Commissioned by thr China Shanghai International Arts Festival R.A.W. Program. Film production by David Harris, Zhu Ma, Lu Su. Composed by Zhu Ma with the band Xi Ban. OzAsia Festival and the Adelaide Festival Centre. Elder Hall. University of Adelaide. October 8. 2017
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Much if not most of the work on show at this year’s OzAsia Festival offers a glimpse into contemporary Asian performances. Sever fuses performance of traditional Peking Opera with filmed vision of life in present day Beijing. In an ingenious stroke of the imagination, film makers David Harris, Zhu Ma and Lu Su have used the meeting of the legendary general Guan Yu with the beautiful Diao Chan to combine the highly stylized performance of Peking Opera with film of a modern day China. In the struggle that ensues, Guan Yu is transported into modern times to confront the alien world and its customs. Gradually he loses his identity and his clothing is removed by a woman who transforms into Diao Chan depriving Guan Yu of his identity as the brave general from the Three Kingdoms. His bewilderment grows as he confronts a modern society in a surreal landscape of confusion and alienation.
The film is accompanied by a singer in traditional Peking Opera costume. She represents the beautiful Diao Chan and sings the high pitched song of the opera as the Xi Ban Band creates the live film score with traditional Peking Opera instruments, including stringed instruments and percussion. Hurled beyond his time , Guan Yu struggles to retrieve his stolen clothes before the amused and puzzled looks of passers-by. An object of fun and ridicule, the great general gradually morphs into an ordinary citizen, stripped of status and identity.
The film comes to an abrupt end and there is a short break before members of the band return to demonstrate their versatility with electric guitar, bass, saxophone and drums in a concert of loud rock. These are the rythms, sounds and instruments of a modern age. The final part of the programme re-introduces the beautiful Peking Opera singer, still in traditional costume to sing an aria from the opera. Her stylized, superbly pitched and shrill voice is accompanied by a jazz ensemble, improvising to the alluring sound of her captivating voice. It is a virtuoso display of musical dexterity and the fascinating fusion of the traditional with the contemporary.
The venerable graciousness of the Elder Hall, though more suited to recitals , appeared a less appropriate space for this work. Neither the absence of the theatrical spectacle of Peking Opera, nor the lack of impact of a larger screen, did the event complete justice. The vocal and musical artistry were indisputable and the demonstration offered an insight into the colourful and dramatic impact of Peking Opera. Poor lighting and flat floor auditorium seating diminished my engagement with a performance that warranted greater professional presentation to do justice both to the highly skilled artists and the unique and inventive fusion of traditional and contemporary Chinese culture.