Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Immortality Pagoda

For Mother's Day NOT ! The Immortality Pagoda (長生塔) a Cantonese film from 1955, with a feminist message so strong that it still shocks.  In a not so distant past, Yuet Mei (Pak Yin) is happily married to Ping (Cheung Wood Yau)  eldest son of the Cheng household. Her mother Chan ka Lai lai (Senior Mother of Chan family) (Man Lee) comes to visit unexpectedly. In the courtyard, there's a pomegranate tree, which Ping planted. "Please stay with us until the fruits come", he asks mother-in-law.  A cryptic clue - pomegranates symbolize fertility.  Mrs Chan says nothing, but she's on the verge of a breakdown.  She has no sons, and her husband has deserted her for a "Wu lei Tsing" - fox spirit - an insulting term which shows how badly she feels about the concubine who has supplanted her at home, and borne sons.  Since Pak Yin hasn't had children after many years of marriage, her mother worries about her. "Ping loves me" says the daughter. But it's not up to them. That night, the Cheng family throw a big dinner party to welcome their visitor, but when she hears the elders discuss the importance of sons, she cracks up and starts screaming. Scandalous breach of manners, painful to witness even today! So Mrs Chan cannot stay in the main house and is exiled to an outhouse, because mental illness was a stigma.

Pak Yin is pregnant. The whole clan celebrates because having children means the continuation of family and all that represents.  Lo Tai Yeh leads everyone out to view the Pagoda, the "Cheung Sang Tap", which brought prosperity to the clan after a necromancer from far away Kwangsi told them to build it.  The pagoda used in the film is the Ping Shan pagoda, built in the 14th century, to harness good fung shui. It 's a listed monument, now fully restored.  Real pagodas were solid affairs. like this one, built to last. They aren't places of worship like western churches, but operate to channel the forces of nature, like ley lines.

When Pak Yin's mother hears her daughter is pregnant she resolves to return home. It's Ching Ming, a festival where people sweep graves, to honour their ancestors. The old lady is thus acknowledging her place in the system of continuing generations, while also respecting the future.  She's made clothes for the new baby but doesn't want to bring bad luck by being sick in her daughter's home.  Because the pregnancy isn't going well, the mother understands why it's bad luck to see her daughter.  She takes her leave, weeping, while her daughter sleeps, knowing they will not meet again in this world.   Wonderful acting, yet again, from Wong Man Lee who played the mother in Parent's Heart with Ma Tse Tsang, which I wrote about here.

Things go wrong with the birth, and the midwife can't handle things. A herbal doctor prescribes a drug that might kill the mother but save the child, Ping and his father fight: wives can be replaced, says the old man. No, says the son. Alas the baby is a girl. Why the "bad luck"   The Old Man blames the daughter in law and infant. He tries to revive the fung shui in the pagoda by burning offerings, but his brother loses the money gambling. Brother gets his son to take the blame, sending him away, even though he's just got married.  The bride gets blamed though no-one's told her why.   Two miserable women in the household now, Mei the eldest son's wife who cannot have more children and  Yee So, the bride of second  uncle in the hierarchy, who may never conceive, since news arrives that the bridegroom has been killed in an accident.. No prospect of sons.  The future of the Cheng clan lies in the balance.  The old man orders Ping to take a concubine but the son refuses. Ping goes away on business,

Mad with grief, Yee So (played by Mui Yee),  walks out of the Cheng gardens, filled with spring blossom, and hangs herself in the pagoda. Serious bad fung shui.  Mei (Pak Yin) finds the body and faints. The LoTai Yeh tells Ping that his wife is dead and that he must remarry. Ping burns offerngs at what he thinks is Mei's grave, but the sound of insane laughter rings out. The truth must be told. Mei isn't dead. She's been imprisoned in the pagoda and has gone raving mad.  Ping enters the dilapidated pagoda and tries to save Mei, but she doesn't recognize him. She climbs further up the pagoda,. The Old Grandfather arrives, with men and torches., but Ping refuses to leave Mei. She falls, and he carries her body out, defying his father. The old system with its rigid superstitions has caused too much tragedy. Ping sails away in a junk to a new, unknown future. The pagoda is seen against the skyline. Maybe the "immortality" it represents means new life, elsewhere.

The film is shot with great detail - architecture, costumes and plants, and has an excellent soundtrack (traditional Chinese music).  The outside shots of the pagoda were done on site, but the internal shots in a studio.  Nonethelss, my father used to take us to Ping Shan, where we visited the real life pagoda, which in those days was still remote in a fung shui position, separated from the village by fields and canals.  One evening, at dusk, bats flew out as we approached. Nowadays, it's cleaned up and restored as a heritage site, in the centre of the new, prosperous city around it.  Perhaps the movie was right !   Heritage is people, not material objects in themselves.  We learn from the past and retain the good, exorcising the bad. But if we don't learn, we might make the same mistakes.


Original Content: The Immortality Pagoda

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