Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Review: The Case of Taiping County's Illegal Salt Syndicate (Shaoxing Yue Opera)

Title: The Case of Taiping County's Illegal Salt Syndicate (太平私盐案)
Genre: Shaoxing Yue opera (越剧)
Format: Opera drama series
Production year: 2001
Director: Zhang Zhiming
Script: He Renshan, Qian Linsen
Casts: Lou Yonghuan as Li Pu (voice-over by Zhang Weizhong) and Li Yu, Tang Ji'na as He-hua (voice-over by Chen Fei), Zhang Gong as Sun Jizong, Hua Weiqiang as Cai Bao, Shu Jinxia as Mrs. Cai, He Juanjuan as old Mrs. Cai, Zhang Weizhong as Emperor (cameo appearance)

At first glance...

This 4-part opera drama series is an award winning video production by Zhejiang Literature & Arts Audio-Video Publishing House shot in 2001, and performed by Zhejiang Province Yue Opera Company. Although the male and female leads of this show were relatively new actors from Zhejiang Province Yue Opera Company and Hangzhou City Yue Opera Company respectively, this show was still a star-studded one. Celebrity actors like Zhang Weizhong and Chen Fei lent their voices to the main roles, while experienced actors like Zhang Gong, He Juanjuan and Shu Jinxia took on other very minor roles.


The district officials of Taiping County were rumoured to be involved in a big case of illegal salt trading. Although the imperial court had sent three inspectorates to investigate, they could not find any evidence against the craft district officials, who were actually in cahoots with the local businessmen. One day, Cai Bao, a junior official in Taping County, discovered their secrets, and was thrown into jail, in an attempt to silence him. At this point of time, news had it that the imperial court has sent it’s 4th inspectorate, Li Pu, to Taping County. Li Pu was once a poor scholar who had recently topped the imperial examinations. Being full of aspirations, he volunteered to take on the task to look into the case. Li Pu’s twin brother, Li Yu, became his chief constable.

Li Pu and Li Yu may be twins, but their characters were not totally the same. While Li Pu was more matured and level-headed, Li Yu was more simple-minded and impulsive. Sun Jizong, the head of the illegal salt syndicate, made use of Li Yu’s weakness against Li Pu. He sent a beautiful woman by the name of He-hua to get close to Li Yu, and tried to brainwash him. Li Yu was taken in by He-hua’s words, and was made to believe that by standing in his brother’s way to justice was the only way to save Li Pu from harm. He was even tricked into silencing Cai Bao, the key witness to the case. Li Yu subsequently realised his follies, and decided to turn himself in.

While turning himself in, Li Yu handed over an accounts book which was a very important piece of evidence against the district officials and the local businessmen. However, there was a big hurdle for Li Pu; Sun Jizong’s grand eunuch brother knew about Li Yu’s matter, and in order to save his own brother, he counter-accused Li Pu for covering up for Li Yu. The case was brought up to the emperor, and taking into consideration of Li Pu and grand eunuch Sun’s merit, the emperor decided to pardon both Sun Jizong and Li Yu. Li Pu, however, insisted that both culprits be punished in order to uphold justice. The emperor had no choice, but to pass the death sentence to Sun Jizong and Li Yu.


Personally, I wasn’t really a fan of opera drama series, as I feel they simply lack the magically feeling of a stage opera. One of the key problems was that opera drama series had to adapt to the style of TV drama, and hence had to do away with a lot of Chinese opera essence, and this in turn makes the show less “operatic”. Although the plot of the show was not too bad, the shooting style of the show was nothing much to praise about. In fact, there were quite a number of scenes which I find very awkward. Although the main actors for this series were professional actors, they just do not seemed at ease acting in front of a camera, and in some singing scenes, they simply walked to and fro in front of the camera while singing, and doing some simplified operatic gestures. If I had not known their names and identity, I would have thought that these actors were just average actors not trained in the field of Chinese opera!

For the cast, I feel that the supporting actors were actually much stronger than the leading actors. Lou Yonghuan of Zhejiang Province Yue Opera Company took on the roles of Li Pu and Li Yu. In order to distinguish between the two different roles, the voice and singing of Li Pu was dubbed over with Zhang Weizhong’s voice (he made a cameo appearance as the emperor in this show), while Lou Yonghuan spoke and sang the parts of Li Yu. In my opinion, Zhang Weizhong used to be a good singer in the 80s, but in this show, his voice seemed to have deteriorated a bit. However, I still find his voice quite good, as compared to Lou Yonghuan’s own singing. Tang Ji’na from Hangzhou City Yue Opera Company took on the role of He-hua, but her dialogue and singing parts were all dubbed over by Chen Fei. Both Lou Yonghuan and He-hua, though looked good on stage, was only average in terms of acting. Experienced actor Zhang Gong, who took on the non-singing role of Sun Jizong in the show, performed much better as a baddie. The actors taking on the roles of the district officials were average, but they had got the sinister feel in their acting while made me feel like slapping them.

As for the script, it was well-written with quite a bit of twists along the way. However, the first two episodes of the show were too slow-moving, and I just couldn’t focus on the show. The last two episodes were much better, with a faster tempo. I think the show could even be condensed into a 3 part series.

On the whole, I find this show just average. There were some nice parts here and there, but there were many other scenes which I think were not well done. If not for the celebrity cast, I think this show would be more a flop.






Final rating