which are synonymous with high-end Chinese cuisine and celebrity clientele. Now switched back to art, he describes himself as an “action painter,” whose massive abstract expressionist canvases feature a “throw-paint” hurling technique and a wild range of materials, including precious metals, household detritus (sponges, plastic gloves, bubble wrap) and, as mentioned, the occasional egg. Masterpieces or monstrosities? I leave that to the better judgment and forthcoming evaluation of my learned colleague Mary Thomas.
Meanwhile, back at the Oratory, the 1937 film at hand is an esoteric hybrid of Occidental form and Oriental content — of the strange art of opera, combining all the other art forms into a single outrageously grandiose whole.
The film runs daily at 2 p.m. during the duration of the exhibition, through May 8, at The Warhol, North Side. It is free with museum admission.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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